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Behavioral Concerns PDF Print E-mail
Behavioral Concerns, A Positive Approach to Problem Behavior
Article By Amy McCart, M.S. Ed. and Ann Turnbull, Ed.D.You may believe your classroom will run more smoothly if you develop strategies to help support one particular child who is having difficulty. However, providing one particular child with more support is may not be enough. It is important to recognize that having effective, comprehensive support for all children increases the chances that your classroom will run more smoothly. One approach that is gaining increasing acceptance within schools and early childhood programs is positive behavior support.

Positive behavior support is an approach for helping children develop social and communication skills, while creating a positive environment for learning and growth. Essentially, positive behavior support is a package of strategies, not just one intervention. It is a collaborative process that involves multiple approaches:

  • solving problems
  • creating positive environments
  • teaching new skills
  • changing systems

In addition to being a collaborative process, positive behavior support is also comprehensive; it includes supports at:

  • a universal level for all children within a school or early childhood program
  • a group level for children who need more intensive support than that offered at the universal level but who do not need individual support
  • an individual level for children who have significant problem behavior and need intensive support

Whole School Model of Support

Whole School Model of Support

step one: establish universal support for all children

Often children are given different rules from different teachers. Researchers are now discovering that when teachers, administrators and school support staff come together and agree on just a few (3 to 5) behavioral expectations for all children and establish positive ways to support children who meet those expectations, children are more likely to follow those expectations. When the rules are clear and children understand what those rules are and receive reinforcement for following those rules, their behavior is better. It is important to:

  • establish a clear set of expectations
  • teach children those expectations
  • consistently reward children who follow those expectations

It can be exciting for the school or early childhood community to come together and establish expectations in fun ways for children to learn. Here is one example of how an elementary school in conjunction with their early childhood program established their expectations.

The Wildcat Way Establishing School-Wide Expectations

step two: establish group support

Once universal support is in place, it is important to address group support within classroom and non-classroom settings. Each teacher should build upon the universal plan for positive behavior support. Group support begins with classroom management strategies that continue to reward children who meet the universal expectations as well as the classroom expectations. Here it is important for teachers to establish clear classroom expectations and then to proactively teach and consistently reinforce those expectations with students.

The easiest way for you to address classroom disruptions is to prevent them from ever occurring. As you begin to understand what triggers problem behavior in your classroom, you can establish proactive ways to prevent those disruptions. For example, often children have problem behavior during transition times; you can:

  • decrease the number of transitions when possible
  • use transitions as a teaching time for appropriate behavior
  • reward children who are following the established expectations

Teaching children in the setting in which problem behavior is likely to occur is essential. If children are having difficulty following the universal expectations out on the playground, then set up an opportunity for children to be taught how to follow the rules on the playground. You can have the children act out ways they should not behave and then the ways in which they should. Acting out the expectations is a good way for young children to learn exactly what is expected of them.

step three: establish individual support

The third component of positive behavior support is individual support for children whose behavioral needs are intensive and there is an immediate need for extensive teaching of new behavioral skills.

A functional assessment is a problem-solving process that gathers information that enables you to understand why a child is behaving in certain ways. A functional assessment:

  • identifies what immediately precedes problem behavior as well as what happens after the problem behavior
  • provides you with useful information about how to respond when problem behavior arises
  • can provide clues about how to prevent the problem behavior from occurring

Effective interventions can only be established for problem behavior when you collaborate with parents and administrators to understand the specific behavioral concerns and establish comprehensive interventions.

Based on the functional assessment, the team collaborating for each child should work together to develop a support plan that specifies:

  • a clear description of the problem behavior
  • changes in classroom and non-classroom routines to prevent problem behavior from occurring
  • goals and objectives for teaching the child new skills that will lead to appropriate behavior (for example, asking for a break when needed, communicating negative emotions in words rather than through behavior, defusing anger)
  • the types of positive reinforcements the child most prefers and what the child must do to receive them
  • a clear plan of what to do if a problem behavior occurs and/or escalates

step four: be proactive

Know that being proactive is the single best thing that an educator can do to support children who have problem behavior. Being proactive means that you are acting in advance – before a problem occurs. When you and the collaborative team understand a child’s behavior and the times that the behavior is likely to occur, you can begin to intervene before situations with the child escalate into severe problem behavior.

