Challenging behaviour in the classroom is disruptive and difficult for both teachers and students. Positive behaviour support not only reduces stress in the classroom, but also equips students with life skills beyond the curriculum.
A team of researchers from Monash’s inclusive education group explain the ideas behind it, and offer practical and evidence-based strategies for teachers.
Research has shown positive behaviour support (PBS) is highly effective in preventing and addressing challenging behaviours in the classroom. It reduces stress, clears up much-needed time for teaching, improves overall student behaviours and creates better classroom cultures.
These positive practices impact general school culture and result in improved academic outcomes for all students. As students embrace more prosocial behaviours, PBS also supports families, and impacts on our society as a whole.
In recent years, PBS has gained significant recognition internationally and has been progressively adopted by several Victorian schools.
What is positive behaviour support?
PBS is grounded in the philosophical and scientific foundations of behaviour analysis, but also draws on and shares the values and methods of prevention science, implementation science, and, more recently, positive psychology. It is underpinned by the philosophy that human beings thrive in predictable spaces where expectations are clear, new skills are taught, and positive behaviours are richly reinforced.
PBS rests on the principle of progressive levels of individualisation to prevent and address challenging behaviour.
Three-tiered levels of support
- Level one support (or sometimes known as Tier One or the Universal Level) embraces a general, whole-school approach targeted at the majority of learning populations within a setting. It is effective for over 80% of students.
- At level two (or Tier Two or the Secondary Level), targeted support is aimed at 12-15% of learners who require more directed social support.
- Level three (or Tier Three or the Tertiary Level) is directed to 4-5% of students who require more intensive, personal and specialised support.
Implementing PBS strategies in your classroom
Each PBS level, in all three tiers, could be effectively implemented using the cyclical process described below.
Five-steps of implementing PBS
- Expectations – setting clear expectations eliminates doubt and sets targets.
- Modelling – educators should model positive behaviours, illustrating what the behaviour looks and feels like (PBS is not just for students).
- Consistency – maintain consistency so that students know what to expect with follow through.
- Acknowledgement – positively acknowledge attempts that students make toward their target behaviours.
- Evaluation – Evaluate the merit of each strategy regularly to ensure that it is working the way it should be.
Let’s consider some of the strategies (Level One or Tier One strategies) that you can implement in your learning environments right now. The strategies described here will assist you in creating a positive learning environment that proactively teaches and richly reinforces prosocial behaviours.
Setting clear expectations
Students might present with challenging behaviours because the expected classroom behaviours have not been explicitly stated or taught. Students can be confused about what is expected of them, and this may be even more true for students with disabilities.
Clear visual cues through posters or pictures and utilising inclusive language helps students understand what behaviours are expected of them in the classroom.
Teachers can direct students to these expectations frequently, consistently apply them, and acknowledge students who have presented with behaviours which align with these expectations.
Teachers can also identify those students who may need more support to learn how to display the expected behaviours in the classroom. Teachers who have established expectations actually reduce stress in the classroom as students are aware of what they are required to do. Schools should invest time in teaching expectations early and often during the school term. More time invested in teaching expectations can dramatically reduce incidence of challenging behaviours in the school. Setting clear guidelines and expectations, and modelling these behaviours during planned lessons, not only encourages those behaviours, but reinforces their practice over time.
Examples of behaviour matrices
Victoria Road Primary School sets out clear behavioural expectations for students in their Behaviour Matrix, as part of their PBS Handbook.
Williamstown High School has structured their behaviour expectations around their school values to archive a respectful and safe learning environment.
Behaviour specific praise
Praise is a powerful tool in a teacher’s arsenal – it is free, and the supply is unlimited. Behaviour-specific praise works in two ways. Firstly, it acknowledges and reinforces the positive student behaviour. Secondly, it contributes to a positive classroom, where students strive to do better both socially and academically.
Behaviour-specific praise includes a pointed reference to the desired behaviour, it is specific to the individual, and it is positively phrased. For example, a teacher who affirms a student’s ability to participate in “wait time”, can offer the following affirming comment: “Well done, Asha for waiting to contribute to the discussion!”
Teachers should actively look for behaviour that they can praise. For students they are concerned about, praise for desired behaviour should be provided more frequently. By moving away from using reprimands and attending to the student only when unwanted behaviour occurs, to focusing on the positives about the student, teachers substantially increase the chances of appropriate behaviour in their classroom.
