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Level up PBIS: An interview with Classcraft CEO Shawn Young

Corrinna PoleFebruary 5, 2021

2020 has impacted education systems around the world. While it came with a mountain of challenges, it also carved out opportunities to explore new approaches and education innovations that could help educators make learning more equitable and impactful for all students. 

Shawn Young is the CEO and Co-founder of Classcraft, he’s also a former teacher and instructional coach. He sat down with The Great Exchange podcast to talk about supporting positive behavior initiatives by closing gaps exposed by the pandemic. He also shares how the need to better support students led to launching features that the entire school community can use to empower positive behavior schoolwide, and how Classcraft evolved to focus on PBIS and tiered interventions. 

Interview highlights:

You’re starting the new year by capping off a year’s worth of product releases designed to help educators who are trying to improve student behavior through PBIS and other tired intervention initiatives. Tell us about that.

There’s been a lot of stuff happening at Classcraft because of the pandemic, but it has also been a really important year for us. We grew from being a classroom tool to an ecosystem of tools that work together to do more than just classroom management to become a robust, super effective, intervention system for behavior, schoolwide and districtwide. 

We launched a ton of stuff this year related to that. Things like bringing in Tier 1 expectations you can roll out across the whole school, so setting common behavioral norms that give you points in the game for all students, but then adding in tiered interventions, specific behavioral interventions for specific kids that have specific challenges to them. For example, if a student has anger management issues, putting in ways for them to gain points for behaviors that lead to that. Also things like Kudos, which gives students a way to reinforce positive behaviors, not just the staff.

We really zoomed out in terms of the product roadmap and thought about what happens if you apply Classcraft across a whole school or district, and what do we need to make that really effective? 

It was an interesting year to be working on that because of all the changes around virtual schooling. What we saw more than ever, was how important that was. When we were thinking about shifting an entire school system and building to a completely new practice, like virtual learning, common ways of addressing student engagement and behavior are critical to the success of a virtual experience. Having teachers work together and coordinate and reinforce similar skills and behaviors in students was critical this year.

I’m excited that we’ve gotten this far because the impact of using Classcraft schoolwide is undeniable and impressive, more than I even anticipated. We’re seeing metrics like the number of fights going down 75% in schools, 80-90% reduction in referrals, just really impressive outcomes for the kids that needed the most.

Why the focus on behavior and school climate?

Part of the appeal of Classcraft is its ability to get kids motivated by speaking to them in their language, culture, and using the mechanics of gaming to do it. It’s undeniable that this is what a kid’s life looks like right now with the screen time going up so much. 

It made sense to use those mechanics in that culture to motivate kids to be better learners. 

It’s always been at the core of Classcraft’s vision to make school more meaningful, to teach the whole child, to teach them the skills that they need to be successful as good learners through playful mechanics and culture. 

Behavior and school climate have always been a part of the Classcraft mission and its roots. When I started Classcraft in my classroom, it was a classroom management tool. From there it evolved into having all kinds of other features, like engagement features, avatars, and quests. These have all been really important parts in meeting teachers with what they need, and also connecting with kids on what motivates them the most. 

But when you think about rolling Classcraft out to a whole school, the common denominator between a sixth-grade math class and eighth-grade ELA class, for example, is behavior. 

When you think about the impact you can have around motivating kids across a whole organization, focusing really at the organizational level on the behavior piece becomes interesting. It means you can have a really large and important impact in terms of how kids relate to one another and the coursework.

The other piece is that, when you think about helping kids as much as you can, you think about skill development, the four C’s, SEL, these are all frameworks for skills that kids need to develop to be successful. And skill development is tricky. How do you develop empathy in a child? It’s an iceberg. The behavior is the tip, it’s what we see and can act upon, but underneath, there’s all this stuff going on around skill and competency development. 

Behavior is the gateway to being able to teach, in a consistent manner, these really important life skills that the research is unanimous about. It can’t just be about academic knowledge. Focusing on behavior is one way to have maximum impact system-wide across the school, but then also individually for each child.

What have been the unique challenges with student behavior that educators have faced this tumultuous year?

There are two ways to answer that. The first one is the obvious way, which is student engagement. 

It is so apparent when, across the nation, districts are reporting things like 50% of students not showing up to any online activities, that there is a motivation and engagement issue and that underscores all the behavioral challenges that we have. How can you act on behavior? How can you develop skills? Can you teach kids if they’re not showing up? 

Underneath that, more specifically, is thinking about behavior as skill development; what are the skills that we need to develop in kids for them to be successful as learners? In traditional settings, that could be things like being in your seat at the right time, listening to the teacher, and raising your hand before you speak.

What we’ve done this year, has completely changed what those expectations are. What does it mean to be a good student in the context of distance learning? You could ask that to 30 different educators and they would probably have 30 different answers.

It becomes our job to tell them what it is, how we expect [them] to behave to be successful as distance learners.

We’re asking kids to be more autonomous than ever, regardless of their age group, we’re asking them to be more in control of their learning than ever before, to be engaged — what does engagement look like in the virtual setting? We’re asking them to contribute to their learning community. These are all things that we’ve trained kids on throughout their schooling. Think of eighth-graders, for example, we’ve been training them on those things in a brick-and-mortar setting for eight years, and then overnight we’re saying, “Hey, you’re just going to go on Zoom to learn and I’ll see you there.” 

It’s critical for educators to frame what their expectations are in terms of how kids can show up and be good distance learners. The way to do that is to reinforce the behaviors that lead to success. 

