Positive Reinforcement Helps Improve Student’s Behavioral Problems in Schools

New discipline approach for children with behavior problems

Students with disabilities and severe behavioral problems are often isolated or placed in alternative education settings. The goal is to improve the students’ behavior enough for them to return to a mainstream school setting. However, prior research indicates that methods used in alternative settings, such as seclusion and physical restraint, can actually wind up making things worse. A recent study in the Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions found that implementing a positive behavioral intervention system could successfully improve behavior in the whole school.

The three-year case study took place at a Northern California private school that serves students ages 3 to 22 who have disabilities, including mental retardation, emotional disturbances, cerebral palsy, autism and ADHD, as well as a history of physically aggressive behaviors. The first year of the study served to establish a baseline to compare to data collected once the behavioral intervention system was put into place.

In the baseline setting, each classroom had its own set of rules and expectations that were not explicitly taught to students. Instead, each student’s goals and supports were tailored to his or her own individualized positive behavior intervention plan. One year into the study, school staff were introduced to and trained in using a method called School-wide Positive Behavior Support or SWPBS. This evidence-based approach is designed to effect behavioral change in the entire student body by utilizing consistent expectations and rules, social skills training and reward systems. This system consists of three tiers of prevention:

  1. Universal interventions: Support all students; includes establishing, teaching, and enforcing a small number of positively stated expectations (“Be safe, be respectful and be responsible.”)
  2. Targeted-group interventions: Support small groups with more serious needs; may include behavior education program and social skills training.
  3. Individualized interventions: Support individual students with most need; includes individualized, positive behavior intervention plans (reinforcing appropriate behavior rather than punishing inappropriate behavior)

To examine the effectiveness of this approach, study leaders collected data on the frequency of incident reports and usage of physical restraints. In the baseline year, there was an increasing trend in serious incidents. As the new system was implemented, there was a constant decrease in serious incidents for three months. Although serious incidents went up again in the fourth month and for the duration of the second school year, this increase was attributed to the school having moved to a new location. In the second year of the new system, serious incidents were consistently down. Whereas during the baseline year 30 percent of students had incidents involving physical aggression, only 17 percent did during the second year.

Though future research will be required to examine additional facets of implementing this positive behavior reward system such as academic outcomes, this study demonstrates that positively focused behavioral interventions can be used effectively on an entire student body as an alternative to strict tradition methods.

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