Teachers can follow a 4:1 ratio when praising where they intentionally offer four statements to affirm positives and then offer one corrective element. This not only reinforces appropriate student behaviours, but also validates the positive climate the teacher is creating within their learning space.
This popular video reveals how the 4:1 ratio works in an authentic manner in a classroom.
Most teachers have developed a set of teaching strategies to assist students who experience challenges with their learning. Often, this set of strategies assists the entire class, not just the student who is experiencing the challenge. These strategies may be learning-area specific, but teachers can intuitively draw on more generalist techniques to assist all students to succeed. For example, identifying a set of questions which are clearly stated to the class, and offering appropriate wait times so students have opportunities to respond, caters for both strong learners and those who struggle.
Examples of staged response processes
Take a look at the staged response processes used by Mickleham Primary School and Craigieburn Secondary College, as they implement PBS:
- Mickleham Primary School's PBS Handbook 2019 (pdf) - sets out separate staged responses for minor and major behaviours inside the classroom, as well as yard behaviours
- Craigieburn Secondary College's Staged Response Processes
Teachers are ringmasters in their classrooms. They control when questions are asked and who will answer them. Over time, teachers become adept at establishing wait times, giving students opportunities to think and so answer more accurately. Establishing wait times is essential and provides opportunities for students to develop patience and tolerance. Subsequent to the wait time, all students can access opportunities to demonstrate understanding. Managing opportunities to respond, through careful construction of questions and appropriately paced wait times, significantly assists with formative assessment, and can also improve academic outcomes.
Catch students being ‘good’
A PBS-centred school or classroom provides multiple opportunities for students to receive positive acknowledgement for appropriate behaviours. All school staff can play a role in “catching” a student doing the right thing and formally acknowledge it.
For example, the staff member can issue a hand-written note (or stamp) that the student can lodge with the classroom teacher or someone allocated in the school for this role. The student who receives such positive acknowledgement from the school could be acknowledged by the classroom teacher and/or at the school assembly. The student’s family should also be informed about the positive contributions by the student as this allows the formation of positive home-school partnerships.
Students can also provide positive recognition to each other.
The strategy could be modified for the school. There are two key elements to this strategy:
- All members within a learning community can call out and be able to reward positive contributions.
- Be proactive in targeting positive behaviours, rather than only targeting inappropriate or challenging behaviours.
Example of "catching them being good"
The Teacher Vision website offers some pointed advice on how to implement Catch them being good.
Anyone can reward positive behaviour. Read about this police officer who hands out “tickets” to well-behaving youngsters!
Shaping and pre-correction
Sometimes it takes a student longer to learn more acceptable behaviours, but the teacher can notice marginal shifts in the right direction. This progress can be affirmed and reinforced, even if progress occurs in small increments.
Pre-correction often acts as a prompt, reminding the student (or students) about appropriate, expected behaviour in a particular context. For example, a student who calls out and interrupts others while they are speaking may be “shaped” by being acknowledged (with a head nod) for raising their hand, then rewarded for appropriately waiting to take their turn.
The teacher can also identify selected positive behaviours which require reinforcement, and specifically reward these behaviours , while minimising attention to the unacceptable behaviour. For example, a student who produces a substandard piece of work might receive praise for the sections that are completed to a good standard, while the teacher spends less time on the other sections that may be sloppy and rushed.
Example of pre-correction
Positive greetings at the door has been found to encourage positive behaviour in students.
All in all, positive behaviour support strategies can address challenging behaviours and create positive learning environments in most contexts, not just in classrooms. But they are particularly relevant for educators and their classrooms. In implementing these affirming supports, educators would not only reduce the prevalence of challenging behaviours, but they would directly teach and acknowledge more prosocial behaviours. This does not just help classrooms, it helps societies.
A 12-hour online short course Engaging in positive behaviour support practices is now available from Monash Education.
Conroy, M. A., Sutherland, K. S., Snyder, A., Al-Hendawi, M. & V. A. (2009). Creating a positive classroom atmosphere: Teachers’ use of effective praise and feedback. Beyond Behavior, 18, 18-26.
Lavigna, G., & Willis, T. (2012). The efficacy of positive behavioural support with the most challenging behaviour: The evidence and its implications. Journal of intellectual & developmental disability, 37, 185-195.
Simonsen, B., & Freeman, J. (2011). Helping teachers help themselves: Self-management strategies to support teachers’ classroom management. May Institute.
State of Victoria. (2020). 5 School-wide positive behaviour support (SWPBS) framework.