So we created a set of standards working with hundreds of schools throughout the spring and identified core skills — being autonomous, engaged, contributing to your learning community — and identified specific behaviors that teachers could reinforce and give points for that would help them be able to develop those skills as learners, while at the same time, having a motivation-first approach to get kids engaged, get them to care about school because, in the distance learning scenario, school was competing with all the different things that are available online from YouTube to video games.

What is PBIS?

PBIS stands for Positive Behavior Intervention Support or systems. It’s a pedagogical approach, with a ton of research behind it, that says that if you want to course correct behavior, you should be focusing on the positive things that kids are doing. So it’s a preventative approach. Instead of punishing negative behavior, you focus the bulk of your energy on reinforcing good behavior. 

That means defining good behaviors, and doing that schoolwide ideally, so that kids are getting high fives for the same things, and having a good system for reinforcing that. So not just a high five, but finding a way to get them really motivated. 

Traditionally schools have done that through PBIS dollars, bucks, or tokens. They have all kinds of different systems, but basically, it’s some form of currency that kids get for displaying behavior like being empathetic that they can then go spend in the school store to buy candy or school supplies, so there’s a reward there. 

The research shows that it works way better than punishing kids for negative behavior. But on the other hand, there’s a lot of problems with that approach. One is that it wears out over time because you’re using extrinsic motivators. 

What we see and hear time and again from the schools that we work with, is that it might work great in fifth grade, but by the time the kids are in eighth grade, they don’t care about it anymore. The effectiveness of extrinsic motivators wears out over time, so you’ll need to give more and more dollars for the same behavior to get the same outcome. 

We need to make it intrinsically motivating, which is what Classcraft is so good at — taking the culture, the mechanics of games to drive intrinsic motivation through a research-backed approach called self-determination theory, which is about developing students’ competency, giving them more control over their behavioral outcomes, and creating social relationships in the context of behavioral intervention.

The other element where a lot of PBIS implementations struggle is around data because it’s a tiered approach. If you’re applying these behavioral norms and rewards to most or all students, sometimes they won’t work as well. With a tiered approach, you should be identifying those students as early as possible and developing a targeted intervention for them, giving them opportunities to course correct. 

Most schools have struggled with being able to identify that in a paper dollar system; how do you know which students have dollars? How do you know what they got them for? Who’s doing good behavior and who isn’t? 

Most of the time, the answer to that is that schools just wait on referrals. They can’t get in front of it early enough to enact change. So having a consistent approach, schoolwide, with a tiered approach that delivers on the data piece is critical to having an effective intervention for good PBIS. So, the motivation, but then the structure and the data and the systems.

What is the specific role that collective feedback plays in promoting positive behavior?

Often we think about behavioral intervention as being synonymous with classroom management, and it’s not. Classroom management is structuring your classroom in a specific way within the classroom. But in that idea, there’s the notion of classroom, and what that means is that we’re localizing classroom management to the physical classroom and creating norms and expectations that exist within the classroom when in fact, a good PBIS implementation, or any effective behavior intervention, is happening across all contexts. So if a student is outside at recess, or in the cafeteria, walking in the hall, they have clear expectations of what they should be doing at that time. If a student acts out it’s not because they don’t know what the expected behaviors are. 

It’s very easy to say kids should know what the behavior is when the reality is that any young person is not going to be successful if we don’t tell them the rules of the game. 

We need to be able to take this idea of behavioral intervention classroom management outside of the classroom and effectively apply it to an entire school system. That’s what collective feedback is. It’s the entirety of the school staff, volunteers, parents, hall monitors, bus drivers, being able to give kids positive feedback for their actions. 

Until we created this feature in Classcraft that was only possible for teachers. This new feature means that anybody in the school can be giving kids Classcraft points. So it brings Classcraft beyond the confines and the shackles of the classroom to be a proper schoolwide initiative, where every single person can say, “Hey, I saw you picking up trash at recess. Here are some points for that,” or “I saw you being calm during lunch break, here are some points for you for that.” 

It’s empowering everybody to have this positive approach to behavior and positive school culture as opposed to keeping that in the classroom, and then having less experienced folks intervening with kids less positively. Now we’re able to take the magic of Classcraft, that motivational first approach, the positive culture that stems from Classcraft, and have it live across all contexts.

We have schools that have used Classcraft in the context of schoolwide applications before this feature. they had bus drivers with teacher accounts, being able to give points, and they saw a reduction of 85% of school bus incidents just by giving points in the school bus, in the context of a larger implementation. 

These are places where, typically, kids are unmonitored, unreinforced around positive behavior. Now we’re able to get to them in a very intentional, positive way through this feature by helping staff give points for predefined behaviors set at the school level. 

Now we’re also helping bus drivers or hall monitors, or parents in afterschool clubs, be able to say, “Here’s what I expect of you, and here’s what the school expects,” for behaviors, and go out and reward that. We’re empowering them to be good at behavior intervention as well in a way that they’re not trained to be. There’s a value in having a collective approach to behavior prevention, which is critical to seeing real long-term lasting change in behavior. 

From a motivational standpoint, when you think about it from a gaming lens, we’ve just taken a small universe and made it into a much bigger universe of ways you can gain points. So all of a sudden this connective tissue is created between the different experiences that are happening in the day-to-day experience of a child.


Listen to more conversations with educators making an impact on student engagement at The Great Exchange podcast. Visit Great-Exchange.com to stream inspiring sessions with leaders across education, tech, and gaming from Classcraft and Google’s student engagement summit. 

Interview edited for clarity.

PBIS