Q&A with George Sugai - What Works in Behaviour Support

Creating and maintaining a positive school-discipline climate is fundamental to school success.
When students are academically successful, they are more likely to be behaviorally successful. And, vice versa, when students are socially-behaviorally successful, they have a higher probability of academic success.

JOHN: Thank you for participating in this Q&A. We appreciate your sharing some key lessons from your long career. Your work has had enormous impact on the social-emotional-behavioral climate of schools. How would you describe your legacy?

GEORGE: Thank you for inviting me to participate in this Q&A.

As a context, I fully retired from my professional world 1st May 2019 after more than 45 years in education. The timing was right for a number of reasons.

First, our Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support (PBIS) Centre work was progressing nicely, and my colleague, Rob Horner, and I were fortunate to have a next generation of young capable leaders who could step into our shoes without missing a step.

Second, although we made ourselves available to assist with the transition, we found the new generation of leadership was more than capable of moving the Centre’s work forward effectively and in new directions. The gave us senior advisor titles, in part, to make us feel like we were needed and part of the team; however, in truth, it was more an indication that they were ready to take on the responsibility.

Third, the smooth transition was an indication of the collective strength of those around us. I firmly believe that all the attention I’ve received in my career is the result of the competence, accomplishments, and capacities of those around me. My higher education colleagues, doctoral students, research collaborators, education partners, and others have done fabulous work which has contributed to the collective kudos, attention, and prestige of the group. Because I’ve been fortunate to be the public voice, that is, “mouth,” of this work, I get far too much credit for the successes of our work.

Lastly, I mention this context information because it isn’t my legacy. It is the legacy of all educators, students, and families I’ve had the good fortune to work with collaboratively over the last four decades and deserve all the praise, recognition, and kudos. They have shaped what you refer to as my legacy. Thus, as I answer your questions, it is important to understand that I’m sharing noteworthy outcomes from a collective and not an individual. I have been fortunate to be in the right place, with the right people, and at the right time.

JOHN: Your positive behavioral intervention and support (PBIS) framework has evolved into contemporary approaches, like Multi-Tiered Support Systems (MTSS). How does MTSS logic resonate with a defensible theory of practice?

GEORGE: Let’s start an answer with a couple of clarifications. I appreciate that you referenced PBIS as a “framework.”

PBIS is NOT an intervention, practice, model, or other strategy. The PBIS nomenclature began in the 1990s when the U.S. Department of Education initiated efforts to improve the educational experiences and outcomes of students with disabilities. Our group was fortunate to be awarded a grant to establish a technical assistance center on PBIS. Thus, it is important to clarify that George Sugai and Rob Horner did not invent, discover, or create PBIS.

Instead our team adopted the three-tiered prevention logic of the U.S. public health system and adapted this logic to the education setting.

As you know, Tier 1, or universal addresses, all students and staff across all settings.

Tier 2, or indicated, focuses on smaller groups of students who share common needs and intervention supports.

Tier 3, or intensive, refers to the needs of individual students who require individualized, high intensity, specialized supports.

Although the three-tiered logic is conceptually useful, it is important to acknowledge that the supports, and not people, are organized along a continuum, and these supports vary by grade level, demographic factors, developmental level, etc.

Equally important, the tiered PBIS framework has four essential implementation factors or considerations.

The first priority is student social-behavioral outcomes: the goal is to always give the highest decision-making priority to what and how students will benefit.

The second priority is selection and high-fidelity implementation of empirically supported practices. We like to say that educators must be willing to bet their next month’s salary on the effectiveness, efficiency, and relevance of their intervention choices.

The third is contextual relevant data measures, collection, and decision making. Good data are needed to inform and produce sound decisions related to student characteristics, progress, success, and changes.

The fourth is “systems” which are the supports necessary to enable educators to use data for decision making, select and implement practices with fidelity, and continuously monitor student progress and responsiveness to practices.

