School-Wide PBIS & Teachers Who Bully

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Source: US Dept of Ed – Office of Special Education Programs

With all the public dialogue and experience-sharing regarding the prevalence of bullying in our schools, you would think the federal government’s push for school-wide positive behavioral interventions would be getting more attention. But, it’s not.

One reason, I suspect, is that people are so focused on holding bullies accountable that they’re not focusing on the real causes of bullying. But, that’s a reactive strategy rather than a proactive attempt to prevent bullying in the first place.

Additionally, people are primarily focused on other children as being the perpetrators of bullying when there is plenty of evidence that students are bullied by teachers and other school personnel, as well. This is one of those things that I wish it weren’t even necessary to talk about, but it is unfortunately one of the issues that fails to receive adequate attention but has such a negative impact on our students that it would be recklessly irresponsible of us to ignore it.

Our work here at KPS4Parents is about solving problems in special education and pretending problems like this don’t exist solves nothing. I believe that if teachers and administrators expect to be regarded with authority by their students, it behooves them to first devote themselves to their responsibility to create a positive learning environment that earns them their students’ respect.

In a recent bullying-related suicide in Japan, it has come to light that teachers were as much responsible as peers for the torment the deceased student experienced, who jumped to his death from his family’s 14th floor apartment. This just goes to show that the problem is not limited to the United States. But, it’s not rare, here in the U.S., either, and children with disabilities are more likely to be bullied than their typically developing peers.

A recent due process decision from Georgia shows just how bad it can get (not reading for the weak of heart – be forewarned) and there have been a number of cases in the news and/or in which parents have turned to social media to shed light on the mistreatment of their children with special needs at school by staff.

Ruth Sylvester writes in the Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin that teachers who bully may rationalize their bullying behaviors as good classroom management or motivation for their students. In doing so, they may not even be aware that their behavior is harmful to at least some of their students.

In her master’s thesis for the University of Saskatchewan, Susan Marie Reschny, shares an insight she gained as a new teacher from a student’s mother: “She explained that from her perspective, the teachers her child would encounter that year would spend more time with her daughter than she would. She also explained that she worried about these adults because they would influence her daughter’s ideas and moods, and would in essence be a strong factor in the development of her child.”

It was from this platform that Reschny’s realization was launched that teachers have a huge impact on child development and welfare aside from academics. Her experience also goes to show the prevalence of bullying by teachers and peers in school settings across the globe and not just here in the United States.

Citing Parsons (2005), Reschny states: “Bullying students is like shooting fish in a barrel: as a captive audience, students can neither fight nor flee. They are expected to respect and obey their teachers, as they owe their success or failure in school to how those teachers evaluate them. They are quick to accept blame and their fledgling egos can be deflated or destroyed with a few well chosen words or gestures. (p. 39)”

A source cited by both Sylvester and Reschny is McEvoy (2005). McEvoy states of his study: “The focus of this research is on an area of abusive behavior that has received virtually no attention ??when teachers bully students. For the purpose of this study, bullying by teachers (or other staff, including?coaches, who have supervisory control over students) is defined as a pattern of conduct, rooted in a power?differential, that threatens, harms, humiliates, induces fear, or causes students substantial emotional distress,?and serves no legitimate academic or ethical purpose. Included are behaviors that any reasonable person?would recognize as having a significant risk of harming students.”

What I want to point out here is that, as McEvoy states, bullying by teachers serves no legitimate academic or ethical purpose. It’s my belief that one of the significant impediments that the federal government’s push on school-wide positive behavioral interventions is experiencing is pedagogical opposition from teachers who bully students as a practice.

I also think there is some veracity to Sylvester’s assertion that many teachers who bully don’t think they are bullying anyone at all. They, Heaven help us, think they are engaging in good teaching!

More research into this issue definitely needs to be done and I think one of the places that research should target is the degree to which tenure systems play a role in keeping teachers who bully entrenched. Older teachers who entered the profession when corporal punishment was still permissible pretty much everywhere (it’s still legal in 13 states, so we haven’t completely cleared that hurdle, yet) are probably more likely to engage in bullying tactics than younger teachers entering the field from universities teaching best practices.

Teachers who have worked in education for many years, however, have tenure in those education agencies that still follow a tenure system, which is most of them, still. That means that the “last in/first out” practice of laying off new teachers when things get tight keeps the abusive battle-axes in our children’s classrooms rather than the ambitious young teachers who are still invested in educating children.

