Think Out Loud

University of Oregon professor helps schools foster supportive learning environments

By Gemma DiCarlo (OPB)
Nov. 27, 2023 2 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, Nov. 27

For 25 years, the Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, has worked with schools around the country to make learning environments more supportive and productive. The PBIS framework focuses on establishing shared values and expectations for the classroom and acknowledging positive behavior. It also aims to address unwanted behavior through redirection instead of punishment. The center recently received $21 million from the U.S. Department of Education to fund its work for the next five years.


Kent McIntosh is the Philip H. Knight Chair of Special Education at the University of Oregon and co-director of the center. He joins us to share more about the center’s work and the importance of creating positive school cultures.

Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. For 25 years, the Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, which is housed at the University of Oregon, has worked with schools around the country to make learning environments more supportive and more productive. The PBIS framework focuses on establishing shared values and expectations for the classroom and acknowledging positive behavior. It also aims to address unwanted behavior through redirection as opposed to punishment. The center recently received $21 million from the U.S. Department of Education to fund its work for the next five years. Kent McIntosh is a professor of special education at the University of Oregon and the co-director of the Center. He joins us now. Welcome to the show.

Kent McIntosh: Thanks. It’s great to get a chance to chat with you and talk about what we’re up to.

Miller: You’ve said that the goals of this center are to help educators create schools that are more safe, more predictable, more positive and more equitable. I’d like to take some of those one by one. What do you mean by safe?

McIntosh: You know, a lot of times when people think about safe, they think about physical safety in schools. But we also want to be able to think about emotional safety, and what we really want as a goal is for any student to walk in the building and feel like they’re welcome, feel like they belong, feel like they can be free from physical confrontations, harassment, bullying, and also just be able to bring their authentic selves into the door, as opposed to having to give up a little bit of their personality to fit into what the school is expecting of them.

Miller: How do you promote that?

McIntosh: One of the best things that we think of is we want to be able to ask students, and so being able to talk with them and co-create ‒ what does it look like when you come in and feel welcomed? Where are the places around school where you feel physically safe? Where are the places around school that you don’t feel safe? And then we can work as a team, as a school team, but also with students and family voice, to be able to make more of the places around school more inviting, more accepting and more welcoming.

And I’ll give an example, because I’ve got two middle schoolers right now, and when we talk with them about what feels safe in schools, unfortunately, they might say something like, “We don’t use the bathroom at school because it doesn’t feel safe in there. People are doing things they’re not supposed to be doing. And so if at all, we try to avoid that,” and I just think, “Gosh, you know, that’s something. We don’t want students to dehydrate themselves all day so they don’t have to go somewhere where they’re not going to feel comfortable or feel like something bad might happen.”

Miller: So, if you were an administrator or a teacher and you were far enough along on this PBIS program that you were asking that question, then you get that answer – students in your school, they don’t even feel safe going to the bathroom. What do you do next?

McIntosh: One of the things that we think about is we try to work with school teams to talk about what are three to five values or expectations that we all agree on that we want to act with each other. And then what we think about is, okay, what are the best examples of what that looks like? What are the best examples of what that doesn’t look like? And really use that as an instruction to clarify with students what that is and give them a chance to practice and have some performance feedback on it. And you would use that same thing when thinking about, okay, how do these apply to the restrooms? Well, instead of just the adults in the building saying this is your long list of " No’s” of what to do or…

Miller: .. Right. Because I can imagine that would be the standard version in the past is, Oh, if kids feel unsafe in the bathrooms, then maybe there’s going to be an Assistant Principal who is positioned there, and says, ‘Bobby, if you’re vaping, we’re going to kick you out. Susie, if you’re bullying your classmates, you’re gonna get detention again,’ or there might also just be a sign in front saying no to all these things. What’s wrong with that approach?

McIntosh: The main problem... Well, there are a few problems with that approach. Number one, what it’s saying is first we put up a sign and then we exclude students who don’t do it. And then we’re removing that chance for instruction from them. But really the other part is adults can’t be everywhere in schools. And so instead what we want to be able to do is have students feel like, you know what? We put these agreements in place and they’re actually beneficial for each of us, and then each student has an understanding of, okay, we’ve all agreed to what these are, we all know what they are. And then instead of waiting for an adult to do it, we can actually intervene with each other and move from being a bystander to being an upstander who can step i.n and say, “Hey, you know, that’s not respectful. This is what I’d like to see instead.”

