Program Profile

Impact Feature Issue on Fostering Success in School and Beyond for Students with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders

Improving Social Development School-Wide: The BASE Program


J. Ron Nelson is co-director of the Center for At-Risk Children’s Services, University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

The large number of students with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) has been a long-standing concern to school psychologists, educators, parents, and the public at large (Achenbach, Levent, & Rescorla, 2002). Estimates provided in the Surgeon General’s Report on Student and Mental Health (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1999) indicate that 21% of youth within the general population have a mental health related disorder that manifests into a range of problem behaviors. Further, demographic characteristics such as socioeconomic status, geographic location, and community size (e.g., rural vs. urban) appear to have little influence on base rates and types of problem behavior (McDermott & Schaefer, 1996). Within this context, the Center for At-Risk Children’s Services at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln has worked with K-12 schools across the country to create a school-wide social development program called Behavior and Academic Support and Enhancement Program (BASE), which is designed to improve the social and academic outcomes of students with or at risk of EBD. The remainder of this article describes BASE, outcomes for students, and lessons learned along the way.

Description of BASE

BASE, rooted in social learning theory (Bandura, 1997), is implemented by all staff and students in a school. It uses a long-term, consensus-based, participatory approach to alter the climate and culture of the entire school. The goal is to increase and reinforce the number of prosocial cues and models in the school, to increase student social and academic competence, and to decrease the frequency and severity of problem behavior over time. Specifically, BASE has five primary activities:

  • Adjust ecological arrangements of the common areas of the school.
  • Teach all students and staff three simple skills/rules.
  • Actively supervise the common area routines.
  • Use the Think Time Strategy.
  • Develop a continuum of administrative disciplinary responses.

Activity 1: Adjust Ecological Arrangements

Adjustments are made to the ecological arrangements of the common areas of the school (e.g., hallways, cafeteria, restrooms, playground) to eliminate or reduce social cues or situations that might increase problem behavior (setting events, antecedents). The following guidelines are used to improve the scheduling and use of space:

  • The density of students is reduced by using all entrances and exits to a given area; the space between groups, lines, and classes is increased; and the age-range of students is increased as the density of students increases.
  • Wait time (e.g., time standing in the lunch line) is kept at a minimum.
  • Travel time/distance are decreased as much as possible (e.g., all entrances are used during morning arrival).
  • Physical signs are used to marktransition zones that indicate movement from less to more controlled space or indicate behavioral expectations for the common areas of the school.
  • The sequence of events in the common areas is designed to facilitate the type of behavioral momentum desired (e.g., going to recess before rather than after lunch may result in students being better prepared for instruction).

Activity 2: Teach Three Skills/Rules

All students and staff in the school learn three simple, contextually-relevant social skills or rules via a common language that is applied school-wide (setting events, antecedent): a) be safe, b) be responsible, and c) be respectful. These social skills are operationalized for all major aspects of school (e.g., hallway behavior). A three-phase process is used to teach students the social skills. In the first phase, students are taught the social skills with high levels of supervision. This supervision continues through the first two to three weeks of school, and includes high rates of social reinforcement and corrective feedback if necessary. The second phase involves conducting periodic reviews during the first two months of the school session, with reduced levels of supervision. In the third phase, “booster sessions” are conducted throughout the remainder of the year as needed (e.g., after holidays).

Activity 3: Actively Supervise Common Areas

Active supervision of the common area routines is used to prevent problem behavior and to respond effectively when it occurs (setting event, antecedent). Established patterns of supervision are developed to enable staff to provide a more complete and balanced coverage of the common areas. Staff are trained in the supervision of common areas and in the implementation of responses to problem behavior to promote student self-regulation skills. These responses replicate the Think Time Strategy in the common areas (see below).

Activity 4: Use the Think Time Strategy

The Think Time Strategy (Nelson & Carr, 2000) is a cognitive-behavioral timeout strategy designed to enable the teacher and student to stop a negative social exchange, and provide the student feedback and an opportunity to plan. Used in the classroom and common areas for minor deportment problems, it can a) reduce the intra- and interpersonal effects of student-teacher interactions, b) deliver a stable response to problem behavior across all staff, c) provide the student a quiet period to enable the student to “save face” and regain self-composure, d) provide the student with feedback and an opportunity to plan for subsequent performance, and e) enable the teacher and student to cut off a negative social exchange and initiate a positive one. The U.S. Department of Education’s Expert Panel on Safe, Disciplined, and Drug-Free Schools has designated the Think Time Strategy as a promising program.