When a child has difficulty learning his alphabet or writing his name, we do not remove that child from the class or send him to the office; instead we teach that child how to do his alphabet. Responding to and preventing problem behavior is no different. If a child is having difficulty knowing how to behave or respond, then we teach that child what is expected in positive, engaging ways.

When children do not know...

Adapted from Tom Herner (NASDE President) Counterpoint 1998, p.2

Inadvertently, you can fall into a trap where behavior is punished rather than taught. Being proactive enables us to teach children how to respond in various situations in effective ways.

Teachers can effectively prevent problem behavior from occurring in their classrooms when comprehensive supports are in place.

resources for educators

Overview of Positive Behavior Support

  • Carr, E.G., Dunlap, G., Horner, H.R., Koegel, R.L., Turnbull, A.P., Sailor, W., Anderson, J., Albin, R.W., Koegel, L.K., & Fox, L. (2002). Positive behavior support: Evolution of an applied science. Journal of Positive Behavioral Interventions, 20(4), 4-16.

Legal Issues

  • Turnbull, H.R., Wilcox, B.L., Stowe, M., & Turnbull, A.P. (2001). IDEA requirements for use of Positive Behavior Support: Guidelines for responsible agencies. Journal of Positive Behavior Support, 3(1), 11-18.
  • Turnbull, H.R., Wilcox, B.L., Turnbull, A.P., Sailor, W., & Wickham, D. (2001). IDEA, positive behavioral supports, and school safety. Journal of Law and Education, 30(3), 445-503.

Overview of Schoolwide Approach

  • Turnbull, A.P., Edmonson, H., Griggs, P., Wickham, D., Sailor, W., Freeman, R., Guess, D., Lassen, S., McCart, A., Park, J., Riffel, L., Turnbull, R., & Warren, J. (2002). A blueprint for schoolwide positive behavior support: Implementation of three components. Exceptional Children, 68(3), 377-402.

Universal Support

  • Kartub, D.T., Taylor-Green, S., March, R.E., & Horner, R.H. (2000). Reducing hallway noise: A systems approach. Journal of Positive Behavior Intervention, 2(3), 179-182.

Group Support

  • Hawken, L.S., & Horner, R.A. (2001). Evaluation of a targeted group intervention within a schoolwide system of behavior support. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Individual Support

  • Horner, R.H., Sugai, G., Todd, A.W., & Lewis-Palmer, T. (1999-2000). Elements of behavior support plans: A technical brief. Exceptionality, 8(2), 205-215.
  • O’Neill, R.E., Horner, R.H., Albin, R.W., Sprague, J.R., Storey, K., & Newton, J.S. (1997). Functional assessment for problem behavior: A practical handbook, (2nd edition). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing.

Case Studies

  • Lohrmann-O’Rourke, S., Knoster, T., Sabatine, K., Smith, D., Harvath, B., & Llewellyn, G. (2000). Schoolwide application of Positive Behavior Support in the Bangor area school district. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 2(4), 238-240.
  • Sadler, C. (2000). Effective behavior support implementation at the district level: Tigard-Tualatin school district. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 2(4), 241-243.

Web Sites: – This Web site offers additional information about how teachers can work with students with exceptionalities. It is a good resource with specific strategies for parents and teachers. – This is the Web site of a Technical Assistance Center on positive behavioral interventions and supports funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The website has very helpful information on all three components of schoolwide Positive Behavior Support. – Sponsored by the Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice, this Web site has comprehensive information on all aspects of mental health.

about the authors

Amy McCart is the Project Coordinator for a federally funded project through the U.S. Department of Education to support urban schools to implement schoolwide positive behavior support. Additionally, Ms. McCart has written instructional online modules in the area of positive behavior support for teacher use ( Ms. McCart has over 15 years experience working with individuals with disabilities and problem behavior and is currently completing her Ph.D. in the Department of Special Education at The University of Kansas. Ms. McCart is the mother of three young children.

Ann Turnbull is the Co-Director of the Beach Center on Disability ( a Professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas. Dr. Turnbull has conducted widespread research in the areas of family quality of life and positive behavior support. Additionally, Dr. Turnbull has gained insight, knowledge and strength from her three children, one of whom is an adult son who has cognitive and emotional disabilities.