How to Manage PBIS Remotely in a Distance Learning Environment


We are in a position with modern technology to be able to remain connected and have students learning during this global pandemic. Most teachers and students are trying to navigate these new waters of distance learning since this historically has been a type of course offered mostly for secondary and post-secondary learning. Now, teachers of elementary, middle, and high school students are learning how to use and run distance learning classrooms effectively with little to no preparation time or training.

The platform chosen for distance learning will impact how the teacher will use Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and the types of incentives that will have the most positive impact on students’ learning experience. With new learning experiences can come challenges and frustrations. PBIS incentives and rewards can help create a sense of community and normalcy in this new way of learning for most educators and students. Utilization of PBIS incentives and rewards can also help to ensure the class is effective and that students are growing academically.

Plan for Different Personality Types

Before teaching online, it is important to think about each student’s personality and the ways in which digital learning may be easy or challenging for them. Students might struggle with being nervous and shy and not participate in the lesson. Conversely, students may be too excited about this new platform or seeing their friends on screen and use too much airtime, not allowing the teacher or other students to have their turn in the discussion. 

It is important to understand each student’s personality type to plan how the lesson will be structured. For more shy students, try utilizing the chatbox for all students to type their answers first. This will give students who need more time to think (or are more shy) the opportunity to read others’ thoughts before speaking to the whole group. This will also give those students who are more reticent to participate the opportunity to read and understand other students’ thoughts similar to how partner talks in the classroom help them before sharing with the whole group.

For your more outgoing students, try allotting the first few minutes at the beginning of each lesson for everyone to talk and socialize. Students can show something from their homes or maybe sing and dance to a song. This will help get their initial excitement out and allow them to say hello to their peers. On many platforms like Zoom, teachers can then choose to mute the entire class when the lesson begins so they can only hear the teacher or the 1 student the teacher unmutes individually to speak. There are also functions like high five, raise hand or thumbs up that students can use to agree with a point or notify the teacher that they have something they want to share. The teacher then can choose to unmute or continue on with the lesson. Teachers can also establish nonverbal signals that students can use to show their answer choice like fingers or a sign that they want to share.

Minimize Distractions

There are many potential barriers that can derail a distance learning lesson. Background noise can affect the student’s ability to hear and focus as well as provide extra noise for all other participants. Digital learning also potentially creates a space for students to become off task if they log into different websites on different tabs at the same time as the classroom. Students can become distracted by objects around them and their environment like toys, cell phones, and family members. 

One way to minimize distractions proactively is to ask all students at the beginning of the lesson to take 30 seconds to close out all extra browser tabs or programs on their ipads or computers, move into a quiet space in their house, get headphones if needed, and put their phones or toys away. This helps set the expectations beforehand to where not so much redirection and correcting needs to happen during the lesson.

Establish Expectations for Distance Learning Environments

Once educators have thought through how to meet each personality type and minimize distractions, it is important for the teacher to establish expectations for behavior and participation in virtual classrooms. Students should be listening, engaging in the conversation or chatbox, answering questions, and demonstrating respect for their peers and their learning.

Teachers should review the expectations frequently and even reread them at the beginning of each lesson. Teachers should state reminders in a positive way, such as, “We are tracking the screen. We are only circling the one answer. We are adding a new thought or idea in the chatbox.” Teachers should narrate the students who are following the expectations set and recognize their effort while at the same time reminding those who are not. 

It is more challenging to monitor behavior in distance learning environments, but teachers can consistently set, reset and adjust expectations for students to remind them and to adjust to their needs if there are expectations that are not effective with the group. Teachers can also recognize that students are doing the cognitive work of the lesson to deepen their understanding of the content being taught. Teachers can do this by saying statements like:

  • “_____ provided text evidence in his answer.”
  • “_____ shared two different strategies in how she solved the equation.”
  • “_____ shared his answer in a complete sentence.”
  • “_____ built upon ____’s answer to give more detail.”

Determine the Type of Incentives 

The incentives you choose depend upon the students’ ages, interests, and number of students present within a classroom. It is simple to use incentives to connect with your students, award points, and allow them to earn their rewards virtually. 

Elementary teachers with larger groups of students in their distance learning classroom should use fun, engaging rewards and tactics to keep students engaged and on task during their classroom. Teachers can use physical rewards, interactive rewards, and encouragement with students. 

Examples of Distance Learning Classroom PBIS Rewards:

  • Award with Kickboard points on the mobile app while you teach virtually on the computer (students will see these in their Kickboard portal!)
  • Use a roster and place stickers next to each child’s name 
  • Use a whiteboard to track points for whole class, or individual points with tally marks, smiley faces, or magnetic incentives 
  • Choose the virtual classroom field trip
  • Earn points for a dance party or song to close out the classroom
  • Show classroom their pet 
  • Show and Tell 
  • Choose nickname for the day
  • Virtual lunch with the teacher or principal 
  • Build a lego tower for each point
  • Student chooses book to read 
  • Student with the most points can choose the teacher’s hairstyle or outfit for the next class

Using PBIS will help virtual classrooms be more productive and successful and help teachers create a sense of community and normalcy in this new learning environment for most students.