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Sep 11, 2018

Your Foolproof Plan to Create Staff Buy-In That Sticks

Sometimes telling someone what to do works. Most of the time, mandates from above do little to inspire actual change. Getting support from staff members is critical if you plan to sustain any program in your school over the long-haul.

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Editor's Note: Often when we talk about positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS), we focus on student behavior — what it looks like, how we can improve it, reward it, discipline it, and report it. What about our role? This is the second in our series taking a closer look at the roles adults play in implementation. Check out the first article exploring implementation fidelity, here.

My family has a shoe problem. I don’t mean we have too many shoes. We don’t even own an average number of shoes. [According to this article, the average person owns 19 pairs of shoes – 12 for men, 27 for women.] My family has a shoe organization problem. At the end of almost every day, I pick up two pair from our living room, find a pair in our kids’ room, and trip over my husband’s size 13s on the way to grabbing my flip flops from the hallway. It’s ridiculous.

One day, when my mom was visiting, she had the brilliant idea to introduce some organization to our lives in the form of a shoe rack complete with bins for other things that don’t have a home. She put it together and set it in our entryway right next to the door. I came home from work and she showed me her addition. It looked great. Every shoe had a place and every place had a shoe.

Here is the current state of our entryway as of two days ago:


How is it possible such a simple solution can fail to catch on in our house? Easy, we just don’t care about the shoe pile as much as my mother does. Sometimes telling someone what to do works. Most of the time, mandates from above do little to inspire actual change. In fact, mandates are a recipe for a passive form of resistance – Sure, I’ll support you, but I won’t help you.

Getting support from staff members is critical if you plan to sustain any program in your school over the long-haul. You aren't looking for 100% of the people you talk to on board with your idea; 80% would suffice. You're going to need more than their support; you need them to be as invested as you are. They need to care about the shoe pile. You don’t have to take my word for it. Research has something to say on the matter, too.  

A group of researchers asked schools implementing Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) which things contribute the most to their implementation’s success and which things cause it to fail.[1] After surveying 860 schools, 13 themes emerged and one landed at the top of both lists. For these schools, staff buy-in was the number one factor making all the difference to sustaining their implementation. They also named buy-in as the top thing that makes everything fall apart when it was missing. Most of these schools were fairly early on in their implementation. Even veteran implementers rank it second only to administrative support as the key enabler to sustaining their PBIS implementation.[2]

If getting staff to buy in to an idea is so critical, how do you do it? There’s got to be a trick for buy-in, right? Brothers Chip and Dan Heath have some ideas.

Chip Heath and his brother, Dan, both spend quite a bit of time thinking about other people’s ideas. While they each have different day jobs – Chip is a professor at Harvard and Dan is a researcher turned consultant – they wound up pursuing an answer to the same question: Why do some ideas succeed while others fail? Naturally, they did what most professors and researchers do: they wrote a book about it. It’s calledMade to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.[3] They argue sticky ideas are “understood and remembered, and have a lasting impact – they change your audience’s opinions or behavior.” In other words, present your initiative in a sticky way and it will last in everyone’s minds long after your two-day in-service.

Want to know Chip and Dan’s secret to creating a sticky idea?: SUCCES. [It’s an acronym. Yes they know it’s misspelled. No they couldn’t find another concept to add the last S to the acronym. They apologize.] When you’re ready to present your next idea, program, initiative, or other thing to staff members, make sure your presentation checks off these boxes:

Keep It Simple

GIF of a boy repeatedly asking the question, "Why?"

The number of ideas coming your way every day adds up to a lot of noise. You have staff meetings, Facebook newsfeeds, soccer practice, dinner reservations, lesson plans, those annoying ads in the middle of a YouTube video, parent-teacher conferences. If you want your idea to stick in someone’s mind, it’s got to be simple. Figure out the core of your idea. What is the critical component vs the components that are simply beneficial? Why does it matter? What is the point? This might be hard. You can’t have three important things; it’s got to be one. When everyone leaves the staff meeting, eventually they’ll be somewhere and need to remember what you told them. The simple idea is their touchstone. Determining the core of your idea boils down to this:

If your day falls apart and nothing goes as planned, you would consider it a win if at least you remembered to do this thing.