These four interrelated and interacting factors are important tools in the PBIS framework toolbox, and across them cultural and demographic characteristics must be actively considered to avoid inequities, prejudices, and bias.

Back to your question, by integrating these four factors into the development and operation of a PBIS framework, we can improve or defend our practice selection, implementation, and evaluative decision making.

I also must add that the effectiveness and efficiency of the PBIS framework is enhanced by a conscious and consistent use of a defensible theory of change or action. In the case of PBIS, we openly acknowledge our behavioral sciences foundations and use of applied behavior analytic tactics and strategies. By being clear about our conceptual elements, we can more easily describe, defend, and justify our practice selections and implementations.

I’m sorry for this long answer, but the fundamentals of PBIS are important in understanding the development, evolution, and operationalization of MTSS and other related approaches.

JOHN: You mentioned the importance of student performance as the best indicator of effectiveness. What does this mean in practice? And, how does MTSS improve behavioral and academic outcomes?

GEORGE: As one of the four key PBIS implementation factors, student outcomes are integrally linked to all decisions. That is, “student benefit” is at the root or crux of all implementation and decision making.

For example, we ask questions like: Do the promised outcomes of this practice align with the needs of students? Are we willing to bet our next month’s salary on achieving these student outcomes with that practice selection? Are we collecting data that are meaningful in out decisions about student progress and practice effectiveness? Is poor student progress an indication of misalignment between student need and practice, poor practice selection, or inadequate practice implementation fidelity?

Our tenet is that student learning success or failure is primarily the responsibility of educators and the quality of their practice selection, implementation, and result-based decision making.

We should never blame the student for academic and/or behavioral failures or difficulties. Instead, the responsibility for improvement is linked with curriculum, teaching practices, learning conditions, etc.

One misconception is that academic and social behavior outcomes are addressed independent of each other when implementing the PBIS or MTSS framework.

First, it’s important to remember that when students are academically successful, they are more likely to be behaviorally successful. And, vice versa, when students are socially-behaviorally successful, they have a higher probability of academic success. Of course, some students require additional academic and/or behavioral support but the benefits can be combined and are reciprocal.

Second, we are educators, and as such, ensuring that preventive, nourishing, and supportive social-behavioral teaching experiences and environments are established and maintained is critical to maximizing our instructional presentations and achieving our best learner outcomes.

Third, social-behavior errors are addressed in the same way as academic errors. Rather than punishing behavior errors, we teach and reteach more contextually appropriate behavioral alternatives similar to how we correct academic errors and misrules.

With academic instruction, we don’t send students to the office for disciplinary actions when they make a spelling error; instead we reteach the correct spelling.

Likewise, if students use inappropriate language to convey their frustrations, we focus our behavior management on reteaching better ways and words to express their feelings. We arrange our teaching and learning environments so prosocial skills are more likely and encouraged and contextually inappropriate behaviors are discouraged and/or replaced.

Finally, the PBIS/MTSS framework encourages educators to organize and provide academic and social behavior instructional practices along an integrated three-tiered continuum.

Academic lessons are designed to be beneficial for a majority of students, Tier 1. However, educators anticipate that some students will require additional practice, instruction, etc. to benefit, Tier 2; and a few students will require a supplemental and more individualized instructional experience, Tier 3.

This same logic is the basis for promoting social-behavioral successes. That is, all students are taught core values, habits, and social skills, for example, respect, responsibility, and safety; respect yourself, others, learning, and property, Tier 1. Some students may require some extra practice, role play, or reminders, Tier 2, and a few students may need more specialized supports, for example, counseling, peer coaching, adult mentoring to learn those skills or to replace competing problem behaviors, that is, Tier 3.

JOHN: School leaders must always make decisions by considering equity, diversity and inclusivity. How should we address disparities associated with racism, sexism, ableism and socio-economic status?

GEORGE: Since our work has has deep special education roots, your question, in large part, has always been an important consideration in our PBIS/MTSS work.

Special educators strive to ensure that students with disabilities have full access to experiences and environments that are equitable, constructive, and inclusive.

