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Apr 14, 2020

4 Tips for Your Families Trying PBIS at Home

While your students are at home, families might benefit from those strong school-level PBIS structures you know and love. This is my family's experience attempting to create normalcy in the middle of a pandemic.

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Before we get into this whole thing: How are you? How is your family?

Here in Eugene, Target has a security guard manning the toilet paper aisle. So, that’s our vibe these days.

I was in Miami on March 11 – the day the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. That was a Wednesday. By Thursday, I was back in Oregon. By Friday, I had my computer set up on my dining room table, a pantry stocked for the long haul, and the prospect of homeschooling our two kids loomed large. My social media feeds stopped being about cat memes and food pics and started solely recommending online activities and crafts for the kids.

Want to doodle with Mo Willems? Yes, yes I do.

Did you need a lesson plan for every day of quarantine? You read my mind, Scholastic.

The options were endless.

As we moved into the weekend, I noticed something: While I focused on how our kids would keep up with academic milestones, the kids slowly lost their ability to stay cool with each other. How was I going to get them to sit still and watch the video about sloths in the Scholastic online curriculum if they were fighting over who got the good spot on the couch?

That’s when I remembered where I work and what we do for a living.

Behavior and academic achievement are linked. If I wanted to make it out of our stay-at-home time with some amount of love left over, I needed a way to bring school-wide PBIS into our home. How do I do that?

*The Center on PBIS has entered the chat*

A few weeks ago, the center released a new brief to help families implement PBIS strategies where they live. [1] The brief walks you through eight ideas:

  • Set routines: Create a daily routine at home with times for learning, exercise, and play.
  • Set home expectations: Adapt your school’s behavioral expectations for the behaviors you want to see at home.
  • Teach, remind, reward expected behaviors with positive feedback: Try anticipating tough situations and remind kids about the expectations. When you see them doing those things, let the know you noticed by telling them something positive.
  • Correct unwanted behaviors: Provide quick corrections or re-directions when someone makes an error.
  • Share facts about the current state of affairs: Talk about what’s happening in the world and how your family responds to stay healthy and safe.
  • Communicate with schools for instructional guidance: Find out how schools will provide on-line or virtual learning opportunities for their students and learn how to access it.  
  • Be creative: Find ways to embed learning in your regular day and create space to connect with friends and family virtually.
  • Model and Promote Emotional Wellness: Your responses in stressful situations teach your student how to cope during stressful situations.

Maybe you’re looking at this list the way I did initially. Maybe you’re thinking: Yes! A checklist! Also, who has the time? When I thought about what our family needed, what our kids needed, I knew I couldn’t commit to all eight. I decided to focus on three:

  • Set routines
  • Set home expectations
  • Model and promote emotional wellness

If we got really good at those three, I would add another. It’s been 4 weeks, dear reader: The other five strategies happened accidentally all on their own…out of desperation and the natural way our family works.

Behavior and academic achievement are linked. If I wanted to make it out of our stay-at-home time with some amount of love left over, I needed a way to bring school-wide PBIS into our home.

The Schedule

Our family thrives in a routine. If there was ever a time to throw those routines fully out of their orbit it would be a pandemic. In these pandemic times, the mornings start out like any other morning. Eventually, 9:00 am rolls around and the kids and I sit in the living room staring at each other like a game of flinch. The first person to move has to decide what we’re doing next.

GIF of a woman looking concerned saying "I don't know what to do."

Setting a schedule is one way we can reduce the anxiety and stress we all feel during the day. Kids feel more secure when they know what’s coming up. Honestly, so do I. To come up with our family’s routine, I started by scheduling the things we had to do during the day. I filled in the gaps with things we all wanted to do during the day.

Things We Have to Do:

  • Kids: Read for 20 minutes every day
  • Kids: Distance learning
  • Mom + Dad: Work 8 hours…or something close to it
  • Everyone: Chores

Things We Want to Do:

  • TV and iPads
  • Spend time together
  • Cook and bake
  • Exercise and go outside

Here’s what our family’s schedule looks like:

9:00 Morning Meeting

9:30 Chores

10:00 Structured Learning + Snack

11:00 Move Your Body!

12:00 Lunch – TV time is ok as long as you learn something from it.

1:00 Choice Time

2:00 DEAR – Drop Everything And Read

2:30 More Learning…but something fun!

3:30 iPad Games

4:00 Exercises and Free time

The Expectations

Thinking through how I wanted our house to feel was a nice 10-minute visualization exercise. I closed my eyes and dreamed of a space where the kids laugh a lot, they sit transfixed in our at-home science experiments, and they pick up every pair of socks they take off. We watch movies together at night and no one throws a shoe at anyone. Ever.

