Teach By Design
Tier 1
Oct 10, 2023

Anatomy of a Framework Part 3: Creating Schoolwide Expectations

We continue our exploration of the 15 features of PBIS implementation. Today, we're talking about schoolwide expectations. How do you go about selecting the three to five expectations that define your schoolwide values? There's an activity for that!

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A friend of mine and I made the trip to see Beyonce at the Seattle stop of her Renaissance World Tour. To call this experience a concert would be insufficient.

It was immersive art.  

This was a 56-show, sold-out, stadium tour averaging almost 50,000 people a night. Imagine it. An expansive setting, set against background visuals spanning the width of a football field, surrounded by thousands of strangers, and every single one of us is free to be exactly who we are without judgement or fear. I waited 15 years to experience a Beyonce concert and I’m so grateful Renaissance was that moment for me.

I know, we’re here to talk about schoolwide expectations. I promise you there’s a connection.  

Even a space as free as the one I experienced in Seattle came with expected behaviors. In fact, Ms. Carter defined two we were to follow during Virgo season:

  1. Wear silver. She crowned us her “House of Chrome” and as such, we were to arrive wearing our finest disco-ball-chic.
  1. Mute means mute. When we heard the line, “Look around everybody on mute,” we were expected to go silent, remain still, say nothing.

Now, was silver a requirement? No, but you couldn’t catch me without a sequin that night. A sparkly bomber jacket now hangs in my closet next to so many neutrals.

The second expectation to mute? That expectation was non-negotiable. On our drive up, my friend looked me square in the eyes to confirm I understood the assignment and I would act accordingly.

She was serious. I half-expected her to ask me to pull the car over and swear an oath.

The Mute Challenge emerged as an expectation all of us embraced, and ultimately it contributed to the larger sense of community in that shared space. Each city on the tour competed to see if Beyonce would crown their venue the challenge winner. In a way, it connected each venue to the larger tour. PS: Consensus seems to be New Orleans won the challenge. What do you think?

The concert expectations embodied the larger culture Beyonce wanted to establish in that space. She wanted us to express ourselves and our creativity, and she wanted us to be connected. Your schoolwide expectations set the stage for the positive culture you want to create in your building, too.

What are Schoolwide Expectations?

The Center on PBIS says schoolwide expectations represent the social, emotional, and behavioral skills you want to see from everyone in the building. Rather than focusing on what NOT to do, these expectations establish how TO do school in every classroom, cafeteria, and common space. Your schoolwide expectations reflect what you value as a community and set the stage for creating a positive school culture.  

The Tiered Fidelity Inventory (TFI) tells us your expectations can be anything as long as:

  • There are only three to five of them: It’s impossible to define your school’s values with one or two words, but once you name more than five, it’s hard to remember them all.  
  • They come with a list of expected behaviors for each setting: Safety looks different in the gym versus the hallway, so name those behaviors.
  • Those behaviors are positively stated: If I tell you not to run in the hallway, I’ve left the door open for you to skip, sashay, and bear crawl instead. Remember, these expectations set up what you WANT to see, so just say that!  
  • They’re taught to all students in every setting: If you establish the expectations, but you don’t tell anyone about them, have you really established anything? Teaching students what they look like across those school settings sets everyone up to be successful.

To know you’re implementing these practices with fidelity, the TFI also gives us two metrics to evaluate our implementation:

  • 90% of your staff must be able to name 67% of your expectations
  • 70% of your students must be able to name 67% of your expectations

How to go about selecting, defining, and teaching expectations is too much for us to talk about in one article. So, today, we’re focused on that first step: how to select your schoolwide expectations.  

Our friends over at Missouri Schoolwide Positive Behavior Support (MO SW-PBS) have an awesome step-by-step activity to follow.

MO SW-PBIS’s mission is “to assist schools and districts in establishing and maintaining school environments where the social culture and behavioral supports needed to be an effective learning environment are in place for all students.” Their website is full of resources, including an implementation guide to help schools get their Tier 1 systems, data, and practices up and running.1 Chapter 3 is called “Clarifying Expected Behavior” and it’s got just what you need to start identifying and defining your schoolwide expectations.

Creating Schoolwide Expectations

As a lover of language, the idea of selecting three to five words to describe your core values is both exciting and daunting. The expectations you select become buckets for the behaviors you hope to see from everyone — students, teachers, everyone — in your community. Whether your school has no expectations selected or it has them, but they could use a review for relevancy, this is the exercise for you.