Activity 5: Develop a Continuum of Administrative Responses

A continuum of administrative disciplinary responses is developed to increase student self-regulation, perspective taking, and problem-solving skills (i.e., antecedent, consequence). The continuum of responses addresses challenging problem behavior that is referred to the administrative team.

Student Outcomes with BASE

Elementary, middle, and high schools across the country have adopted BASE in an effort to improve the social behavior and academic outcomes of all students, including those with EBD. Schools adopting BASE have experienced decreases in problem behavior, increases in prosocial behavior, and improvements in academic achievement (Nelson, 1996; Nelson, Martella, & Marchand-Martella, 2002). For example, Nelson and colleagues (2002) used a quasi-experimental design to assess the effects of BASE over a two-year period in seven elementary schools. Comparisons with the remaining 28 elementary schools in the district indicated consistently moderate to strong positive effects on the formal administrative disciplinary actions (i.e., decreased office discipline referrals, suspensions, and emergency removals) and academic achievement (i.e., increase in reading, spelling, mathematics, language arts, science, and social studies) of the participating schools. Comparisons between a sample of students with or at risk of EBD (n = 207) and a matched (age and grade) group of criterion students indicated small to moderate positive effects on the social competence and academic performance of the target students.

Staff responses to the program have been positive. They are perhaps best summed up by Dr. DeAnn Currin, principal of Elliott Elementary School in Lincoln, Nebraska, when she observed:

If children with behavior disorders are able to focus on learning in the classroom, everyone else can too. The social development program which leads to clear expectations, positive behavior instruction, consistency, and non-confrontational signals for attention keeps all children on track. The program enables children with emotional and behavioral disorders to focus on learning in the classroom and the teacher to focus on teaching.

Lessons Learned Over the Years

We have learned a great deal over the years implementing BASE in elementary, middle, and high schools. On the surface, it appears that implementing a school-wide social development program such as BASE would be quite simple. However, there are a number of common obstacles that arise that must be overcome. First, problems with inappropriate instructional materials, learning environments, or a school culture that is unwilling to accept the diversity and individuality of the students (especially those who exhibit problem behavior) and families all take precedence over high-level discussions about creating a school-wide social development program. Second, the problem behavior and associated discipline-related issues addressed by a school-wide social development program are often difficult because staff have different levels of expertise, perspectives, and commitment. Third, many school staff fail to understand the importance of teaching students the social skills specific to the school setting (e.g., arrival procedures). We have found that staff may often be unaware of the social skills specific to their school setting and the associated discipline policies and practices. Finally, the amount of staff development required to implement and sustain a school-wide social development program is often under-estimated. The life expectancy of a school-wide program will be approximately two years unless ongoing professional development occurs.

Note: Preparation of this article was supported in part by grants from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (No. H324X010010, H324D010013, and H325D990035). Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Education, and no endorsement should be inferred.


  • Achenbach, T. M., Levent, D., & Rescorla, L. A. (2002). Is American student behavior getting worse? Teacher ratings over an 18-year period. School Psychology Review, 31, 428–442.

  • Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.

  • McDermott, P. A., & Shaefer, B. A. (1996). A demographic survey of rare and common problem behaviors among American students. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 25(3), 352–362.

  • Nelson, J. R. (1996). Designing schools to meet the needs of students who exhibit disruptive behavior. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 4, 147–161.

  • Nelson, J. R., & Carr, B. A. (2000). The Think Time strategy for schools. Devner, CO: Sopris West.

  • Nelson, J. R., Martella, R. M., & Marchand-Martella, N. (2002). Maximizing student learning: The effects of a comprehensive school-based program for preventing problem behaviors. Journal of Emotional & Behavioral Disorders, 10(3), 136–148.

  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (1999). Mental health: A report of the Surgeon General: Children and mental health. Washington, D.C.: Public Health Service.