Of course, these are gross over-generalizations. There are plenty of tenured teachers who are dedicated to children and their learning and who would absolutely die before they abused their authority to make themselves feel big at the expense of the children in their classrooms. Likewise, there are new teachers entering the field who will eventually get arrested for doing something horrible with children.

I’m just saying that research needs to be done into the relationships, if any, between tenure systems, teacher bullying of students, and the adoption or rejection of school-wide positive behavioral interventions and supports. Or, PBIS, as the feds like to call it.

The U.S. Department of Education, through its Office of Special Education Programs (“OSEP”) provides technical assistance on school-wide PBIS. In true form to the education community’s affinity for acronyms, it crunches “school-wide PBIS” into the hybrid acronym of SWPBS.

In defining SWPBS, OSEP says: “… SWPBS is NOT a curriculum, intervention, or practice, but IS a?decision making framework that guides selection, integration, and implementation of the best evidence-based academic and behavioral practices for improving important academic and behavior outcomes for all students.” ?SWPBS is also tied to Response to Intervention (“RtI”) practices by OSEP.

RtI is an evidence-based practice that relies on data-driven methodologies to figure out how children individually learn so that each child has an opportunity to succeed in school. Instructional approaches are modified according to the needs of each learner using scientifically research-based methodologies.

If this sounds a lot like what a special education program is supposed to look like, don’t be surprised. IEPs are also supposed to be implemented according to scientifically research-based methodologies and peer-reviewed, evidence-based practices. RtI is an evidence-based practice as is proper implementation of measurable annual IEP goals.

The real issue with RtI from my standpoint is that, if we can’t get school districts to comply with the use of scientifically research-based methodologies according to peer-reviewed, evidence-based practices when they are legally mandated to do so under the IDEA, what hope do we have of RtI, which is unregulated, being implemented with fidelity in the general education setting??So far, most of what I’ve seen of RtI has been a lot of stuff done in the name of RtI that really isn’t RtI, mostly to avoid referring kids to special education where the rules are actually enforceable.

Of course, OSEP has made it clear that using RtI as a means of ditching special ed is not okay, but that’s not stopping school districts from doing it. The most common strategy I’ve seen so far is for school districts to create a “Learning Center” program that is effectively resource specialist programming (“RSP”), and usually staffed by RSP teachers, then throw all the students in there who are struggling and call it RtI.

The data collection I’ve seen come out of these programs is deplorable. Anyone dedicated to true RtI would be disgusted, as would anybody who is truly dedicated to proper RSP intervention. Both are supposed to be data-driven programs.

And herein lies the problem for SWPBS – if we can’t get school districts to implement special education according to its own legal tenets regarding measurability and empiricism such that we can’t trust them to legitimately deploy a true RtI program, what hope is there for real SWPBS? In case you can’t tell, as much as I would rejoice if SWPBS were implemented everywhere, I have my doubts as to its successful implementation on a national level.

SWPBS emphasizes four integrated elements: (a)?data?for decision making, (b) measurable?outcomes?supported and evaluated by data, (c)?practices?with evidence that these outcomes are achievable, and (d)?systems?that efficiently and effectively support implementation of these practices.?This sounds hauntingly familiar.

It’s kind of like: (a) present levels of performance or?baselines, (b) measurable annual goals with ongoing progress monitoring, (c) services appropriate to see the goals met, and (d) placement appropriate to see the services rendered such that the goals are met in the least restrictive environment. You know, the IEP process that parents can’t seem to get the average school district to follow even though it’s mandated by federal law.

SWPBS could be the answer to a lot of problems. The science is there to back it up. It’s been proven to be effective in improving not only school-wide behaviors but also school-wide academic achievement.

But SWPBS hasn’t been adopted by local education agencies nearly to the extent that RtI has (such as it has been) and we need to ask ourselves “Why?” I think the answer lies partly in the matter of our ongoing drama in the United States regarding the use of seclusion and restraint in our public schools and our school system’s historical reliance upon punitive measures to respond to behavioral challenges. Rather than regarding these challenges as teachable moments in which teachers have something of value to teach and are able to do it effectively, there is a knee-jerk reaction by many teachers, I think, to be the King or Queen of the Mountain and vanquish their foes (or, in this case, their students).

In a system where the staff respond to children’s inappropriate behaviors first and foremost as challenges to their authority, we’ve got a problem. Far too many teachers jump immediately into the cockpit of a full-blown power struggle and abandon their duty to educate and inform. Instead, they engage in juvenile, tit-for-tat, one-upsmanship with our children to prove they are in charge, which is one cause of bullying by teachers of students.

