As debate continues over whether punitive practices like zero tolerance deter bad student behavior, Positive Behavior Supports (PBS) has become increasingly popular. PBS, used in more than 10,000 schools in 40 states, works to change school climate by teaching and rigorously rewarding good behavior. However, it’s not a new approach.
In the 1960s and early ‘70s, PBS advocates applied behavioral analysis to determine why individuals with severe developmental disabilities engaged in head-banging and biting, and then taught and rewarded them for more effective behaviors. Soon, schools began using PBS in special education classrooms.
PBS experts George Sugai and Robert Horner, now co-directors of the Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), then realized that instead of focusing on changing individual behavior, it would be better to adapt the program for schoolwide use.
PBS doesn’t replace existing school programs but organizes and prioritizes best practices. School leadership as well as 80 percent of staff must vote to use it and agree on three to five behavioral expectations for students.
For example, a school may choose the expectations for students to be respectful, responsible, and ready. They work on what each of these behaviors looks like, how to teach it, and how to reward it. Once PBS is established in the school, parents and community institutions such as libraries are encouraged to reward those same behaviors.
The PBIS center helps each school set up a School-Wide Information System (SWIS) to record all infractions, including those that result in discipline referrals and suspensions. SWIS tracks the frequency of behaviors and where and when they occur. The results show patterns and help school teams rethink priorities and deal with problem areas.
Though it may take three to five years for a culture to change, Milton McKenna, who is a statewide coordinator for PBIS in Maryland, said he has seen schools reduce their discipline referrals and suspensions “up to 50 to 70 percent” after two years of PBS.
He said that intensive coaching and support for adults in the schools is necessary. When PBIS began in Maryland in 1999, PBIS leader Sugai insisted on a PBIS state leader and a support structure in each school district. All PBIS schools in Maryland have a leadership team of five to seven members and a coach. Parents and older students are sometimes included on the teams.
Data indicate that 80 percent of students respond to schoolwide PBS, while another 15 percent or so continue to have behavior challenges that require more individual attention. The remaining 5 percent need very intensive supports, including “wraparound” services.
The goal of wraparound, said Lucille Eber, PBIS coordinator in Illinois, is to keep students in their home schools. Like PBS, the interventions focus on a student’s strengths, involve the families, and seek out bad behavior triggers to better understand what the students are avoiding or what they think they are gaining when they misbehave.
For all the so-called “Tier Three,” or most difficult, students in its 1,081 PBS schools, Illinois has developed a sophisticated data warehouse that collects information about each student’s progress at home, school, and in the community. A study of 125 of these students showed significant behavior gains between 2007 and 2009.
For more on Positive Behavior Supports, visit www.pbis.org.
For more on PBS in Philadelphia, visit Issues/Education.