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V.1 #5 Social Development - School-Wide Positive Behavioral Supports

Historically, schools have responded to student misbehavior with reprimands, office referrals, and suspensions. Generally, these strategies have failed. In part, their ineffectiveness was due to the resentment they created, their inconsistent application, and the failure to teach students appropriate behaviors.

To address this ineffectiveness and to create a more positive atmosphere, many schools are implementing school-wide systems to teach and support appropriate student behavior. These systems, known as Positive Behavioral Supports (PBS), are systematically implemented throughout the day, throughout the school—in classrooms, hallways, lunchrooms, and the like—to improve student behavior and enhance relationships. By teaching, modeling and reinforcing appropriate behavior—wherever students are, wherever they’ll go—positive behavior becomes the norm rather than the exception.

A Focus on Four Fundamentals

To promote positive behaviors, PBS asks fundamental questions that focus on four elements: outcomes, practices, data, and systems.

  1. Outcomes: What are the academic and social behaviors that students, families, and school staff want for their students and are willing to endorse?

  2. Practices: What research-supported strategies and interventions can staff implement in the school, class and with individual students?

  3. Data: How will staff collect information to identify, reinforce and evaluate PBS practices?

  4. Systems: How will staff identify and use supports to implement and sustain the PBS system?

Once these questions are answered, these four elements are implemented at three levels.

  1. Primary PBS focuses on school-wide supports.

  2. Secondary PBS focuses on support in the classroom.

  3. Tertiary PBS focuses on support provided to individual students.

Primary or School-Wide PBS

Preventing unwanted behaviors is the goal of Primary or School-wide PBS. Research shows that Primary PBS can be effective for 80 percent of students if the school—as a whole—adopts and uses the validated practices that include:

  1. a positive statement of purpose.

  2. an agreed upon approach for disciplining students.

  3. positively stated expectations of student behaviors.

  4. instructional procedures to teach students expected behaviors.

  5. procedures that encourage the expected behaviors.

  6. procedures that discourage unwanted behaviors.

  7. effective monitoring and evaluation procedures.

Consider this example. Mythical Elementary School develops the primary or school-wide expectation, “Respect school property.” It’s defined as “clean up any mess you make anywhere in school.” Staff members agree on what the expectation looks like, demonstrate and discusses it at an assembly, and reinforce it in individual classes. A school motto about respecting school property is put on signs and placed throughout the school. To emphasize the positive, all staff members, including janitors and secretaries, are taught to “catch” students respecting property and to give them tokens to exchange for rewards.

Secondary or Classroom PBS

Secondary interventions focus on students who do not respond to primary PBS. Generally, staff members have identified these students as at-risk for chronic behavior problems.

Compared to primary interventions, secondary interventions are more intensive and focus on small groups of students. Secondary interventions include Functional Behavioral Assessments (FBA), which try to identify current causes of inappropriate behaviors.

Although secondary interventions target more difficult students, all school personnel maintain involvement. Secondary PBS can help another 15 percent of students by providing greater structure, increased feedback, and environmental and instructional adjustments.

For example, a classroom teacher notes that one of her students is lonely and withdrawn; usually, he eats alone, his eyes tearing, his face mournful. After conducting a FBA, she hypothesizes that he, like several of her students, needs to learn how to initiate conversation. To remedy his loneliness and teach several of her students how to initiate conversation, she schedules an ongoing social skills group that meets for lunch in the cafeteria. Before starting the group, she meets with the school’s speech and language specialist and/or school psychologist for insight on teaching the students how to initiate conversation.

Tertiary or Individual PBS

Tertiary PBS focuses on the 5% of students for whom primary and secondary supports aren’t enough. Characteristically, such students engage in disruptive and dangerous behaviors that result in removal from class, suspensions, expulsions, and placement in special classes for students with behavioral disorders.

To address their behaviors, schools should not guess at the causes. Instead, they should conduct a comprehensive FBA and from this develop an individualized behavioral support plan that mirrors the FBA’s findings.

For such a plan to work, it must be ambitious. It must aim to reduce the problem and increase the student’s adaptive skills and opportunities. Only by developing alternative, socially-acceptable ways of meeting their needs will such students succeed.

Tertiary PBS is best implemented by a collaborative team that systematically observes and evaluates the student, plans his program, and monitors his progress. Here are the basic steps involved in developing a FBA in order to put tertiary PBS practices in place.

  1. Identify the problem behavior and set goals to improve it.

  2. Review records, interview knowledgeable parties, directly observe what provokes the behavior and its consequences (e.g., how teachers respond).

  3. Develop a hypotheses about when, where and with whom the behavior occurs and how the student benefits.

  4. Write a behavioral support plan that changes the environment to encourage socially acceptable behaviors and discourage unacceptable ones, teaches replacement skills to help the student attain his goal in socially acceptable ways, rewards acceptable behaviors, punishes unacceptable ones, and includes a crisis management plan.

  5. Implement the plan with consistency and continually monitor its outcomes.

Some Final Words

The primary and secondary PBS approaches provide a foundation for the tertiary PBS. Together, these three levels make teachers’ jobs more systematic and easier as they are no longer working alone, having to figure out and implement everything themselves. It also makes the likelihood of success much greater. For children with learning disabilities who also have behavioral problems, PBS can be a lifesaver.

But like most things in education, doing requires more knowledge than a brief column can communicate. Thus, interested readers may want to review the reference below.


U.S. Office of Special Education Programs. Ideas that work. National Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. Available at

Micheline Malow, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. In addition to teaching courses in Exceptional Students and Instructional Strategies for Teaching Students with Learning and Behavioral Disorders, she has presented at numerous professional conferences and published articles on friendship, risk taking behavior, and students with disabilities. Currently she is finishing a co-authored book for Greenwood Press, Adolescents and Risk.

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