According to OSEP, schools that establish systems with the capacity to implement SWPBS with integrity and durability have teaching and learning environments that are:

  • Less reactive, aversive, dangerous, and exclusionary, and
  • More engaging, responsive, preventive, and productive
  • Address classroom management and disciplinary issues (e.g., attendance, tardies, antisocial behavior),
  • Improve supports for students whose behaviors require more specialized assistance (e.g., emotional and behavioral disorders, mental health), and
  • Most importantly, maximize academic engagement and achievement for all students.

Teachers who bully put their own emotional issues first. Any program that puts students first contradicts their priorities. I’ve seen this with teachers who think their jobs are entitlements or that it’s acceptable to sacrifice student welfare in the name of keeping that government paycheck rolling in.

Granted, many teachers feel caught between a rock and a hard place, having to often weigh student welfare against pressure to go along with?their administrators’ agendas, which often have more to do with advancing their administrators’ careers than anything else. Student outcomes in situations like this only matter to the extent that they contribute to the administrator’s climb up the career ladder, if they do at all.

That’s another problem that undermines the adoption of SWPBS nationwide – if it doesn’t contribute to administrators’ agendas, it’s not going to happen. And the refusals will all be framed in budgetary terms. In fact, when belts get tightened, anti-bullying programs are often among the first to get reduced or eliminated because they are perceived as “non-essential.”

I get the argument that teaching children to behave properly is the responsibility of their parents. But, if the social sciences has taught us anything it’s that many of us are the victims of victims when it comes to poor parenting. Parents can’t teach what they don’t know and it takes a village to raise a child.

Plus, when it comes to children with disabilities that color their behaviors, parenting quality often isn’t the issue. It’s the lack of appropriate expert involvement in equipping families with the tools they need to raise their children with disabilities in a way that equips them with functional communication skills, appropriate replacement behaviors for maladaptive ones, and respite services so that parents can have a break from the stress of raising children with special needs.

The next time you’re in the store and see a kid with developmental disabilities or a mental health disorder having a full-core meltdown in the middle of the checkout line, take a moment to look at his/her parents’ faces. (I say “parents” plural because, chances are, they never go to the store without each other if their special needs child is tagging along.)

That stoic, focused, exhausted expression is one they have grown accustomed to wearing because they’ve done this before … and, they’ll do it again. As shocking as the outburst may be to everyone else, this is business as usual for them.

When children with less obvious handicapping conditions engage in inappropriate behaviors, they are penalized more greatly the more “normal” they appear on the surface. This lives on with them into adulthood.

I befriended a neighbor years ago who was one of the most stunningly beautiful men, physically, I’d ever met. But, he was crippled by bipolar disorder and the alcohol and drug addiction issues that are so common among people with this particular illness. Also like many people with bipolar disorder, his intelligence was incredibly high.

He fully understood the biochemical basis for his condition. He understood the interactions of the drugs he’d been prescribed with his brain chemistry. And, yet, he compulsively consumed every controlled substance he could get his hands on, fully understanding the detrimental biochemical reactions they were having with his brain and his prescription medications.

He told me once that being physically attractive was a curse for him because people expect so much more of beautiful people than what the average person can do in the first place. But, challenged by a mental illness made him even less able to live up to people’s expectations and that made him feel like even more of a failure. I have no idea what happened to him. I don’t even know if he’s still alive and there’s a really good chance that he isn’t.

The point is that kids who look “normal” but who are nonetheless challenged by disability are often set up to fail. Kids who look “soft” or weak and who are challenged by disability are walking targets. Both end up getting bullied one way or the other, more often than not, and the system is by and large set up to promote bullying rather than prevent it.

We clearly still have a long way to go before bullying is eliminated from our schools, regardless of who the perpetrators are. I’m very glad to see research being done into bullying of students by teachers. It’s an area that has been sorely neglected up until the last few years.

What would be heartening to see are examples of schools where SWPBS has actually been implemented with success. If you know of such campuses, please post your accolades in the comments below.

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2 thoughts on “School-Wide PBIS & Teachers Who Bully

  1. Anne M. Zachry Post author

    Here are links to the testimony of several individuals who testified before the Senate on July 12, 2012 as to the efficacy of SWPBS:

    Statement of Daniel Crimmins, Ph.D., Director, Center for Leadership in Disability
    Clinical Professor, Institute of Public Health, Georgia State University

    Statement of Michael George, Director, Centennial School of Lehigh University

    Written Testimony of Cyndi Pitonyak, Coordinator, Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, Montgomery County Public Schools

    Statement of Debbie Jackson, Parent, Easton, Pennsylvania


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