Creating a teaching matrix aligns how we expect our kids to behave with a given set of activities. It’s a place to share your own dreams for your home. It’s how your kids learn their role in achieving that dreamy place. You can share the matrix with other adults in your circle so everyone is on the same page, no matter the setting. The good news about setting up an expectation matrix at home is you don’t have to start from scratch. Thousands of schools have school-wide expectations established and your students already know what they are!

I asked our 9-year-old. She knew.

I created a blank table inside a word document. I inserted the 9-year-old’s school-wide expectations in the far-left column. Along the top, I wrote in the activities during the day where someone is likely to lose their mind. I filled in the rest of the boxes with how the expectation would look and feel during those activities. Like this:

Family-wide Expectations All the Time iPads & TV Time Chores Exercise Learning Time
Be Safe Know where your body is in space.

Look out for each other and find ways to help each other.
Sit or lay on the couch cushions instead of standing on them or the arms. When you’re finished wiping down handles and surfaces, wash your hands. Give each other enough space so you won’t bump heads.

Practice good form.
Use materials the way the project says to use them.
Be Respectful Check in with each other when someone is sad or hurt When mom or dad says no to iPads or TV, say: ok or ask when it would be a good time for that.

Choose TV shows together or find a way to compromise.
If someone is already doing a chore, ask how you can help or find another chore to do. Take turns setting the timer.

Work together to finish at the same pace.
Raise your hand to ask a question if mom and dad are working with your sister.
Be Responsible Put things back where they belong when you’re finished with them Turn things off when asked and plug in the iPads when it’s time to put them away.
Make sure to put toys away rather than stash them under or on top of something.

Even if something doesn’t belong to you, put it away.
When you feel like quitting, try a strategy to tell yourself to keep going.

Plan when you will do your burpees during the day.
Ask questions when something doesn’t make sense.

Try a problem once before asking for help.

*A note to the PBIS coaches out there: I know, I know. Some of these descriptions are too specific and long-winded. We’re going to try it like this and see how it goes. I’ll keep you posted.

The Emotional Well-Being

I started this whole process with a concern about my kids’ emotions and my ability to maintain my own composure. I recruited a co-worker to be our PBIS coach, and she suggested I incorporate some social-emotional learning into our implementation. The Center on PBIS came through again in the clutch with another practice brief. [2] If schools can do this, so can we.

Since the kids were small, we've taught them the four Ps:

  • Patient
  • Persistent
  • Positive
  • Polite

As I put together the expectation matrix, I worked to embed our Ps. For example, part of being responsible means you have to be persistent. Throughout that expectation, I added ways we can encourage each other to keep going even when something seems hard. Being patient fit nicely with the respectful expectation. Weaving these ideas into the matrix makes it familiar to our school-age kiddo and contextually relevant to our home. All of this gives us a touchstone whenever any of us spins out, loses their temper, or feels a reflex to chuck a toy across the room.  

Lessons Learned

I’m going to be honest. It never would have occurred to me to come up with something this structured if it hadn’t been for this blog space. Doing this took time and effort, both of which I know are in short supply. Here are some of the takeaways that might make things a little less daunting for you and your families.

Lesson #1: The Kids Loved the Schedule the Most

Making time for everyone to do the things they have to do is hard…really hard. It took three hours for me to figure it out. If you’re trying to work from home with kids running around asking for a snack every 15 minutes, , I am here to affirm your frustration and occasional desperation. I’m also here to tell you that when I talked to my two kids about a daily routine, they lit up. We all did. While some folks hoarded toilet paper and scoured Pinterest for craft projects, our family needed goldfish crackers, juice boxes, and time in the day when the kids didn’t physically need a grownup in the room.

Tip: Share Your Classroom Routines with Families

Give families a head start. Share your typical school-level routines so they can embed them in their household schedule. As you get into the groove of distance learning, let them know when you expect students to be online, or about how much time families will need in order to get through the lessons every day. Knowing those details would have helped me puzzle together how our days would look at home. For families like ours with more than one student at home, knowing both routines would have helped me find times during the day where their schedules overlapped.

Lesson #2: I Don’t Know the Details of Our School’s PBIS Implementation

As I put together our expectation matrix, I wanted to mimic what our student’s school was doing. Partly out of my interest in maintaining continuity, but also partly out of a desperate lack of available minutes. I came up pretty empty-handed. I ended up learning the most about our school’s PBIS practices from my kid. Two thumbs up for teaching her! The school likely has practices she doesn’t typically access. She may have also conveniently left out something she doesn’t want to do at home, even if it might have been something I’d find helpful over the course of this homebound time. I was able to figure out our matrix in large part because I have the privilege of working with some incredible folks engaged in PBIS research. I have access to resources a lot of families don’t.