I can’t tell you the ‘why’ for your initiative, but I know you have one. There’s a reason you’re doing it. If you aren’t sure what your core reason is, try asking yourself why…five times. The 5 Why’s goes like this:

Take your initial statement – let’s say we’re going into staff training on PBIS. Our initial statement is: We’re implementing PBIS. Now, ask why.

  1. Why?: The district mandates it.
  2. Why?: Our school refers students more frequently than other schools our same size.
  3. Why should we refer fewer students?: If students spend less time in the office, they spend more time in class.
  4. Why is it important for students to be in class?: We need students in class so they can learn from us.
  5. Why do you want them to learn?: Because we care about our students’ futures.

There’s our core idea. If everything were to fall apart today, how did we show our students we cared about their future? Everything you share in your presentation needs to tie back to this fundamental truth.

Show Them Something Unexpected

GIF of James Franco standing up with an incredulous, bordering on disgusted, look on his face.

Make your audience pay attention.

Your training needs to do more than get people’s attention, it needs to hold it. You need enough time to tell staff what they need to know. Grab their attention with something surprising before they tune you out. Here’s how it works.

What’s an assumption staff members have going into your training they would be surprised to learn is wrong? Let’s say you want your school to focus on improving student behavior. Some staff may carry an assumption that behavior isn’t a problem that needs solving in your building. Sure, some students are familiar faces around the office, but all-in-all things are pretty average. An unexpected way to get their attention is to share your school’s data compared with the national average.

That black line is the average number of referrals other schools like ours send to the office every day. How might sharing these data change those initial assumptions? Force the skeptics in your group to reevaluate their assumptions and engage in the conversation. You’ll know when your unexpected idea connects when you see someone raise a surprised eyebrow, lean in, and ask a follow-up question.

Solidify It with Concrete Examples

GIF of a woman waving her hands saying "I don't get it! I'm sorry, I just - I don't get it!"

Make them understand and remember your message

You can’t just throw a graph up on the screen and call it a day. You have to help people understand what they’re looking at. This is where the concrete component of the checklist comes in. If you end the conversation with “We referred an average of six referrals per day per month,” you leave the idea hanging out there in a fuzzy, cloud-like place. Give them something to relate to. Make it tangible.

The Technical Assistance Center on PBIS provides a way to calculate the amount of time students and administrators lose to office discipline referrals during the year. Enter the total number of referrals you had last year along with the amount of time students typically spend away from class when they’re referred, and the amount of time administrators spend processing each referral. The spreadsheet automatically calculates the number of minutes, hours, and days lost due to referrals. A concrete message to share from the example is:

Every referral we write represents a period of time where each student is out of class, not participating in a lesson. Last year, our students lost 53 days of instructional time. That’s about a third of our school year spent in the office dealing with behavior.

Deliver Your Message from a Credible Source

GIF of Oprah slowly turning her head to look into the camera as she shrugs her shoulders and nods.

Help them believe.

If I told you I read somewhere there is a strawberry recall affecting strawberries sold in your state, would you believe me? Maybe. What if I worked for the Food and Drug Administration? You’d probably go back to the fridge and throw away the berries you bought last weekend.

There are lots of reasons we believe some people over others. Maybe you believe someone because they have experience. Maybe you believe them because they’re your mom. Maybe you hear an incredible story with so many specific details it has to be real. Whatever your idea is, it needs a heaping dose of credibility if you’re going to convince your skeptics. If you’re presenting about implementing behavior supports, call in a coach to offer their authority on the matter. Ask your school’s administrator to tell the group the program has a line item in the budget. Our graph, generated from our SWIS account, is a credible source. Getting people to believe your message is important, but…

Create an Emotional Investment

GIF of a man aggressively saying, "I'm in!"

Make them care.

For an idea to really stick, you have to make people care. I believe eating cookies every day isn’t great. I need you to make me care enough to overcome my daily – daily – 3:00pm cookie urge. How do you do that? Hit me in the heartstrings.

