Preventing bullying within a PBS framework

iStock_000016363496XSmallIf Positive Behavior Support (PBS) is all about focusing on the positive, how do educators address bullying, the ultimate negative and aggressive behavior?

By avoiding use of the term “bully,” removing the social reinforcements for bullying and focusing on teaching the concept of being respectful to all students in school, according to a recent study in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. The study introduces a bully-prevention  program consistent with the PBS philosophy.

“A major emphasis was on teaching students that disrespectful behavior typically keeps happening because it results in attention and praise from others,” the researchers write.  “Students were encouraged to ‘take away the attention that serves as oxygen maintaining the flame of disrespectful behavior.’”

3-step strategy

The 3-step strategy (stop, walk, talk) encourages students to defuse bullying situations and  to go to an adult when they are unsuccessful, according to the article.

The specific skills taught include:
• discriminating between behavior that is  respectful and disrespectful
• saying “stop” and using the stop gesture  (hand held up) when a student experiences  disrespectful behavior
• saying stop and taking away the victim  when a student witnesses disrespectful behavior
• walking away after saying “stop” if disrespectful behavior continues
• telling an adult about the disrespectful  behavior if it continues after the students walks away
• if told to “stop” by another student,  discontinuing the behavior.

Three elementary schools in one district that had implemented PBS were selected to participate in the study evaluating the effectiveness of the BP-PBS curriculum. The curriculum (available at www.pbis.org) was delivered by teachers in the schools over 4-5 days. The curriculum focused on behavior in unstructured and less monitored settings such as the cafeteria, gym, playground, hallway and bus area where aggression is most common.

Two students with aggressive behaviors

Principals from each school nominated 2 students for observation on the playground based on their high levels of physical or verbal aggression toward peers. Following teachers’ delivery of the  curriculum, observers monitored childrens’ playground behavior, focusing on the children who had been nominated by the principals.

Observers recorded the frequency of physical or verbal aggression during lunch recess. Physical aggression was defined as hitting, biting, kicking, choking, stealing, throwing objects, or restricting freedom of movement. Verbal aggression included teasing, taunting, threatening, negative body language or negative gestures.

Observers also recorded victims’ and bystanders’ responses to aggressive behavior. Appropriate victim and bystander responses included the use of a stop signal, walking away, or ignoring the aggression. Inappropriate responses included positive responses such as laughing or cheering and negative responses such as complaining, fighting back or whining.

The 6 target students had a combined mean of 3.1 incidents of aggression at baseline observation before implementation of BP-PBS. Once BP-PBS was fully implemented the mean was 0.9 incidents for the 6 target students, a 72% decrease from baseline.

With the BP-PBS intervention, victims:
• said “stop” 30% of the time during a bullying incident (a 28% increase from base  line),
• walked away 13% of the time (10% increase)
• delivered a positive response 8% of the time (11% decrease)
• delivered a negative response 15% of the time (19% decrease) and
• delivered no response 41% of the time (1% increase).

“First, the results of this study indicate that the use of bullying language may not be necessary, because its complex definitions and descriptions can be difficult to recognize for students as well as staff,” the researchers write. “By avoiding the bullying language, we were able to focus on observable behaviors, permitting more reliable data collection and more consistent responses by staff and students.”

The researchers note that staff rated BP-PBS as efficient to implement, indicating that the approach may be more likely to be sustained over time. While the frequency of aggression decreased for each of the selected students, their problem behavior was not eliminated completely, nor did it reach the lower levels of their peers.  These students would need supplemental, individually designed  interventions to reduce aggressive behavior to the norm.

“Bully Prevention in Positive Behavior Support,” by Scott  Ross and Robert Horner,  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, Winter 2009, Volume 42, Number 4, pps. 747-759.

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