Perkins School for the Blind Transition Center

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports: An Effective Approach for Schools to Prevent and Manage Challenging Behaviors

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) was developed in the 1980s as a data based behavioral intervention for students with behavioral disorders (BD). Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is an evidence-based approach which incorporates behavioral and academics supports within a comprehensive framework. The PBIS philosophy gained support in the 1990s, with the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) of 1997. A subsequent grant and its funded research indicated that PBIS should focus on prevention, data driven decisions, school-wide programming, and direct social skill teaching, all within a collaborative team-based approach (Sugai and Simonsen, 2012).

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports is a great tool to help schools prevent and manage challenging behaviors, as well as teach and reinforce school wide expected behaviors. The PBIS process emphasizes consistency and continuity and therefore would work well in addressing the needs of students on the spectrum who learn best with routine and repetition. Under the PBIS framework, schools create their own unique set of expectations which they define with explicit and concrete behaviors. Staff and students alike are taught the school specific “code of conduct” which is usually developed around a school mascot or theme. Student behavior is evaluated based upon the school’s clear expectations. For example, “Responsibility” is a common value for PBIS schools. It might be defined by arriving to school and/or class on time.

Staff is trained to use the code of conduct to acknowledge or address both appropriate and inappropriate behaviors. Schools develop clear protocol for recognizing and rewarding those students who meet school expectations. They also intervene when students are not meeting expectations. Protocol usually includes reviewing the school value and explaining how to demonstrate the value with behavior. If required, more specific skill development can be offered. More serious or repetitive violations become disciplinary matters which are handled by administration’s predetermined data-based procedure.

According to the DSM-V, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has two key characteristics; deficits in social communication and restricted or repetitive behaviors and interests. Students with ASD often experience difficulties with; social reciprocity, interpreting nonverbal social cues and developing social relationships. ( PBIS focuses on both academic and social skill building. This school-wide behavioral framework clarifies expected behaviors and uses re-teaching and reinforcement to encourage development of appropriate behaviors.

PBIS schools support students with a three-tier behavioral approach. The Positive Behavioral Interventions Supports framework incorporates more intensive supports for those individuals and groups of individuals who need it. The multi-tiered approach gives schools the flexibility to handle all types of behaviors, including the more challenging ones.

Universal expectations or tier one supports set school wide guidelines for the behavior of all students. Students (and staff) are explicitly taught the expected behaviors. Interventions focus on teaching students to understand the school’s social, behavioral and academic rules. Students are held accountable to this “code of conduct”. By incorporating a PBIS approach schools are able to explicitly explain their culture. Students are better able to understand and navigate school expectations. Students who meet or exceed school expectations receive reinforcement or rewards.

Tier-two and tier-three interventions offer additional assistance to individual(s) who are exhibiting more challenging behaviors and might need extra attention or skill development to meet school requirements. Tier-two and tier-three supports help schools meet the needs of students who require extra support to meet universal expectations.

Tier-two interventions usually target a small group of students who demonstrate similar behaviors. Tier-two supports usually involve reviewing the rule or behavior not being demonstrated in a systematic way. Interventions which are embedded into the schools arsenal of support tools such as offering a social skills or academic skills group to students would be examples of tier-two supports. Such groups would focus on breaking down the steps to obtain a specific skill and then provide opportunities to practice this new skill. These supports provide increased attention, structure and skill development for the student(s). Such interventions can also be helpful in providing data driven feedback to both the student and the families about progress made in meeting expectations.

Tier-three supports are the most specific and intensive because they focus on individual student needs. At tier-three the emphasis is on understanding the function of the undesirable or challenging behavior for the particular student (obtain something, escape something, or just getting attention). Interventions are developed based upon individual evaluations such as functional behavioral assessments. Behavioral intervention plans are often developed in an effort to have a consistent response to the inappropriate behavior. Environmental factors such as when, where and how are examined. A plan for interrupting the pattern of inappropriate behavior and replacing it with a more appropriate behavior is developed. Any tier-three intervention would be communicated, monitored and implemented with school wide consistency and continuity in accordance with the data driven practices of PBIS (Lohrmann, Forman, Martin, Palmieri, 2008).

At school, students are expected to learn how to manage themselves and their schedules. The expectation of self-management and accountability is supported by the systems of PBIS. Evidence-based practices which are documented to work for individuals with ASD such as modeling, prompting, reinforcement, social skilled training, task analysis, video modeling and visual support can all be incorporated into the various tiers of the PBIS approach (Wong, C., Odom, S.L., Hume, K., Cox, A. W., Fettig, A., Kucharczyk, S., … Schultz, T.R., 2013).

It is widely accepted that students with Autism Spectrum Disorder learn best when given concrete rules and consistent reinforcement. Their stress level is also diminished when they can predict their environment (LaVoie, 2005). The school-wide nature of PBIS is therefore ideal for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The explicit nature of the PBIS framework operationalizes pro-social values so students can better understand the behavioral expectations across all settings (i.e. classroom, hallways & cafeteria). Tier-two and tier-three interventions provide the repetitive teaching and progress monitoring to encourage appropriate behaviors across all school settings. As you would imagine, parental involvement and support is often crucial to the success of these supports.

PBIS focuses on student outcomes and behaviors in both the academic and social arenas. Students with ASD benefit from routine and structure. PBIS sets clearly stated rules and school–wide expectations. Consequently, the PBIS approach is helpful to promote appropriate behavior and address challenging behavior. Consistent teaching and re-teaching of expectations is an integral component of each tier of support under PBIS. The collaborative team approach and predictability of disciplinary procedures is a good fit when working on promoting appropriate behaviors for students with ASD.

Christine Alter, LCSW is a Teacher and Social Counselor at the New York Institute of Technology’s Vocational Independence Program (NYIT-VIP). The Vocational Independence Program is a U.S. Department of Education approved Comprehensive Transition and Post-secondary (CTP) program. Ms. Alter is chairperson for VIP’s Dare to Care PBIS Committee, which implements their school expectations known as “The Bears Code.”  For more information, please visit


LaVoie, R, It’s So Much Work to Be Your Friend Helping the Child with Learning Disabilities Find Social Success, Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Lohrmann, Forman, Martin, Palmieri, Understanding School Personnel’s Resistance to Adopting School wide Positive Behavior Support at a Universal level of Intervention, Journal of Positive Behavior Intervention Vol 10 Number 4 October 2008 p. 256-269).

Sugai and Simonsen, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports: History, Defining Features and Misconceptions, Center for PBIS & Center for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, University of Connecticut June 19, 2012.

Wong, C., Odom, S.L., Hume, K., Cox, A. W., Fettig, A., Kucharczyk, S., … Schultz, T.R. (2013) Evidence-based practices for children, youth and young adults with Autism spectrum Disorder, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, Autism Evidence-Based Practice Review Group.

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