The three-tiered continuum logic works well by ensuring that students with disabilities are included in the “all” experience of Tier 1 supports. Regardless of their individual disability, students with disabilities may also benefit from experiences with their peers without disabilities, Tier 2, and for individual needs, Tier 3.

I think it is important to remember that high-quality special education interventions also may be important for meeting the needs of students who do not have disabilities, and that interventions being provided to all or some students may be important to the non-disability needs of students with disabilities.

We find that educators learn a misrule that: “Tier 3 is special education.” Tier 3 is individualized behavior (or academic) supports for any student who might have a specific academic and/or behavior need requiring specialized supports.

Similarly, we commonly see another misrule whereby educators exclude students with disabilities from Tier 1 or 2 opportunities because these students have a disability. Instead, the PBIS/MTSS framework emphasizes all the strengths and needs of all students.

Lastly, I want to emphasize that the tiered logic is NOT designed to label, categorize, or group students. Again, it focuses on the overall strengths and needs of individual and all students. In special education, we have learned to use person-first language. For example: “George has behavior disorders” instead of “emotionally disturbed George.” In addition, the emphasis is on the behaviors rather than labels. For example: “Psychotic and depressed George” is replaced with, “George throws books and screams obscenities when he has been teased and excluded from his peers.”

So, with respect to PBIS/MTSS, we actively discourage tendencies to label students by tiers, for example, “John is a Tier 3 student.” Instead, as in special education we encourage person-first language.

In this example, “John requires individualized assistance for anger management.” Tier labels should be applied to behaviors and practices, and not to students. Each and all students have a social-behavior profile. Some skills are easy to learn, firmly in place, and frequently displayed, and others are more difficult to teach and used less often.

If I look at myself, I’m a pretty good cook, bicycle rider, reader, and problem solver, and do not require supports to maintain these skills, Tier 1. I also have some behaviors that require more practice and prompting, Tier 2, from my wife, for example, daily walks and eating healthy foods. And, of course, I have some things that require expert, specialized assistance, Tier 3, for example, controlling pre-hypertension, learning to play the guitar, and watching too much social media. As such, I’m not a Tier 1, 2, or 3 husband! I’m just a guy with some skills and needs that require different levels of supports.

To summarize, each student and educator has a profile of strengths and needs that is associated and aligned with a continuum of academic and behavioral supports. Some of these needs might be related to a disability and therefore require more specialized and individualized supports, that is, special education. It is important to focus identifying need and supports rather than labeling students and educators.

I’m not sure I answered your question directly about addressing disparities. However, I might suggest that preventing and responding to behaviors that are labelled as racist, discriminatory, and biased requires understanding the context in which they were learned, respecting and protecting the integrity of the individual, and focusing on the behaviors that are prosocial. For me and especially in education settings, social-behavior errors are teaching challenges, not personality weaknesses or personal flaws.

JOHN: Gun violence is an abhorrence and the United States has by far the highest incidence of mass school shootings. In your experience, what should be done to mitigate the risk?

GEORGE: I don’t have a good answer for the larger societal problem of gun violence in the U.S. which will require a significant change, consensus, time, and effort to reap meaningful improvements.

However, the good news is that we know what needs to be done. The bad is that the array of factors that promote violence are vast in number, difficult to access and manipulate, and controlled by powerful competing influences.

I was fortunate to join a group of highly-respected researchers who generated a call for action to prevent gun violence in the U.S.  (https://education.virginia.edu/prevent-gun-violence) and who presented some empirically sound directions for preventing violence in our schools and on our streets. We have a long way toward seeing these action points being fully integrated and operationalized in our society.

Clearly, enacting policy, laws, and regulations that support the prevention of gun and school violence is required. However, as we’ve learned in our work to implement basic behavior management and school discipline experiences both words and rules represent our wishful hopes but aren’t usually associated with constructive and widespread change in behavior and action.

