“PBIS”: Behind the Feds’ Wacky Scheme to Modify Children’s Behavior


Jane Robbins recently did an excellent job of describing the “government-sponsored personality manipulation” likely coming to a school near you. It is now time to look at the details of the federally-funded means for accomplishing this Orwellian effort. The program is called PBIS, Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports. This benignly named program has been used since 1997 for children with special education needs under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), but now thanks to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which requires compliance with eleven different federal laws including IDEA, it is being expanded to include:

…implementation of schoolwide positive behavioral interventions and supports… [PL 114-95 Sec. 4108 (5)(G). Emphasis added.]

This means that every single child in a school that takes this federal grant money under ESSA is a target for universal subjective behavioral screening, labeling with a behavior disorder — the criteria for which experts do not agree — and psychological modification using admittedly experimental means. Most of this process occurs before a formal special education evaluation that requires parental consent occurs.

PBIS is a three-tiered system described in this illustration:

Proponents say that PBIS is an “organizational framework, not a curriculum.” It is also described as “adaptable to fit school culture and context.” This basically means that they can make the program or framework anything they want it to be. There is no discussion of what behaviors are chosen for each tier. “At risk” behaviors in tiers 2 and 3 are not defined.

The PBIS initiative also claims that is uses a lot of data to “identify status, need for change, and effects of interventions.”  They also say that “data-based decision-making aligns curricular instruction and behavioral supports to student and staff needs.”

Sadly, but predictably, what they do not discuss on these various websites is how the universal or at risk behaviors are chosen, or what sensitive, personally identifiable information is collected on children for the various tiers, or how their children’s attitudes, values and beliefs are modified; and what outcome data is included in their children’s lifelong data dossier. Also, quite predictably, the phrase “parental consent” rarely, if ever, appears on these explanatory websites.

As with similar efforts and initiatives like social emotional learning and universal mental health screening, despite all of the hype and claims of being “evidence based” or “research based,” the proponents and experts pushing these programs frequently demonstrate that there is very little evidence to make their case. The federal PBIS technical support center currently contains the following quote about state of the research for school-wide PBIS:

Most experts agree that school-wide PBIS is in its infancy. [Emphasis added]

The same website also admits that children are essentially lab rats in a giant experiment:

Because the roots of PBIS are in applied experimental analysis of behavior, the evidence for PBIS, at this time, is primarily derived from single subject designs. [Emphasis added]

Yet somehow, after the above admission and out of thin air, they justify this lack of evidence and actually expect parents and the public to believe the absurd statement that this effort is “nevertheless rigorous, generalizable, and strong in social validity.”

The logical and research failures, as well as poor implementation — including awful communication with parents — were all on full display at Deer Park Elementary school in Pasco County, Florida. According to the Tampa Bay Times, the school had decided to implement PBIS school-wide due to concerns about an increase in behavior problems. Without consulting parents, they placed posters all around the school that had this nonsensical, illogical, subjective, and backwards rubric about behavior:

In this wacky scheme, “D” — which is usually a near-failing grade — is the highest level, standing for Democracy.  “C” — typically an average grade — is the next highest level and requires students to “conform to peer pressure.” “B” and “A” — which are considered high grades by most people — in this scenario are the bad or “red” levels and stand for “Bossing/Bullying” and “Anarchy,” respectively.

After a furor on social media and heavy criticism of the scheme by educators Nancy Bailey and Peter Greene, the district administration decided to have a parent meeting. However, that did not really help the situation. The author of the chosen program could offer no research evidence supporting its successful use, and even outside experts from Penn State and the University of Massachusetts were unaware of this program and agreed with parents’ skepticism:

But Marshall [program author] told parents via Skype there was “no way I can quantify how successful this program is,” even as he touted its use worldwide. What’s more, Bierman and Krezmien [the outside experts] said the model does not appear in any peer-reviewed literature, and neither they nor their colleagues had heard of it.

Each said parents are right to ask questions about Deer Park’s choice, to make sure children get viable instruction…

…Krezmien said he would be wary, too, of a system whose author presents no data or science to back it up.

Pasco County Superintendent Kurt Browning, however, took the Nancy Pelosi approach of “we have to pass it to see what’s in it,” and proceeded with the program despite lingering parental concerns, saying:

“How do you know it’s going to work unless you try it?” he said, blessing the decision and the goal of improved discipline. “We need to have a conversation a year from now, and see what the outcomes were.”

Browning’s approach is unfortunate and dangerous, not only to parental autonomy, privacy, and freedom of conscience, but also to academics. As pointed out by Dr. Susan Berry at Breitbart, academic achievement is declining with the implementation of the psychologically manipulative Common Core. Instead of improving academics, schools are veering farther away with PBIS and SEL. Even the Collaborative for Academic and Social Emotional Learning’s (CASEL) big research study — which is supposed to justify this rampant mind bending — cites a prominent study demonstrating that math, reading and attention, not social emotional skills, are most predictive of academic success. SEL skills were considered “insignificant predictors” of academic achievement in that study.

Parents should ask many questions regarding evidence, data collection, and consent, if one of these programs is brought to their school and be prepared to resist in any way necessary to protect their children. Another way to fight this is to send in comments listing concerns about data and psychological privacy as part to President Trump’s efforts to rein in federal regulatory overreach in education. More details will follow soon.

Karen R. Effrem, MD

Dr. Karen Effrem and her husband have three children. She is trained as a pediatrician and serves as national education issues chairman for Eagle Forum and president of Education Liberty Watch.

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