And if we have that community of it, then all of a sudden when students look around and think about, should I do this, should I do that ‒ they see all of the other students and those who they respect and so on, actually engaging in a way that promotes belonging and safety, and then they’re more likely to make that choice.

Miller: We’ve been focusing on safe as one of the goals that you’re striving for. Another is a predictable school environment. Why is predictability important?

McIntosh: Oh It’s really, really key, especially thinking about how our students have experienced ‒ and adults have experienced ‒ the world in the last few years, that we have this opportunity to be able to say, if I know what’s happening now and I know what’s coming next, then it’s much easier for me to handle myself, much easier to be able to self-manage, much easier for me to say, “okay, I’m about to move into an activity that I don’t really want to do but I know is really important, so if I’m able to kind of catch myself before, I take a little deep breath, do a little bit of self-management ahead of time, then it’s going to be much easier for me to take on that difficult task that’s next.” So I know what’s going on. I know what’s happening next is really, really key, not only for students but for the adults as well.

So I might say, “Gosh, I’m gonna be the one who’s going to be walking down the halls using my duty and maybe checking in the restrooms.” I wanna catch myself before going into that and say, “Okay, what’s gonna be my strategy I’m gonna use, as opposed to just kicking a kid out or sending them to the office?” So it really makes it just more straightforward for us and allows us to be more productive.

Miller: The only adjective in the name of your center is “positive.” It seems like it is one of the key elements of the philosophy here. So what do you mean by “positive?”

McIntosh: In a very, very basic value, what we’re really saying as adults in the building, we want to pay more attention to when things are going right as opposed to when things are going wrong. What I mean about that is, if all I do is I walk into my classroom and I teach and then if there’s something that I see that I don’t want, or some behavior that I’m worried about, I don’t want to just rely on that maybe my knee-jerk reaction that all I’m paying attention to is when students are doing things I don’t want and then I send them out of the classroom, or I shame them in front of everybody in the classroom.


And so what we know from over 80 years of high-quality research is that if we attend to, if we talk about, if we actually engage students in a conversation about their successes that they’ve just had, instead of just letting those fly under the radar, we are much more effective as educators. Students experience the school as having a better school climate. And adults feel like the workplace is a little better. I might not be gritting my teeth when I’m walking through the school door, because as I attend to the behavior that I wanna see, I’m gonna see that behavior more and more.

Miller: How does all of this connect to equity?

McIntosh: You know, it’s really interesting that you make that connection across. A lot of times when people talk about equity and I’ll talk specifically about racial equity and school discipline because that’s one of our areas that we focus on really closely, is we think about this idea of, well, gosh, students of color, including particularly Black or Indigenous students, are more likely to be excluded from school, more likely to be suspended and so on.

But one of the things that we have seen in our research and in our work is that not only might there be a discipline gap, but there might also be an acknowledgment gap. And when we’ve looked in classrooms and we’ve done research observation and so on, what we’ve found is, unless we’ve got a system that we put in place to make sure that we are being fair, to make sure that we are being equitable, educators might be less likely to recognize Black or Indigenous students for the behavior that we want to see, than students in the dominant culture.

Miller: You’ve talked about evidence-based practices for a while here. What is the best evidence you can point to to say that these interventions work?

McIntosh: You know, we just released a brief that summarizes, not just… I think about us as researchers, we sometimes like to give this long list, this annotated bibliography of these studies going back this far, and so on and say, “Here’s the research, here’s what it looks like.” And yeah, we’ve got 40 years of research showing that this approach works. But instead of saying, “Just read the research,” we just released a brief looking at an overview of what are the outcomes that you would expect to see if you implement it well. If you implement it as intended, you are more likely to see reduced use of exclusionary discipline, improved social emotional learning, improved attendance, decreased teacher burnout and so on.

And it all comes from these practices implemented within this framework, as opposed to a program or a curriculum. Meaning that we identify what are the things that we want to see? We teach and practice those, we acknowledge when things are going well and actually give students performance feedback on that. And then we respond instructionally when we see behavior that we don’t want to see. And so all of that together, that whole framework, has this very large evidence base behind it.

Miller: If I just plopped you in some classroom somewhere in the country, what would you be paying attention to?

McIntosh: The first thing I might do is I might just look around in the physical environment and I might see has the teacher or staff actually put cues in for students that are gonna help them understand, like we talked about, the predictable schedule that’s gonna be there? Are there gonna be ways to guide what I’m supposed to do in the routines for handing in work, or what I’m supposed to be doing when I walk right into the classroom?

