Positive Behavior Supports

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When student behavior interferes with their own learning or the learning of others, teachers need to take a proactive stance to design classroom instruction so that everyone can learn safely and productively. Rather than leaping to the conclusion that a particular child should be excluded from the classroom–or doesn’t belong because of her behavior–taking on a positive behavior approach means that we must question our own assumptions about “appropriate” behaviors, try to understand the student’s behavior, and make changes to ourselves, our classroom environments, our lessons, and the student’s expectations that will support her in any classroom.

Positive behavioral support (PBS) is often misunderstood to be a school-wide code of conduct in which behaviors are rewarded and consequenced extrinsically. While there is arguable value in many school-wide plans, they often do not address the individualized needs of students and they do not require educators to do the inquiry work and self-reflection of true PBS. Many school expectations are often subjective notions of “appropriate” behavior that are ambiguous and easily interpreted in various ways from various cultural backgrounds and contexts. PBS, on the other hand, begins by truly pinpointing what need or emotion the behavior is trying to communicate, considering other ways to communicate or manage that need, and then building a student’s ability to replace the problem behavior with one that is more effective in achieving his or her desired goal while also being less problematic for the classroom or teacher. Teachers then develop interventions, structures, systems and/or routines to make problem behaviors less effective, efficient, and relevant, and desired behavior more functional.

PBS was developed initially as an alternative to aversive interventions used with students with significant disabilities. Students were aided in finding alternative, non-harmful, ways to communicate their needs. As an inclusive practice, PBS asks us to respect that students have different needs and communicate their needs in different ways and therefore not all students will behave in the same way.  When teachers only allow for behaviors we deem “normal” we often end up excluding students from academic instruction. What inclusive education asks us to do is to expect a great range of human differences and prepare to work with the people who bring their problems and sometimes problematic behaviors with them into our classrooms. Positive behavioral support is an instructional curricular approach that assumes and respects human differences and can help prevent the exclusion of students with behavioral differences from the classroom.

Getting started with positive behavioral supports:

  • Pick one singular behavior to focus on.  Consider if this behavior is more something that bothers you or if it is really something that impedes the learning of the student or other students in your classroom.
  • Observe the student, multiple times, looking for the behavior and what seems to trigger it and what the student may be trying to communicate with this behavior (e.g. frustration, anger, sadness).
  • Work with the student to understand what you think he or she may be communicating through the behavior and if you understand what he or she is feeling in those moments.
  • Work with the student to develop replacement behaviors, other things that he or she can do in those moments, to communicate the same thing or take some time to deal with emotion before trying to move on.