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Positive Behavioral Support
Research Connections
Winter 1999

Helping Students with Challenging Behaviors Succeed


"Positive behavioral support has changed the way I view my son for the better— opens up possibilities for him to have a better life." 
Denise Poston,
parent of a child with autism who has challenging behavior


PBS Preservice Materials

Based on the synthesis, preservice training modules are being developed by the OSEP-funded Academy project at the University of Kansas. The courses will be delivered online and will be available to qualifying teacher education institutions (see their web site at: www.online academy.org).


Fighting, biting, hitting, scratching, kicking, screaming— well as extreme withdrawal— behaviors that challenge even the best educators and families. For years, researchers and practitioners alike have asked the question: Why does a particular child act that way?

Positive behavioral support (PBS) offers one approach for understanding why the challenging behavior occurs— function or its purpose for the individual. In addition to helping practitioners and families understand the individual with the challenging behavior, PBS also helps them understand the physical and social contexts of the behavior.

Unlike traditional behavioral management, which views the individual as the sole problem and seeks to "fix" him or her by quickly eliminating the challenging behavior, PBS views such things as settings and lack of skill as parts of the "problem" and works to change those. As such, PBS is characterized as a long-term approach to reducing the inappropriate behavior, teaching amore appropriate behavior, and providing the contextual supports necessary for successful outcomes.

"Positive behavioral interventions and support assist students in learning positive responses that result in more responsible behavior and academic success," Larry Sullivan, Assistant Executive Director for the National Association of School Psychologists points out. "These proactive strategies are now required as part of federal law."

Although the majority of violent acts in schools are not committed by students with IEPs, discipline and violence were addressed by the 1997 Reauthorization of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The focus on how students with disabilities are to be disciplined was shifted [SEC. 614 (d)(3)(B)]. IDEA requires the IEP team to consider using PBS to address behavior that impedes the child's learning and/or the learning of others.

In addition, IDEA now requires that a functional behavioral assessment be conducted for a student with an IEP either before or not later than 10 days after a disciplinary action is taken [SEC. 615.(k)(1)(B)(i)]. A functional behavioral assessment ensures that the student's behavioral intervention plan is designed to meet that child's unique needs. 

Research— of it supported by the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education— shown that PBS is effective in assisting students with challenging behaviors. In fact, research also has shown that when PBS strategies are implemented schoolwide, children with and without disabilities benefit. They learn more about their own behaviors, learn to work together, and support each other as a community of learners.

A Synthesis of Research

With OSEP funding, researcher Edward Carr at State University of New York at Stony Brook and his colleagues conducted a synthesis of research on PBS. The research studies (more than100 research articles between 1985 and 1996 published in peer-reviewed journals) involved individuals with mental retardation, autism, and/or pervasive developmental disorders. Challenging behaviors included self-injury, aggression, property destruction, and tantrums. Results show that:

  • PBS is widely successful with individuals with serious challenging behaviors.
  • Research in PBS is growing, particularly in our knowledge of how to use the results of assessments and how to correct environmental deficiencies.

  • PBS is effective in reducing problem behavior by 80% in two-thirds of the cases.

  • Success rates are higher when intervention is based on functional assessment.

According to Ann Turnbull, researcher at the University of Kansas who assisted Carr on the synthesis, the study showed a need for research on outcome measures beyond the reduction of challenging behaviors. "Only 2.6% of the studies addressed the outcomes that matter most to consumers— lifestyle enhancements such as greater independence, productivity, and inclusion," Turnbull laments. "When behavior changes, it should have a positive effect on other outcomes, such as having enjoyable lives— friends, hanging out in community settings, and being included at school and in jobs." The importance of studying the effects of behavior change was confirmed in a series of focus groups with families and consumers that Turnbull led as part of an OSEP-funded project.
Turnbull recommends the following research-based actions to support positive behaviors in individuals with significant disabilities:

  • Respond to individual needs. Services and programs should be responsive to the preferences, strengths, and needs of individuals with challenging behavior. In addition, students may benefit from instruction in self-determination skills, social skills, goal-setting, and independent learning skills.

  • Alter environments. If something in the individual's environment influences the challenging behavior, it is important to organize the environment for success. For example, clearly defined work spaces and quiet work areas may assist a child who is noise-sensitive.

  • Teach new skills to the individual with challenging behavior and members of his or her social network. Individuals need to be taught alternative, appropriate responses that serve the same purpose as the challenging behavior.

  • Appreciate positive behaviors. It is important to reinforce and acknowledge all positive behaviors consistently.

Next: Positive Behavioral Support in Action



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