Step 1: Identify Your Personal Values

To know what you value as a community, start with what you value personally. What are the principles that influence the way you behave or the decisions you make? Google “life values inventory” and you’ll find the internet is full of surveys and assessments to help you identify the fundamental personal rules you follow. The implementation guide makes it really simple. Turn to page 80 in the guide and you'll find a list of more than 100 values. At your next staff meeting, pass out the list of words and ask everyone to circle the 10 that resonate the most. If they can’t narrow it down to 10, that’s fine. If there’s a word you’re looking for and it isn’t on the list, add it. There are no right an wrong answers, only the answers the reflect you.

Step 2: Identify Successful Student Behaviors

Once you’ve identified what’s important to you, shake off that lens and take another look at the list. This time read the words and place a check mark next to the 10 or so behaviors and values you think are essential for student success. They might be some of the same qualities you value personally; they might be different. Again, if there’s a word missing add it and put a checkmark next to it.

Optional Step 3: Review Your Lists

This step isn’t called out in the guide, but I think it’ll help make the next step a little more efficient. Take a step back and review the words you selected. What do you notice about your personal values? How do you think those words informed the words you selected for successful student behaviors? Did the two lists overlap on any words? This is a reflective step to get some understanding of where you are in this process so far.

Step 4a: Turn and Share

Let the collaboration begin! So far, the activity has been all about you and the qualities or behaviors you find valuable. Schoolwide expectations aren’t just about you; they’re about us. Find another person in the room and share your lists. Tell them about your reflection, what you noticed, what you wonder. Compare your lists with theirs. Did the two of you select the same words on either list? Similar words? The goal here is to find common ground so we can begin the process of narrowing down our lists to five or less.

Step 4b: Select and Rank Your Top 5

Select your top five qualities that finish the sentence “If all our students are to be successful in school and in life, they need to know how to be…”

I know! This is tough. Some ideas to help you consolidate your lists are:

  • Are there any words that mean something similar?
  • Could one word serve as an umbrella term for others on your list?
  • Knowing what you know about your schoolwide community, are there words you hear your students use regularly? Are there words you know they’d cringe at if they heard them?
  • Do some of the words mean something different in specific contexts?

When you’ve got your list of five, rank them in order of importance. In true top five fashion, let’s say number one is the most important and number five is the least.

Step 5: Match Referral Behaviors to Your Top 5 List

Use SWIS to generate a Referrals by Problem Behavior graph and either project it in the meeting or print it out to pass around the room. Circle the top five behaviors on that graph and write them down. Now, check out your top five qualities from the last step and ask yourself: If you were to teach this value to your schoolwide community, would you see fewer instances of any of these behaviors? If the answer is yes, you’re on the right track! If the answer is no, is there a different value word you could choose that would? When you’re finished, turn in your list.

Step 6: Conduct a Weighted Vote and Discuss

It’s time to do some math. Review everyone’s list and score their top five values. The values in the top spot get five points, second spot get four points, third spot three points and so on. The five words with the most points emerge as the top values from the activity. Some example results from the implementation guide look like this:

Talk over these results as a PBIS team or even put together an ad hoc team of people who are invested in the work of identifying three to five schoolwide expectations for your school. If your school has an established set of expectations, how do these five words match up with them? If you're working to establish brand new expectations, are there some words that go together? Could you use one term as an umbrella to hold more values? This collaborative effort is where you'll spend a lot of time, but it's worth it.

Out of the 15 foundational features of PBIS, two relate to your schoolwide expectations: defining behavioral expectations and teaching them. The expectations you define for your school establish the foundation for the kind of school you want to be. They make it clear what you value and what you expect to see from everyone in your building. Chapter 3 of the MO SW-PBS Tier 1 Implementation Guide walks you through the work of clarifying expected behaviors for your school. Beyond defining expectations, there are 20 more pages to take you through defining those expectations across all settings, engaging families in this work, and establishing the rules and procedures for classroom and non-classroom settings. Incorporating lots of voices and perspectives in the work to select your schoolwide expectations ensures they reflect the cultures, experiences, and values of everyone in your building, and sets the foundation to create the positive, welcoming space you know is possible.

1. Missouri Schoolwide Positive Behavior Support. (2020). Tier 1 Implementation Guide.  

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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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