This is part one of a two part series on Positive Behavioral Support.
Positive behavior support: that phrase got your attention, didn’t it?
It sounds like a great idea, but most people don’t actually want to put in the effort for it. Unfortunately, punishment and negative attention - comments such as “Stop it!” and “No!” - seem to come more naturally to most of us.
But this idea just won’t go away. So - what is it and why is it here to stay?
Teaching Styles From The Olden Days
In the traditional school classroom - the type of classroom I remember from when I was growing up - there is an implicit expectation of compliant behavior, and anyone who deviates from the expected behavior is punished.
When I was a kid, I noticed that the non-compliant students became more and more defiant every time they were punished. In other words, the punishment wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do.
A New Environment And A New Approach
Nowadays, there is a sharp increase in the percentage of students with special needs - and many of these students have unusual behaviors that would have been punished in a traditional school environment.
Behavior management has become a large and important field of study, with its own publications such as the Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions and 30 years of data consistently supporting the effectiveness of positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) in thousands of schools and therapy programs around the world.
What Is PBIS?
PBIS is an educational approach that can be summarized as “prevent, teach, reinforce,” a phrase coined by research teams at the University of Colorado and the University of South Florida.
So how do adults prevent unsafe, destructive, disruptive or inappropriate behavior?
In the book Parenting with Positive Behavior Support, co-authors Hieneman, Childs and Sergay explain, “Positive Behavior Support involves changing things to avoid problems altogether, make difficult circumstances better, or add reminders to encourage good behavior.” Instead of reacting to problem behaviors with punishment, attention is given to teaching social skills and creating a calm, respectful learning environment.
Instead of assuming that a person knows the appropriate behavior in a situation, it is necessary to teach social expectations actively and explicitly. Visual supports such as picture schedules and cue cards are a simple way to teach expectations. Arrangement of furniture like shelves, tables and sofas can help guide a person through each stage of an activity. All of these are productive methods for prevention of negative behaviors.
Constant Interaction Needed
Teaching occurs at the same time as observation and supervision. Students need a constant flow of positive interactions with an adult - it’s a way for them to get feedback about expectations and staying on the right track. Environmental triggers for negative behaviors are noted for future modification.
In the Fall 2012 issue of Autism Spectrum Quarterly, co-authors Sprick, Hinesly and Urbina outlined their approach to positive behavior support in a classroom setting. One of their strategies is to “catch students being good,” with 3 positive teacher-student interactions for every one response to misbehavior.
Negative behaviors are corrected quietly and privately with simple, non-judgmental statements such as, “Try it this way.” Positive behaviors are acknowledged with social reinforcers: eye contact, a smile, a high-five, a nod or saying the student’s name.
Overusing phrases such as “good job” may be counterproductive - I know that when my son wants to be acknowledged for something, he gets right in my face to see my eyes. And that’s enough for him. When words are necessary, specific, descriptive praise such as “I can tell that you did the assigned reading last night” or “You matched the colors very carefully” is more effective than generic comments. The most powerful reinforcers are relationship-based.
Understanding motivation is the key to understanding behavior. This point is emphasized in the book Parenting with Positive Behavior Support:“Our most important goal when addressing problem behavior is to encourage our children to develop more appropriate ways of behaving that ideally will replace their problem behavior.
A question that can guide us in coming up with replacement behavior is, ‘What else could my child do to get what he or she needs, to avoid or delay a delay situation, or to deal with particular circumstances more appropriately and effectively?’”
An example of replacing behavior:
A good friend of mine was dismayed on the first day of school when her son came home with a note saying he had put his hands inside his pants 28 times during the school day. His parapro had told him to stop, but of course, he only did it more frequently after that because he was anxious about being reprimanded. Wearing pants with a tight belt didn’t stop him, either.
My friend and I talked it over - what was the function of this behavior? What were the circumstances that increased the behavior? We realized that the behavior was comforting and pleasurable for the child; he did it most often when he was uncomfortable or anxious. So we started brainstorming for ways to provide comfort and appropriate stimulation that would calm him during periods of anxiety.
One idea was to massage his hands, arms and shoulders - strengthening his relationship with his caregiver while providing comfort and tactile input. Another idea was to buy compression shorts for him so that he would have discreet tactile input around his pelvic area. A third option was to give the child a slippery fidget toy that would require him to use both hands to play with it.
Read Part Two of this post: How To Implement Positive Behavior Support In School
Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"