For me, I encourage educators to focus their attention on what they have the most access and control, starting with teaching academic and social behaviors continuously, directly, actively, and rigorously in all school settings, and increase the specialized nature of this instruction based on learner responsiveness, that is, the PBIS/MTSS framework.

Included in this instruction is teaching those social skills that promote safe, responsible, respectful, and peaceful social and academic learning environments. As mentioned previously, academic success promotes social-behavior health, and vice versa.

Students and their families must be directly and formally taught and exposed to the social and academic skills that enable them to successfully and safely navigate their personal, family, neighborhood, and school environments.

They also must experience regular and meaningful recognition and success when they use these skills. The objective is to model, prompt, promote, and reinforce behaviors that represent positive, caring, and preventive environments, that is, compete with the antisocial behaviors, models, and values that promote violent behavior.

We’ve also learned that how educators behave is important. Students are unlikely to value, adopt, display, and sustain prosocial behaviors if the adults around them do not likewise display those same behaviors.

That is, the PBIS/MTSS continuum applies to adult behavior. All educators must participate in teaching, prompting, modeling, and reinforcing the prosocial skills of the classroom and school, Tier 1. Some educators may require some additional coaching, prompting, reminding, etc. to participate, Tier 2. And, a few educators may need more individualized assistance to promote prosocial behaviors themselves, Tier 3.

My wife, who I believe without prejudice, was brilliant in teaching me that school leaders have an integral role in the successful implementation of PBIS/MTSS. When I visited her school, I would see her greeting students at the school entrance; saying their names; recognizing their responsible, respectful, and safe entry; and giving them reminders of what was expected, Tier 1.

She gave some children an extra bit of attention, for example, specific reminder or extra positive praise, Tier 2, and asked some students to stand by her side for some special attention before proactively escorting them to their classroom, Tier 3.

She was modeling the tactics that she was encouraging her staff members to use, Tier 1.

Likewise, my wife would move through the hallways to actively model for and remind, Tier 2, some staff members to greet their students at the door like she did earlier in the day. And for a few staff members she would conduct daily visits to their classrooms to co-teach and coach on effective positive classroom management practices, Tier 3.

School leaders must model the same behaviors expected of their teaching and support staff members, and they must provide a continuum of leadership and supervision that promotes effective educator practices.

Ideally, the same implementation logic would be promoted at the district or regional levels of administration in policy, enactment of regulation, and personnel development and supervision.

As I mentioned earlier, I think we know what needs to be done, that is, a call for action. I don’t have a good strategy for promoting the large-scale implementation of supports at a level and intensity that would address larger cultural, political, societal factors and would prevent violent behavior, especially gun violence and promote substantive improvements in personal and interpersonal actions and behaviors.

My optimism in experiencing what is possible at the individual, classroom, and school levels, in particular within a PBIS/MTSS framework, gives me hope for a more civil, caring, responsible, and safe society and culture.

JOHN: Thank you for sharing your reflections on what has been important about your career. You have given us much to remember as we continue our endeavors to improve the teaching and learning experiences in our schools, especially, related to the importance of why we teach, that is, student benefit. Last question, do you have any closing comments for our consideration?

GEORGE: And, thank you for giving me this opportunity to retroactively ruminate on what we might consider key lessons for the future.

Many of these lessons from my work experiences have carried over into my retirement life. I’d like to conclude by simply listing some of my favorites:

  • If in doubt, err on acting positively.
  • Start by (re)arranging environment for success and pre-correcting for predictable bad habits and misrules.
  • When in doubt about what to do, observe, teach, and encourage rather than punish and discourage.
  • Engage with respect and appreciation for individual and group differences, equity, and fairness.
  • Base all decisions and actions on likelihood of getting desired outcome benefit and success, that is: “Am I willing to wager my next month’s salary on that decision?”
  • Adopt and do a few important do-able things with the highest accuracy, durability, and impact.
  • For a given question, always examine the scientific research about what we know and don’t know.
  • Involve others in decision making and actions who are like-minded, respected, and competent.