Like many in education, I am grateful that I get to help children learn and grow. And, I’m happy knowing that I likely have many years ahead of me to collaborate with and learn from inspiring professionals who share in this great work. Sometimes, though, I’ve truthfully felt that I would be happy if my most important contribution to education were to save just one school from opening a PBIS store.
Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) is a school-wide approach to help all students master social skills necessary for academic success. A PBIS Store is a place where students take the tickets that they’ve earned for demonstrating positive behavior and then spend their tickets on prizes. A PBIS Store at an elementary school might sell a sparkle pencil with a dinosaur eraser on top for three tickets, a box of crayons for ten tickets, and the latest volume of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series for fifty tickets. PBIS Stores in middle and high schools often carry things like school T-shirts, free admission to dances or sports games, and homework passes.
There are good reasons to start a PBIS store. If anything, our praise muscles are something we should work hard to strengthen, and weaving meaningful experiences of joy throughout our schools is the right frame of mind to have when implementing PBIS. And, if you’ve ever seen a child who you know can’t afford a new box of crayons take their tickets to the store and get a beautiful new box of 64 amazing colors, to witness that moment likely brought you more joy than the child.
The problem with PBIS stores has nothing to do with any idea that giving kids pencils for being amazing might somehow make them less amazing. If you want to have a popcorn party during silent reading, do it. If you want to teach your kids fractions with real slices of pizza, you should. (You should also ask your PTA to buy the pizzas. If you’re a teacher, you already buy too many things for your classroom out of your own paycheck.)
The reason why I want to save schools from opening a PBIS store is because a PBIS store threatens the outcomes they are trying to achieve. Consider the lifecycle of the PBIS store:
Inception: Inception of the PBIS store typically occurs in a school’s first year of PBIS. As teachers and staff flex their praise muscles, they think about how to take their positive recognition practices to another level. Maybe the PBIS team thinks about their students and the “products” they think their students want in their store. Perhaps teachers survey their students or ask student council for their input. Soon, someone eagerly volunteers to run the store, and students are excited to bring their tickets to the PBIS store on opening day.
Enthusiasm: At first, everything works perfectly. The PBIS store has splendid prizes, happy customers, and eager volunteers who open and close the store every day. When teachers reach into their pockets to grab their stack of PBIS tickets, children look alert and strive to be on their best behavior.
Fatigue: The first sparkle pencil with the dinosaur eraser is a treasure. The next pencil feels kind of interesting. Then, unless someone replaces the sparkle pencils with sparkle iPads, the PBIS store shows signs of fatigue. Soon, kids realize that the pencils aren’t worth the trouble. Then, the teacher’s enthusiasm melts into disappointment when kids stop snapping upright when they see an adult holding a stack of PBIS tickets. What used to be about gratitude (i.e. “Thank you for being compassionate by noticing when your classmate needed help!”) becomes a transaction (i.e. “If you’re quiet, you’ll get five PBIS tickets!).
Death: PBIS stores might die when the PBIS team decides that the time, effort, and money spent stocking and restocking the store with whatever might keep kids interested becomes too much work. It’s possible for a PBIS store to die when kids simply stop going. However, most PBIS stores die when teachers refuse to trade trusting relationships with students for sparkle pencils and dinosaur erasers.
As I imagine myself retiring at the end of a long and satisfying career, I hope that I can look back and think of thousands of students who achieved more in life because I was a positive influence on their education. Also, I hope I saved at least one school from starting a PBIS store. Behind every PBIS ticket stands a moment where a child added to the good inside a school. PBIS tickets are most effective when they become the way our children remember our kind words and warm smiles as the PBIS ticket moves from our hands to theirs. Skip the sparkle pencils. You matter more.
P.S. A Warning: Although death typically marks the end of a typical PBIS store’s life cycle, sometimes, after many years, a principal new to the school opens a closet deep in the back of the library and finds a box of sparkle pencils with dinosaur erasers and wonders, “What if we open a store and let kids use their PBIS tickets to buy this stuff?”