A few weeks into my new position as the Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support (PBIS) coach for my school team, I enthusiastically explained to a veteran staff member how we were implementing a new framework to address student behavior that would lead to a safer, more positive school climate through teaching and reinforcing all students for appropriate behaviors. I knew it was going to be a fantastic change for the school and was sure she would share my enthusiasm and confidence. But her eyes narrowed and tone sharpened as she said, “Dale, you’re new here so you don’t understand. This will never work. I’ve been here for 10 years and I’m telling you this thing will be gone in 3 months.” Her certainty about the framework’s demise matched mine about its success. How could she be this pessimistic, I wondered? Why was she so resistant to something that would be so beneficial?
What I did not know at the time was her context. Her reaction was a natural response to the ever-changing system in which she found herself. I recently found the following quote which helped put things into perspective: “Resistance is any force that slows or stops movement. It is not a negative force, nor are there ‘resistors’ out there just waiting to ruin our otherwise perfect intervention. People resist in response to something” (Maurer, 2010).
As with any behavior, resistance has a function. It serves a purpose. When dealing with staff who are “resistant” to our efforts, our responsibility as leaders of change is twofold: first determine the underlying cause, then create a plan to meet them where they are currently.
According to Lohrmann, Forman, Martin & Palmieri (2008), the five most common sources of staff resistance in schools are the following:
- Lack of administrative direction and leadership about the proposed change
- Skepticism that the intervention is needed
- Hopelessness about change in general
- Philosophical differences
- Feelings of disenfranchisement
Lohrmann et. al suggest that each of these represents a unique need or function, and therefore requires a specific plan for supporting growth among staff. Here are some thoughts about each.
Lack of administrative direction and leadership occurs when school administrators do not visibly and clearly communicate their support for an intervention by participating in activities or allocating time and resources. Change leaders need to find ways to steadily increase their administrator’s understanding of, and subsequent active involvement in, elements of the change. The key is to maintain frequent, “bite-sized” communication, build trust, and anticipate the administrator’s needs when it comes to their role in setting schoolwide priorities and supporting the positive change effort.
Skepticism that the intervention is needed occurs when staff are either satisfied with the existing practices or are overwhelmed and confused by the various initiatives the school has adopted. In order to meet staff where they currently are, change leaders need to focus on building a case for the effort they are asking of staff. This includes having dialogues–not lectures–about the direct connection between this change and the student outcomes staff care about. It’s critical to encourage staff to voice their opinions and demonstrate listening by acknowledging their concerns. Share objective data with staff to identify real current needs and the related expected benefits of the proposed change.
Hopelessness about change occurs when staff believe the problem is out of their control or believe that, due to the school’s history of failed initiatives, things cannot change. Change leaders need to tell stories with both objective data and personal experience that demonstrate change is possible and, in fact, already occurring. Increased buy-in occurs as staff begin to believe their time and effort is worth investing in the intervention.
Philosophical differences occur when staff hold specific beliefs which are fundamentally at odds with the research base for the proposed change. Change leaders must first work to find a common ground. Again, it is about meeting staff where they are and slowly moving them in the direction of both understanding the value of the intervention as well as feeling comfortable integrating the intervention components into their daily professional efforts.
Feelings of disenfranchisement occur when staff feel disconnected from one another, the administration, and/or the school’s mission. To address this need, change leaders need to focus their efforts on integrating people into the change process. Increased exchange of information, more opportunities for staff involvement and ownership of aspects of the intervention, and regular recognition of the adults’ efforts and participation ensure staff feel they are having an impact in the change effort.
We all have likely experienced the challenge of getting others to “buy-in” to our efforts towards positive change. Rather than personalizing the resistance as I did, we should strive to understand the reason behind it. Once we understand the context, we are better equipped to make a plan for progress in which we meet the staff where they are and patiently, but purposefully, support their growth. As staff experience this ongoing support, we can confidently anticipate greater fidelity in implementation and, most importantly, improved student outcomes (Rolewski, M., 2008).
And in case you’re wondering, two years after our initial conversation that staff member approached me again. “Dale, I was wrong. Things are so different in the school now! I see a change in the way the kids behave and the way staff act, too. This has been the best thing that ever happened here,” said my colleague, now an active PBIS team member!
Lohrmann, S., Forman, S., Martin, S., & Palmieri, M. (2008). Understanding school personnel’s resistance to adopting schoolwide positive behavior support at a universal level of intervention. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 10(4), 256-269.
Maurer, R. (2010) Beyond the wall of resistance: Why 70% of all changes still fail—and what you can do about it. Austin, TX: Bard Press.
Rolewski, M. (2008). Barriers to implementation. In Best Evidence Encyclopedia (BEE). Retrieved from http://www.bestevidence.org/resources/general/obstacles_brief08sep22.pdf