How to use positive behavior supports with unresponsive students

stock-photo-2815404-reluctant-studentSchools would rather not play the bad cop. Increasingly, they want to give students positive behavior supports (PBS) to prompt and reinforce desired behaviors instead of punishing undesirable behaviors.

But how do schools handle the least responsive students under a model of positive behavior supports? How do they continue to play the good cop?

A three-tiered positive behavior support model aimed at preventing problem behaviors is gaining wider acceptance as schools increasingly serve a diverse student population and provide inclusive programming, write a team of researchers in a recent study in the Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders. In this study, researchers show how to use function-based interventions to provide PBS for students who need a more intensive, third-level intervention and how school data can be used to identify those students.

“The knowledge base of positive behavior supports (PBS) is developing,” write the authors, but such detailed descriptions of intensive PBS are lacking in the research.

Function-based interventions

Most students, about 80%, will respond well to a school’s primary prevention efforts to avoid problem behaviors, write the researchers. About 15% will require secondary intervention to meet the desired goals of behavior. A remaining 5% will need a tertiary level of intervention and a more intensive level of support to avoid problems (e.g. instruction in social skills, conflict resolution, self-regulation skills or specific academic skills).

“Function-based interventions are support plans based on the reasons why a given behavior (e.g., noncompliance, poor work completion, disruption) occurs,” the authors write. Function-based interventions are developed with information from interviews of teachers, direct observations and behavioral rating scales. Researchers used the Function-Based Intervention Decision Model to design interventions.

The model is guided by two questions:

(a) Is the student able to perform the replacement behavior?
(b) Does the classroom environment represent effective practices?

Case Study for Positive Behavior Support

Aaron, a 14-year old Caucasian in 8th grade, had received special education services since fourth grade for a learning disability in written expression. Aaron had not responded to either the schoolwide PBS primary prevention plan in the fall of the 2004-2005 school year or to the secondary prevention plan in the spring. The secondary intervention consisted of 21 weeks of instruction (28 hours) in study skills and conflict resolution skills.

Aaron was found to be nonresponsive to the secondary program based on his performance on a criterion-referenced assessment (pre- and post intervention) and other school data.  He had an overall GPA of 2.17 in the final grading period of the 2004-2005 school year, including a failing grade, and nine discipline referrals. During the fall of the 2005-2006 school year, he had three office discipline referrals during the first six weeks of the school year.

“In the classroom, Aaron was highly noncompliant,” the authors write. “He refused to participate in instructional tasks despite multiple prompts from the teacher. Further, he often sought support from students in the class seated near him, yet seldom completed the work. Data from the SRSS revealed high levels of lying, cheating, and sneaking in addition to poor academic achievement. He also had impaired relationships with peers, a negative attitude, and problem behaviors in general.”

Aaron’s teacher identified attention as the primary reinforcer for Aaron’s noncompliant behavior and performance deficits. Aaron himself indicated enjoying attention from his teacher and peers. This was also corroborated by direct observation by researchers through whole interval recordings of his behavior in class.

Aaron’s intervention took place in science class. In class, Aaron typically did not answer the teacher’s board question in the first 10 minutes allotted for this activity. The teacher discussed the answer orally, but did not write it on the board for the students. “Students were expected to transition quickly to the next activity once the teacher had provided the answer orally,” the researchers write.

Third-tier intervention

The following strategy was developed to provide positive behavior support to Aaron to improve his behavior and performance:

1. Antecedent condition. Aaron was given a checklist of tasks to complete during the board work in class. The teacher agreed to write the answer on the board and to make sure the board work question and answers remained visible to Aaron until he had completely copied the questions and answers in his notebook.

2. Reinforcement. The teacher and special education aide in Aaron’s classroom agreed to give Aaron positive reinforcement only after he had successfully completed the board work assignment and the checklist. Aaron also was allowed to choose a group of peers to sit with once he had successfully completed five checklists. Aaron was allowed to choose a peer to sit next to him; the peer was asked to refrain from helping anyone during board-work activities. (Previously, Aaron received counseling when he failed science tests; now he received attention when he completed board work and checklists).

3. Extinction. When Aaron exhibited noncompliant behavior, the teacher gave a verbal redirect lasting no longer than two seconds; all other attention was withheld until Aaron had completed his board work assignment and checklist.  His teacher did not give him any attention until he raised his hand to indicate he was done; then the teacher immediately approached him, inspected the checklist, gave verbal praise and signed her name on the checklist.

Checklist was key

The checklist was presented to Aaron as a tool he could use to complete his board work assignments and raise his test grades. Each task on the checklist was reviewed with him and he was told about the reinforcement contingencies (e.g. completion of the checklist for five days allowed Aaron to choose his peer group for the group work.) Aaron’s teacher agreed to provide Aaron with a checklist every day, write the answers to the board work question on the board, and sign his checklist following the completion of Aaron’s tasks.

Aaron’s behavior improved dramatically as a result of the intervention: He was compliant 86% of the time after the intervention compared with 17% of the time before the intervention, based on whole interval recording of behavior by observers, the study reports.

Aaron’s science teacher was excited to see his science GPA rise from 55% during the first 9-week session to 78% during the second 9-week session and maintain an 82% during the third 9-week session.

“As we continue to support an increasingly diverse student population in inclusive settings while meeting the call for academic excellence, positive behavior support models offer one context for meeting this challenge,” the authors conclude.

“Function-Based Interventions for Students Who Are Nonresponsive to Primary and Secondary Prevention Efforts: Illustrations at the Elementary and Middle School Levels” by Kathleen Lynne Lane, et al. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, Fall 2007, Volume 15, Number 3, pp. 169-183.

Published in ERN December 2007 Volume 20 Number 9

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