Promises and Pitfalls of PBIS Part 2: Engaging Students and Families in Equity-Focused PBIS

Part 2 of Equity and PBIS: This is the second post of our series “An Equity-Centered Approach of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS)”. Read Part 1: Importance of an equity-centered approach.

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In the first post in our Promises and Pitfalls of PBIS series, our SRI research team highlighted the importance of incorporating an equity lens to PBIS implementation as one component of school-wide initiatives to reduce disproportionality in exclusionary discipline practices. We highlighted five key components of an equity-focused PBIS framework developed by the Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.1 In this second post in this series, we will discuss how to elevate the voices of students and families – one aspect of implementing a positive behavior framework that is preventive, multi-tiered, and culturally responsive. We share three strategies that school teams can take to engage students and families in the creation and implementation of their PBIS system based on our conversation with Dr. Kent McIntosh.

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1) Elicit student and family input when defining school-wide behavioral expectations.

A primary component of PBIS is setting school-wide behavioral expectations. Including students and their families in the development of specific behavioral expectations is one way that school teams can center equity in their PBIS framework. Grounding expectations in students’ and families’ cultural norms, which may be different from those of school leaders, can help promote behaviors or skills that build a positive and culturally relevant school environment rather than a discipline system focused only on compliance.

Here’s an example!

Children from different cultures may have different ways of demonstrating respect in their interactions with others. When obtaining input from parents and students about behavioral expectations, school staff might begin by asking “Would you please share with me examples of how children show respect for adults and peers?”

To engage students and families, school teams can conduct focus groups or hold conversations with students and their family members, survey students and parents, or solicit feedback during existing school events (for example, student-teacher or parent-teacher conferences). When speaking with family members, teams can (1) explain the goal of consistent guidelines and appropriate behavioral expectations for students and staff, (2) ask about the types of prosocial behaviors that family members would like to see their children exhibit (and the ways they may be exhibited), (3) learn how expectations at school align with expectations at home, and (4) identify appropriate ways to consistently reinforce expectations across school and home settings. It is important to include open-ended questions that provide students and families the opportunity to share their own ideas and thoughts, instead of merely responding to the ideas of school teams.

Once student and family input has been elicited, Dr. McIntosh suggests PBIS teams consider how behavioral expectations are worded to promote a sense of community. For example, consider the subtle but important difference between “Be safe, Be respectful, Be responsible” compared to “We are safe, we are respectful, we are responsible.” The latter creates a shared sense of responsibility and an invitation for students, families, and school staff to be a part of the learning community.

After identifying school-wide behavior expectations, the next step is to define, teach, and create systems for reinforcing appropriate behaviors. This helpful guide from the Missouri School-Wide Behavioral Support details how to further clarify expected behaviors that align with the school-wide behavior expectations.

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2) Give students input on how they want to be acknowledged for positive behaviors.

Consider this!

Teachers should take extra effort to engage students in positive relationships, especially those who have been hard to reach or challenging. A previous blog post from our Student Behavior research team suggests other strategies for providing effective and appropriate praise in school settings.

After behavioral expectations have been co-developed with students and families, it is important that school staff implementing a PBIS framework provide students with positive feedback when they engage in appropriate school behaviors. However, not all students will prefer the same types of praise and reinforcement. Some may like acknowledgement in front of their peers, while some may prefer less public acknowledgements, such as a subtle hand signal (e.g., thumbs up, high five), a token (e.g., redeemable for a snack or prize; a keepsake), or a phone call home (e.g., to acknowledge the behavior with the student’s parents, to engage in relationship building with the student). Since student-teacher relationships can play a significant role in promoting positive student outcomes,2 teachers can strengthen their efforts to build positive relationships with their students by soliciting student input on how they would like to receive praise for prosocial behaviors. Teachers can consider having each student complete a brief praise assessment where students can select the types of praise that are most meaningful to them.

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3) Increase the number of positive connections made with students’ families.

Many school staff may have heard the common rule of thumb that when providing students with praise, you should provide a ratio of five positive comments to every reprimand or corrective comment (i.e., 5:1). But what about students’ families? It is also important for school staff to make a conscious effort to up the ratio of positive to negative interactions families have with school staff.

Note to Self!

For a student exhibiting behavioral difficulties at school, most interactions between that student’s family and school staff are probably negative. So family members may be less likely to even answer the phone when school staff call—let alone attend school events. That’s why maintaining a welcoming attitude and positive contact with parents is essential!

To promote family engagement, PBIS teams can create systems and structures for school staff to engage in positive, two-way interactions with students’ families on a more frequent basis. These positive interactions can reinforce school-wide expectations and celebrate successes. For school staff, these communications could include positive referral forms, postcards, or phone calls home. For some students, getting to make a phone call home or having an educator call on their behalf to share an accomplishment with a family member may be a strong motivator to engage in prosocial behaviors in the school setting. School leaders can also invite students’ family members to share their successes at home through multiple avenues, such as email, phone, face to face, or communication apps (e.g., Google Classroom). This infographic from Social Schools and brief from the Center on PBIS contain other helpful tips that school staff can use to engage in positive interactions with students’ families.

Enhancing relationships, learning about cultural influences and assets, and engaging the voices and preferences of students and family members is critical to the success of any positive behavior support system. We hope this blog offers some promising ideas to help educators to establish and maintain productive communication channels that help students thrive socially, emotionally, and academically.

Up next…

The third post in our Promises and Pitfalls of PBIS series will share steps educators can take to anticipate and reduce where implicit bias might affect their responses to student misbehavior, as research shows. For example, we’ll explore how we can assess if decisions about suspending students may be influenced by subjective factors, and if fatigue or stress could come into play when delivering office discipline referrals. Although it’s a challenging and sensitive topic, we hope to offer educators some helpful strategies that can help you identify, reflect on, and neutralize the effects of bias to avoid snap judgments leading to inequitable consequences for students.

Read Part 3 of our Promises and Pitfalls of PBIS Series: Strategies for educators to reduce implicit bias when responding to challenging behaviors


1McIntosh, K., Girvan, E. J., Horner, R. H., Smolkowski, K., & Sugai, G. (2018b). A 5-point intervention approach for enhancing equity in school discipline. OSEP Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.

2Martin, A.J., & Collie, R.J. (2016). The role of teacher-student relationships in unlocking students’ academic potential: Exploring motivation, engagement, resilience, adaptability, goals, and instruction. In K.R. Wentzel & G. Ramani (Eds). Handbook of social influences on social-emotional, motivation, and cognitive outcomes in school contexts. New York: Routledge.

Topics: Family engagement Multi-tiered systems of support School climate School-wide prevention

Tags: Equity