Does the term ‘PBIS’ cause a physical reaction for some people in your building? It can sometimes; I’ve seen it happen. People get fixated on rewards and how it probably means they can never refer students again. You’ve shown them that student behavior is a problem; your next step is to make them believe that solving the problem will be so beneficial to them that they’ll want to work with you to fix it.

If in the millisecond you say the word ‘PBIS’ you see 19 sets of eyes roll into the back of their heads and an equal count of arms fold, stop talking about PBIS. Tap into who staff believe they are as teachers and what they care about. Start talking about what respecting the school community would look like in the building. How would their classrooms feel? What would they say to students? What would students say to them?

Tell a Good Story

GIF of Jerry McGuire saying the classic line, "Help me, Help You."

Give them a way to act upon it

Storytelling is something people have done since we developed the ability to communicate with each other. We tell stories as a way to connect emotionally, as a way to share some part of our experience. Use that to your advantage when you talk to staff about your strategies.

The story you include can’t be any old story; it needs to invite your staff to imagine they are part of the moment rather than a passive listener. Make your idea come to life. If you have experience implementing PBIS, you have some stories to tell. Often, veteran teachers vividly recall the way the building felt before you started implementing some practice. Ask them to speak up and share their experiences. If no one in your building has implemented PBIS before, ask a teacher from a neighboring school, someone who knows the benefits, to share their story about how their classroom changed for the better. The point is to bring the idea out of the clouds into the real world of possibility, and give people a way to act on that possibility.

SUCCES in Action

Here's how the sticky idea checklist can work in the real world.

I sat down with three researchers running a project called Freshmen Success. I asked them about their experience getting staff buy-in to their program. [You guys, ‘success’ is literally in the name of their project!] At the beginning of their training, they conduct an exercise called ‘Fact or Fiction’. It checks off every box in the sticky idea checklist. It goes a little something like this.

Choose whether you think each statement is fact or fiction:

Each fact unexpectedly plays on assumptions you have about incoming freshmen and makes you consider how you’ve invested in freshmen before. These are cited, credible facts. Anyone can relate to the way they’re written, which makes them concrete. Taken individually, the facts are surprising. Taken together, they create an emotional response. By the end of the exercise, you want to know what you can do to break the cycle for incoming freshmen at your school. Enter Robin Erickson. She’s a language arts teacher coordinating the Freshmen Success curriculum at Thurston High School.

Robin’s experience with the Freshmen Success program and the story she tells about her conversation with the counselor is a story we immediately understand. We know what those end-of-the-year, transitional conversations are like. Her excitement makes us feel excited. By the end of this introduction, we care about freshmen and want to learn more about the program.

...And that's ultimately the point.

You need staff to care about the initiative you train them to implement. Their buy-in is a critical step to your long-term success. As you put together your training or your presentation, ask yourself these six questions:

  1. Is my core idea presented in simple terms?
  2. Have I shown my audience something unexpected about an assumption they hold?
  3. Did I use too much jargon, or does the idea resonate with concrete imagery?
  4. Are my examples credible?
  5. Where did I get my audience emotionally engaged?
  6. Does the story I tell resonate with my audience's shared experience?

When people buy in to what you have to offer, they're more likely to help you implement those strategies the way you designed them. The closer you get to hitting your implementation benchmarks, the higher the likelihood your strategies will have a positive impact on the students you teach every day. Don't settle for getting people to see the problem; give them a reason to care about solving it.

1. Pinkelman, S., Mcintosh, K., Rasplica, C., Berg, T. and Strickland-Cohen, M. (2015). Perceived Enablers and Barriers Related to Sustainability of School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. Behavioral Disorders, 40(3), pp.171-183.
2. McIntosh, K., Predy, L., Upreti, G., Hume, A., Turri, M. and Mathews, S. (2013). Perceptions of Contextual Features Related to Implementation and Sustainability of School-Wide Positive Behavior Support. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 16(1), pp.31-43.
3. Heath, C., Heath, D. (2007). Made to Stick. New York: NY: Random House.
4. The research reported here was supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant #R305A150010 to University of Oregon. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education.

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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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