Positive Approaches to Challenging Behavior

What is Positive Behavior Support?

This module describes Positive Behavior Support or PBS. PBS is a framework that is used to increase quality of life and decrease problem behavior by teaching new skills and making changes in a person's environment to prevent or decrease challenging behavior. Positive behavior support combines the following:

  • Valued outcomes
  • Behavioral and biomedical science
  • Validated procedures
  • Systems change to enhance quality of life and reduce problem behaviors

In the past, people talked about modifying behavior and managing problem behavior. This is not the focus of positive behavior support. Instead, PBS plans are led by the child or adult receiving support with assistance from a PBS Facilitator. Younger children or people who have trouble communicating may have family members, caregivers, or staff, or advocates who are more involved in helping to lead the planning meetings. The main outcome of PBS is to improve quality of life and to redesign the social environment so that challenging behavior is addressed and prevented. When PBS is implemented well, children and adults receiving support are empowered to make their own important life decisions and communicate what they want and need in a way that is recognized and reinforced in home, school, work, and community settings.

PBS is guided by the principles of behavior that have been explored in research over a long period of time. The principles of behavior explain why someone engages in everyday actions and outlines important relationships between responses and events that influence behavior. A field of study that is considered essential to PBS is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Research on the principles of behavior has evolved from this scientific field and supports the understanding and utility of a functional approach to understanding and changing behavior.

However, many other fields of study influence PBS as well. Researchers in psychology, biology, physiology, and mental health are conducting research on important variables that influence behavior. Integrating the newest information from these fields into PBS helps ensure that the plans that are put in place are tailored for each person. PBS embraces the use of other evidence-based practices as part of an effective planning process.

There are different methods for conducting research. Single subject research is often used to study the principles of behavior. Confidence that a principle of behavior or intervention is effective increases when a significant number of single subject studies show an intervention helps people from many different populations, age ranges, areas of the country, ethnicity, and other important characteristics. An experimental group design including larger numbers of people who participate as subjects also help validate PBS. Case study and mixed method approaches, focus groups, and other qualitative methods for understanding how well PBS is implemented are also used in positive behavior support research. To date, the evidence across these measures support the effectiveness of PBS across the lifespan in home, school, work, and community settings.

“Evidence-based practice in positive behavior support is defined as the integration of rigorous science-based knowledge with applied expertise driven by....[partner] preferences, values, and goals within natural communities of support.”

-American Psychological Society

Sending families, caregivers, and staff to training events is not enough to create real change when challenging behaviors occur. In organizations, this means that policies are modified to support the use of PBS, new staff training and ongoing coaching and mentoring created so that staff have a chance to practice new skills and reflect on their progress in everyday settings. Data are collected to assess whether the changes being made are resulting in positive outcomes. Family systems address issues related to all of the people living together and consider how they interact. Systems change moves away from considering each separate person or individual part of an organization or family to the constantly changing and dynamic aspects of relationships occurring within a network of people or parts.

There are a number of features related to PBS that help explain this practice in more detail. First, it is closely linked to person-centered practices. Person-centered practices are strategies that help people learn more about what is important to a person who is receiving services. Balancing what is important to a person’s life while still making sure that plans also address what is important for the health and safety of both the person and others is a key part of providing person-centered supports. Starting a PBS plan by implementing a wraparound or person-centered plan provides a focus for the team and also in depth information about the child’s or adult’s strengths, interests, and communication strategies.

Positive behavior support (PBS) spelled out on blocks on an orange background.

Other features of PBS include:

  • A focus on routines and settings
  • Using assessment to guide plans
  • Emphasizing prevention of challenges
  • Encouraging personal growth and lifelong learning
  • Building in natural supports from the community
  • Working with the child or adult (and family or caregivers when needed) to select a team
  • Adapting supports to address unique cultural aspects
  • Considering the long-term issues involved in quality of life
  • Creating an environment of respect and trust