Behaviourism Is Not Inclusion

PBIS Is Just ABA With Different Letters


P.B.I.S. stands for Positive Behaviour Interventions and Supports, and was the foundation for Manitoba Education’s 2011 policy document, Towards Inclusion: Supporting Positive Behaviour in Manitoba Classrooms.

That’s not a typo, the document intended as a guide for creating inclusive schools and classrooms has its roots in behaviourism. The year isn’t a typo either, the document was developed in 2011, eleven years ago. It hasn’t been updated since and it really shows.

In fact, well before 2011, child development and education experts such as Alfie Kohn, Ross Greene, Stuart Shanker, Dan Siegel— and many others — have been trying to educate people on the fallout of only addressing behaviours on their surface, rather than looking deeper to the root causes.

“Stop doing things that interfere with moral growth, things like punishments and rewards, which are rooted in — and underscore a child’s preoccupation with — self-interest.”

— Alfie Kohn

That particular quote was from Unconditional Parenting, a book that was published in 2005.

Created by author

First, the good

Before I rip apart PBIS, I do want to highlight the positive aspects of this programming, and of Manitoba education’s PBIS handbook.

  • The teacher–student relationship is extremely important and takes time and trust to build.
  • Non-contingent reinforcement is an essential component of the teacher–student relationship (this is a really ugly way of saying that children need and deserve unconditional positive regard, and that is what is essential to any adult-child relationship).
  • Recognize the strengths and skills that each individual brings to the classroom.
  • Communicate with parents about what is going well and the positive things the student shows an interest in.
  • A well-designed classroom considers the individual needs of students and fosters a sense of security.
  • When students are able to move around the room naturally and purposefully, they feel less anxious, more alert, and, in some cases, more relaxed.
  • Students who can move around during class are better able to learn.
  • Students need choices as well as varying instructional and assessment methods.
  • Students are more likely to concentrate and make an effort when their schoolwork is personally meaningful and engaging.
  • Some students who do not meet expectations have not yet learned the skills they need.

There. That’s it, the only strong, evidence-based, child-centred sentences in the entire 100-page document would fit easily on a single page.

“Relationships can heal, but relationships can also harm when we exert our positions of power to control children.” 

— Alex Shervin Venet

Whole body listening

The first significant red flag I encountered was about one third of the way into the manual. It looks like this:

Screen shot provided by author (with some personal flair added)

Eyes are on the speaker
Not if you want those of us who are uncomfortable with prolonged eye-contact to actually hear and comprehend anything the speaker is saying. Expecting “one two three, eyes on me” is ableist and disregards diverse needs. Many neurodivergent people may look around while listening and can listen with their ears.

Calm feet & hands in lap
Seriously, we need to micro-manage how someone has their hands and feet now too? I do stimminy-cricket feet, where I stim by rubbing my feet together. It’s relaxing. I can still work, read, write, pay attention, and learn, even if my feet are wiggling, so mind your business.

Quiet hands/hands are still
If I had to focus on keeping my hands still, I wouldn’t hear a thing because it would use up all of my mental energy not to fidget. Stimmy hands, fidgeting, doodling, etc. are all valid ways for a person to self-regulate and maintain their focus.

Criss cross applesauce
I only sit criss-cross applesauce when it is entirely awkward for me to do so, such as in a large swivelling office chair. If I were sitting on the floor there is no way I could sit criss-cross applesauce. We don’t have the right to control other people’s bodies and they can sit however they please, provided they aren’t harming anyone.

Listening ears
Not everyone’s ears can listen. Not surprisingly, they didn’t consider the needs of Deaf and Hard of Hearing students when they made those ableist “whole body listening” posters.

Bodily autonomy
It’s important we help children develop self-awareness, so they learn about themselves and can self-advocate and do what works best for them. Our job is to teach and allow children to make decisions about their own bodies, not try to control their bodies — that sends entirely the wrong message.

Here’s a better one:
Created by author

Choose effective reinforcers

Here’s a thought: How about treating children like human beings, rather than puppies to be trained?

Instead of manipulating children through the threat of punishment and lure of reward, perhaps we could simply show them some common decency and respect, role-model kindness and compassion, and they will follow suit.