But as soon as I’m thinking about that, what I want to be able to do, especially if I’m in right at the beginning of school, is I wanna see what’s the experience of students right when they walk into the classroom? Is there a teacher or educator there who’s greeting them at the door and making sure that they feel welcome in the classroom, that they’re welcomed in, that they know what they’re supposed to be doing? There might be a positive interaction or asking them about their world outside of the school day. So they really feel like they’re welcome and they belong.

And then what I’m looking for is their routines or rituals that ‚students are engaging in. So they know, okay what is it I’m supposed to do right when I come in? And is somebody noticing when I do things the right way? Are they only noticing when I make a little bit of a mistake here? So having those clear expectations ensuring that students are empowered to be able to be role models for each other and have some voice in there, I think is really, really key, and high rates of attention or engagement or positive feedback about the behavior that we want to see that we might just take for granted if we’re not really thinking closely about that.

Miller: How do you get teachers on board to implement what I can imagine they might think is just one more thing that they have to do in addition to so many other tasks?

McIntosh: Oh, absolutely. You know, one of the things that you’re keying in on is that teacher workload has just shot up and up and up, and it was already high way before the COVID-19 pandemic. But it’s really increased since then.

So one of the things that we really focus on with this is it’s not one more thing to do if we take all of these practices, all of these different initiatives that we’re supposed to put in place in our classrooms, but we put them under one system .That we’ve got one team that’s looking at what we’re doing. We’ve got a common approach. We’re looking at behavior and academic and attendance data together, then it’s actually gonna feel less like one more thing for us to do and more like we’re doing the small number of things that we think are most important and doing those really well.

So we might think about our school-wide instruction when we’re talking about routines of entering the classroom, we might also be embedding our social/emotional learning curricula in there. So if there’s a particular calming routine, we might practice that before a difficult transition. Instead of thinking about whether we’re gonna buy and use this separate bullying prevention curriculum, we might just say, “Hey, let’s think about bullying as one example of unwanted disrespect.” And then let’s give students a tool for them to step in and interrupt that. And it doesn’t feel like a whole new thing. It already fits in with the system that we have. It already fits in with the values that we’ve co-created with students and their families and the communities in which they live.

Miller: The societal analog to part of what you’re talking about – reducing suspensions or expulsions – seems to me to be efforts to reduce mass incarceration. I’m thinking about progressive DAs [District Attorneys] around the country who ran on platforms of pushing for diversion programs as opposed to jail time. But that movement has run into headwinds in recent years as violent crime rates in many cities have gone up. Has the same thing happened with schools with a lot of fights, say, in middle schools? Are some administrators throwing up their hands and saying, “enough positivity, enough restorative justice. We need to go back to expulsions.”

McIntosh: Yeah, we definitely see that as an uptick or an increase, really, over the past decade, but it’s been pretty big in the last couple of years. And I think one of the things that’s really critical is that all students and educators have the right to be in a safe learning and teaching environment. So we need to take all of the steps and all those evidence-based steps to prevent and address physical safety challenges. Absolutely.

But one of the things that we see is a lot of exclusionary discipline and especially a lot of exclusionary discipline for marginalized students might be coming from behaviors that we as adults might categorize as defiance or disrespect. They’re not really physical safety concerns. And so it’s not a great reason for us to be excluding students in the classroom. If a student is going to be unsafe, if there are big, actual physical safety concerns, or people don’t feel like their physical safety is being prioritized, that is a big deal and it’s really important that we address it. But our first response should not be to exclude a student from school, because they’re never going to learn the actual behaviors that we need to teach them. So, how to cool down when you get upset, how to recognize when you’re getting frustrated, what are some different things that you’re gonna be able to do? How do you get along with your peers? That’s why so many of the fights and physical altercations happen at school.

And so there might need to be some exclusion, but if we don’t do the reteaching of what we want to see and how to cope with conflict, we’re just going to see more and more of it. And the research is pretty clear that the more we rely on exclusions, the increase in violence we see in schools and the decrease in academic achievement as well. So just kicking kids out of school doesn’t actually, in of itself, make schools a safer place to be or decrease violence in schools.

Miller: Kent McIntosh, thanks very much.

McIntosh: Thank you. It’s great chatting with you.

Miller: Kent McIntosh is a co-director of the Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. It’s based in the University of Oregon. They just got a new federal grant to continue their work for the next five years. Kent is a professor of special education at the U of O.

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