Rethinking Positive Feedback in PBIS

By Timothy (Tim) Grivois

Years ago, I attended a meeting for a child who received intensive behavior support. I knew the family well, and recently custody changed so that the child’s Aunt was the primary caretaker.

While most of the meeting was about reviewing data and goals for the child, at one point, the Aunt said, “I want you to know that my nephew keeps his Grizzly Tickets in the same place as he keeps family photos and Pokemon cards. Those tickets are treasures.”

This story demonstrates the true purpose of positive feedback within Positive Behavior Interventions and Support. For this child, tickets were not about points or privileges. Instead, every time the child looked at his tickets on the way to get his Pokemon cards, the tickets reminded him of a moment when an adult saw something good in him and took the time to let him know.

While this kind of feedback should always be the goal of PBIS, misusing praise can have adverse outcomes for students. Here are my thoughts on common reasons why adults often resist positive feedback systems.

“Why are we paying kids to be good?”

We shouldn’t. Unfortunately, sometimes accidentally and other times purposefully, the PBIS of 60 years ago encourages schools to monetize compliant behavior. For example, some companies sell schools entire digital environments where students earn ‘points’ for ‘being good’ that they later use to purchase items at their school’s online store. Do not do this.

Effective positive feedback is about having a system that makes it easy for staff to recognize the good that students bring to school every day. When students know what they can do to support the school community, they are more likely to continue. 

“We shouldn’t teach kids to seek our approval.”

We shouldn’t. We should teach children and youth to seek their own approval to follow their community’s values. Done right, your matrix should reflect your community’s values already. If not, talk to me about how to fix this.

Ideally, positive feedback lets students know that they are living their values out loud. When we see students being curious by asking questions, compassionate by including others, or proud by sharing their many languages, we can use our words to tell them. Positive feedback is not about approval but about elevating the quality of relationships with students by recognizing the good we see them do.

“Adults don’t get praise in the real world.”

We should, and here’s a positive example of why:

Recently, I picked up a couple of boxes of bagels for teachers for PBIS training. I’ve been to this shop many times, and before I leave, the manager always asks me to complete a feedback survey. I usually do, and I always have a positive review. On my last visit, I asked the manager, “Out of curiosity, what happens to these surveys once I submit them?”

“Oh my goodness, Tim! Everything you say gets sent to corporate whenever you leave us a positive review. Then they send it back to me, and I print out the email and put it up on our bulletin board by the schedules. We make a huge deal out of it, and I appreciate you giving us so much to celebrate! It makes the place feel happier, and the feeling lasts!”

If you are a school leader, be generous and genuine about recognizing the good your staff brings to school. Your team deserves to know.

Positive Behavior Interventions and Support centralizes positive feedback as a critical tenet of school-wide social and emotional support. Both the data and my values as a caring professional lead me to support expanding the frequency of kind words on campus. However, we must be mindful to avoid common mindsets that might lead to adverse outcomes. Whatever your system for positive feedback, make sure that the goal is warm, supportive relationships.

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