Applying a Positive Behavior Support System & Emotional ZPD to Our Work

Positive Behavior Support System. Emotional ZPD.

This all sounds a little stuffy, doesn’t it? Much like a stilted research study that is difficult—and too boring—to read. So, let me start by sharing a personal experience to connect the research to the relevancy of this topic and question—for us as educators, consultants, or both. Bear with me as I take you back twenty-five years ago to when I first served as a principal at an alternative school . . .

Frustrated, I hid my emotions, shook my head, and fought hard not to slam the phone down after the district superintendent denied me the opportunity to deviate from district policy to take a more appropriate action. Handing the suspension papers over to the already-agitated mother, I apologized. 

Anger was an understatement to her reaction! Wagging her finger (and yes, it was that finger), she waved forms in my face and shouted, “You gotta love ‘em before you can learn ‘em, honey! And you ain’t never gonna learn ‘em with how you’re doing business here!” With a few expletives, she stormed out of my office with her daughter and slammed the door. Hard! As I rose to follow, my wise administrative assistant put her hand on my shoulder and shook her head as she said, “Remember where she’s coming from.”

I knew where that mama was coming from, all right, and it wasn’t a place I wanted to be! Yet her words held truth, and while her grammar may have been incorrect, her message was spot on! Tied to district directives, I’d adhered to a policy requiring me to suspend her young, pregnant teen for attendance issues. The consequence made no sense to either of us!

Couldn’t I instead have provided an appropriate intervention that would serve her best? And for that matter, why not take that same disciplinary approach to all students, rather than the “one-size-fits-all” to which most schools subscribed? Instinctively, I considered the emotional factors. Borrowing from Vygotsky’s notion to meet students academically at their Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), I wondered why most schools don’t factor in a student’s “EZPD,” or Emotional Zone of Proximal Development, before assigning a consequence?

That incident was long ago, but those questions remain today. And, though several research studies and processes have since conveyed the necessity and methods to address the emotional status of students as a part of self and classroom management, it would be wise for us to revisit some of those recommendations. Especially as we consider our clientele, their work with students, and what that might mean for us as consultants.

Howard M. Knoff, PhD, creator and director of Project ACHIEVE, a nationally known school effectiveness and improvement program, refers us to decades of studies that reveal that “students’ social, emotional, and behavioral competency and self-management is essential to their academic and interpersonal success in school…” (Cawalti, 1995; Wang, Haertel, & Walberg, 1993/1994; Ysseldyke & Christenson, 1993). In his book, School Discipline, Classroom Management, & Student Self-Management: A PBS Implementation Guide, Knoff reminds us that “how students feel about themselves, behave, and get along with others strongly predicts their interactions and even, their achievement in school.”

Though I won’t go into depth about the scientific principles, seven goals, or six components of the Positive Behavior Support System (PBSS) process, I do want to stress how PBSS uses a differentiated, multi-faceted approach.  It considers the problem with the student. It determines why the problem is occurring. It determines possibilities to best respond to the problem. It considers whether or not the chosen response is working.

Knoff notes that while continuing to hold students accountable, PBSS emphasizes the necessity and importance of “communication and differentially responding to the intensity or severity of the (student’s) behavior.” This is where EZPD comes in. How, you might ask?

Both PBSS and (my notion of) EZPD are meant to meet students where they are emotionally. Both consider the students’ inappropriate behaviors, and both offer options to differentiate the disciplinary interventions accordingly. Most importantly, both share the same goal . . . to “positively change students’ future behavior” rather than to simply “punish or deliver consequences to the offenders.”

Had I been able to consider that when addressing students at the alternative school, I might have been more effective. My students might have been more successful. And their parents might have been more supportive. But that was then and this is now. Too late to assuage my guilt over past disciplinary dealings with students.

So, what can we do with all this learnin’ now? How can we apply this information to our work as a consultant?

In his book, Knoff shared that when learners “feel pressured, bullied, or unsafe, they focus more on these emotional conditions than on academic instruction and learning. If unsure, they lack self-confidence, or become self-conscious, believing they may not succeed.” So, this is where the EZPD part (that relates to the PBSS principles) comes into play for us as consultants.

If we are attentive to our participants’ words, behavior, and body language, we can readily pick up on their emotional state of mind and attempt to address their needs according to their EZPD in the following ways:

  • Be alert to participants’ moods, comfort level, knowledge, interests, and interaction with each other as these factors influence their emotional state of being
  • Be mindful of undue pressure placed upon them when providing them with complex tasks or information
  • Break the more difficult concepts into simpler, doable parts (being careful not to insult the participants’ expertise or compromise the integrity of the learning process by spoon-feeding)
  • Model learning and behavioral expectations, providing gradual release of responsibility
  • Through constant monitoring and informal formative assessments, provide individual or small-group support as needed
  • Allow for safe participation through a collaborative structure, behavioral norms, and call-backs and learning activities that are engaging and relevant
  • Be aware of time constraints and make adjustments when participants are attempting or struggling with tasks
  • Carefully and respectfully choose your words when responding to any incorrect or rude answers/comments in a way to honor what participants bring to the table, ensure they get the correct information, and avoid damaging participants’ self-esteem
  • Be sure to know your stuff–but don’t be a know-it-all
  • Remain open and approachable despite participants’ behavior toward you
  • Encourage, invite, and acknowledge with value, their participation and investment in the learning process
  • Acknowledge not all want to be there, but keep delivering your best and inviting them to be a part of it

As Knoff said, we must “differentially respond” to participants’ behavior. Meet each (as much as possible) at his/her EZPD. When facing a variety of emotionally-needy participant—from the good, the bad, to the ugly (in behavior only)—refer to PBSS’s, multi-faceted approach: Consider the participant, oops! I mean problem. Determine why the problem is occurring. Decide which possibility might best address it. Assess whether the chosen response is working.

Finally, remember the ultimate goal of PBSS and the purpose of addressing EZPD: to positively change participants’ future behavior and provide them with necessary social and problem-solving skills. If all else fails, smile and adhere to what that one angry, but wise mama said to me so many years ago: “You gotta love ‘em before you can learn ‘em.” And that we must do!



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