Tip: Put PBIS Practices Online

I checked out examples of behavior matrices online. You and your schools have some incredible ideas! You want your families doing the things you do at school, so put your matrix online! Let families know what your school-wide expectations are. Tell them all about how those expectations work in different contexts throughout the day. Share the language you use at school so families can incorporate that same language in their home.

Lesson #3: Having a Coach Makes Such a Difference

Research proves PBIS implementation is more effective when a coach guides the team through the process. Our in-home implementation is no exception. I reached out to our PBISApps Training Coordinator, Jessica Daily, for her expertise. I talked her through the matrix I put together and she had some great tips on how I could improve it. Bouncing ideas around with her also made me feel like I was on the right track and not in this alone.

Tip: Include Behavior Support Tips in Communication to Families

Teachers, you deal with our kids and their behavior all the time. You’ve become masters at classroom management. How do you do it? Teach us your ways! I’ve heard from teachers and administrators more in the past three weeks than I did during the first three months of school. For now, communication focuses on how to get students up and running with distance learning. If there’s space in your email, consider adding a pro tip around behavior management in your classroom. Do you have tricks for keeping students engaged during reading time? How do you manage the transition back to class after lunch? I’m getting desperate over here. There are no bad ideas. Keep ‘em coming.

Lesson #4: You’re a Hero Even If You’re Just Treading Water

Standup comedian, Jim Gaffigan, has a bit in his routine where he talks about what it’s like to have a fourth kid. “Imagine you’re drowning, then someone hands you a baby.” I think about that quote a lot right now. The buildup to this moment felt a lot like this:

The World: Could you work from home?

Me: Sure, no problem.

The World: Here, can you also make sure your kids keep up with their education in this brand-new way they’ve never done before?

Me: Ummm, yeah, ok. I can do that, too.

The World: Oh, and also can you be patient and understanding during the day?

Me: Well, there’s probably going to be hard times…

The World: Also, playdates are out.

Me: Hang on, what?  

The World: And no one can go outside.

Nearly every day I feel like I’m keeping my head above water. The truth is, none of us are working from home. None of us are homeschooling our kids. We’re trying to work at our house during a pandemic. Our students are trying to do school at home during a pandemic. Managing it all as if these were typical times is unrealistic.

Tip: Choose Connection, or Netflix, whichever is easiest

Our friends at the Florida PBIS Project shared this quote from Dr. Emily W. King and it stuck with me.

“Working, parenting, and teaching are three different jobs that cannot be done at the same time. It's not hard because you are doing it wrong. It's hard because it's too much. Do the best you can. When you have to pick, because at some point you will, choose connection.”

The kids are probably going to watch too much television. It’s probably going to take me longer to do my job than it usually would. Taking care of these kiddos means grownups have to take care of themselves, too. When you feel yourself drowning, try to put work aside and start a puzzle with the kids, or watch a movie as a family. Do whatever you can to keep your head above water.

This is my family’s experience to create normalcy in the middle of a pandemic. I’m excited about the structure PBIS can bring. The routine breaks the day into manageable increments. The matrix helps me be specific with the kids about what I expect out of them and what they can expect from me. Most of the time, I feel like I’m winging it. I also feel like this family is my team and we’re in it together. If you want to follow along as we try these strategies out, check out my daily journal wherever you find PBISApps on social media. I’ll start every day with a plan, add a dose of reality, and finish with a lesson and a question for you. If these first few weeks are any indication, this road is going to have a lot of s-curves and speed bumps, but eventually we’ll get there.

1. Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, Center for Parent Information & Resources. (March, 2020). Supporting Families with PBIS at Home. University of Oregon. https://www.pbis.org.
2. Barrett, S., Eber, L., McIntosh, K., Perales, K., & Romer, N. (2018). Teaching Social-Emotional Competencies within a PBIS Framework. OSEP Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. https://www.pbis.org.

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Megan Cave


Megan Cave

Megan Cave is a member of the PBISApps Marketing and Communication team. She is the writer behind the user manuals, scripted video tutorials, and news articles for PBISApps. She also writes a monthly article for Teach by Design and contributes to its accompanying Expert Instruction podcast episode. Megan has completed four half marathons – three of which happened unintentionally – and in all likelihood, will run another in the future.

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