Of course that won’t work 100% of the time because children are neurologically and developmentally immature — They’re supposed to be, that’s why they’re kids and not yet adults. We adults frequently act foolishly or “inappropriate” too, myself included.

No “program” works with 100% efficacy because we’re all human and fallible. Children deserve the right to make mistakes in a safe environment, being guided and taught in a caring way, rather than punished for the series transgression of being imperfect human beings.

“Colour charts tend to increase children’s stress because they represent a visual threat, with children worried about the embarrassment of having their colours “downgraded” in front of their classmates.”

— Dr. Mona Delahooke

Lastly, recommending reinforcers and reward programs is in contrast to one of the few positive points made, which is the teacher–student relationship is extremely important and takes time and trust to build.

How can a child feel fully safe with their teacher if a mis-step causes them to be punished, to lose points, or miss out on a reward? Each time the teacher follows through with the prescribed consequences laid out by their classroom management system, this harms the teacher-student relationship.

“When a teacher is sitting in judgement of what you do, and if that judgement will determine whether good things or bad things happen to you, this cannot help but warp your relationship with that person.”

 — Alfie Kohn

Interdependent group contingencies

I saved the worst for last.

Screen shot provided by author (with my rage-induced notes included)

This type of classroom management is sometimes referred to as the “good behaviour game”. It has variations, but essentially the class is broken up into teams, and the teams compete to earn points for good behaviour — as deemed “good” by the teacher, of course.

Not only does this create unhealthy competition, it can also create resentment and anxiety, especially for those students who struggle more than others to meet the teacher’s expectations.

If the group with the most points at the end of the week wins a prize, then how do students treat each other when someone is responsible for their group missing out on points, or not winning the prize? How does that student feel when their classmates are blaming them for losing a point or missing out on a reward?

Quote by Alfie Kohn — (image created by author)

The evidence continues to mount

Over the past decade, many more experts and researchers have found yet more support for a child-centred approach — one which does not reduce children to nothing more than their overt behaviours.

Further research has demonstrated that what we perceive to be “misbehaviour” is often stress behaviour.

“Traditional discipline can inadvertently escalate negative behaviours because survival brains cannot process rewards, consequences, or reason.”

— Lori Desautels

Using punishment and rewards to manipulate children will only increase their stress, inadvertently causing the concerning behaviours to worsen — and missing out on a reward is, in fact, a form of punishment.

There are many more sections of the PBIS document I wish to address, however this is a Medium article, not a novel. In the interest of brevity, I will return to the latter parts in a future piece.

Until then, I shall leave you with words of wisdom from Dr. Ross Greene. These words come from The Explosive Child, the first edition of which was published back in 1998.

“The reason reward and punishment strategies haven’t helped is because they won’t teach your child the skills he’s lacking or solve the problems that are contributing to challenging episodes.” 

— Dr. Ross Greene

© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB

Part two

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Delahooke, M. (2022). Brain-Body Parenting: How to stop managing behaviour and start raising joyful, resilient kids. Harper Collins.

Desautels, L. (2020). Connections Over Compliance: Rewiring our perceptions of discipline. Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing.

Greene, R. W. (2014). The explosive child: a new approach for understanding and parenting easily frustrated, chronically inflexible children. Revised and updated. Harper.

Kohn, A. (2018). Punished By Rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt Publishing.

Kohn, A. (2016). The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Coddled kids, helicopter parents, and other phony crises. Beacon Press.

Kohn, A. (2005). Unconditional Parenting: Moving from rewards and punishments to love and reason. Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Shanker, S., & Barker, T. (2016). Self-reg: how to help your child (and you) break the stress cycle and successfully engage with life. Penguin Press.

Shervin Venet, Alex (2021). Equity-Centred Trauma-Informed Education. W. W. Norton & Co.

Stixrud, W. & Johnson, N. (2019). The Self-Driven Child: The science and sense of giving your kids more control over their lives. Penguin Books.

Published by Neurodiversity MB

Jillian has Child and Youth Work diploma as well as a BA in Psychology. Jillian worked on the front lines of Social Services agencies from 2003 - 2012. Jillian has taken numerous continuing education courses and has attended various workshops focused on supporting neurodiverse children, in particular children with ADHD.

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