Impact Feature Issue on Supporting the Social Well-Being of Children and Youth with Disabilities

School-Wide Positive Behavioral Support:
Promoting Social-Emotional Well-Being of All


Amy McCart is Research Assistant Professor at the Beach Center on Disability, University of Kansas, Lawrence

In an elementary school in our nation's Capital, children gather each morning in the cafeteria for a review of behavioral expectations in the form of a chant. "We believe in being safe, being friends, and WE WILL LEARN! Yes, WE WILL LEARN!" They repeat this chant several times. As they line-up to head to classes for the morning, teachers remind or re-teach students how each aspect of this chant translates into actions and choices on the part of the students.

In a rural community 30 miles from the Texas border, a small middle school focuses on a group of 6th grade boys who seem to not be responding to the school's behavioral expectation that students will be prepared for class. The educators come together and decide, after looking at data, that a more specific group intervention is needed. The boys are then given a morning checklist of needed items for class (i.e., pencil, notebook, agenda). They are to check-off that they have the items prior to class starting. If at least 90% of the boxes on the checklist are marked at the end of each day, the boys get to attend their seminar study group together. As the educators review the data, they learn the boys are improving in their readiness. In the past, several office discipline referrals would have been given for repeated offenses. Instead the students do not have to miss out on instruction time and are now ready for class.

In a New Orleans high school, a 16-year-old girl repeatedly skips school. This concerns her teachers, counselor and building administrator. After contacting the family, the school's behavior support team learns that the student's mother is also very concerned. Her mother is worried because her daughter (who has developmental disabilities) is hanging out before school with friends from the community center who also frequently skip school. The family, community center director, and school team come together to complete a functional behavioral assessment and develop a positive behavior support plan to strengthen her social engagement at school. With input from the daughter, the team is able to begin to address her need for time with peers. The team agrees to meet in 2 weeks to see how the plan is working.

These three stories are composites illustrating ways in which School-wide Positive Behavioral Support (SW-PBS) is being used nationwide to address the social, emotional, and behavioral areas of students' lives, while improving the school climate and learning. This proactive approach enhances the capacity of schools, families, and communities to design effective environments that promote the social-emotional well-being of all children, as well as academic success.

SW-PBS Implementation Features

The essence of SW-PBS is as follows:

School-wide positive behavior support (SW-PBS) is an approach that begins with a school-wide prevention effort, and then adds intensive individualized support for those students with more extreme needs (Horner, Sugai, & Vincent, 2005, p. 4).

It is built around five core strategies: Focusing on prevention, teaching appropriate social behavior and skills, acknowledging appropriate behavior, gathering and using data about student behavior, and investing in the systems that support adults in their implementation of effective practices (Horner, Sugai, & Vincent, 2005; see Five Core Strategies of SW-PBS for details).

Five Core Strategies of SW-PBS

  • Focus on preventing the development and occurrence of problem behavior, which is more effective, cost-efficient, and productive than responding after problem behavior patterns have become ingrained.
  • Teach appropriate social behavior and skills. Because children come to school from many different backgrounds, schools must define the core social expectations (e.g., be respectful, be responsible, be safe), and overtly teach the behaviors and skills associated with these expectations. When all students in the school are taught the same social skills, a social culture is established where students not only have personal knowledge about social expectations, they know that everyone in the school knows those same social expectations.
  • Acknowledge appropriate behavior. Students should receive regular recognition for appropriate behavior at rates that exceed rates of recognition for rule violations and problem behaviors. Negative consequences alone will not change problem behavior. Instead of ignoring problem behavior, a continuum of consequences (e.g., correction, warning, office discipline referral) for problem behavior should be maintained and used to prevent escalation and allow instruction to continue in class.
  • Gather and use data about student behavior to guide behavior support decisions. Data on what problem behaviors are being observed and how often, where and what time of the day they are occurring, and who is engaging in these problem behaviors enable schools to develop the most effective, efficient, and relevant school-wide behavior support plan.
  • Invest in the systems that support adults in their implementation of effective practices (e.g., teams, policies, funding, administrative support, data structures).

Source: Horner, Sugai, & Vincent (2005), p. 4.

SW-PBS utilizes three tiers of prevention strategies that occur along a continuum of needs and intensity of responses (see SW-PBS Continuum of Prevention). Implementation at Tier 1 results in consistent use of academic and behavioral content matched to a larger number of students (80-90%) while minimizing the number needing additional supports at Tier 2 and Tier 3. For implementation at Tier 1, educators would do the following: (a) define three to five school-wide behavioral expectations; (b) teach, model and practice those behavioral expectations daily in the school setting; (c) acknowledge students with daily recognition through a whole school motivation system for following the expectations; (d) plan and execute re-teaching of expectations; (e) have clear classroom procedures for minor problem behaviors; (f) offer effective and consistent discipline referral for major problem behaviors; and (g) track all student behavior through systematic screening and progress monitoring.

SW-PBS Continuum of Prevention

  • Tier 1 or Primary Prevention. The goal is to create a positive school culture in which pro-social student behaviors are taught and reinforced, and all adults respond to the occurrence of problem behavior in a consistent manner. In SW-PBS, Tier 1 strategies are designed using evidence-based practices. All faculty members work together to improve academic and behavioral outcomes for all students.
  • Tier 2 or Secondary Prevention. This is intended to support students who have learning, behavior, or life histories that put them at risk of engaging in more serious problem behavior.
  • Tier 3 or Tertiary Prevention. At this level strategies are used to support the smaller number of students whose needs are more individualized than strategies implemented at Tier 1 or Tier 2.

Source: Based on Kansas Institute for Positive Behavior Support (2009), p. 1.

Tier 2 implementation offers the use of academic and behavioral strategies intended for smaller groups of students (10-12%), minimizing the number who may need more intensive support at Tier 3. Effective implementation results in as many students as possible returning to Tier 1. Educators would do the following for implementation of Tier 2: (a) provide additional teaching around core social needs based on screening and progress monitoring data; (b) differentiated instruction of behavioral expectations in a targeted fashion to specific students with specific needs; (c) increased involvement with peer support such as mentors, peer tutoring, and peer networks; (d) a system for students to manage their own behavior with the support of their educators (i.e., self-management, check-in/check-out and parent communication); and (e) consistent monitoring of responsiveness to interventions with purposeful data.

Implementation at Tier 3 offers the most intense level of support for a smaller number of students (5-7% of school population) and results in strategic and durable implementation of academic and behavioral programming. As is the goal with effective multi-tiered support, effective implementation results in as many students as possible returning to Tier 2 or 1. Within Tier 3, educators meet the needs of any remaining students who have not had their behavioral and academic needs met at Tier 1 or 2. Educators offering support at Tier 3: (a) develop individualized behavioral support plans based on data and functional behavioral assessment, (b) provide intensive individualized instruction with extra teaching resources as needed, (c) offer frequent and ongoing acknowledgment of desired behavior, (d) have a clear process to ensure sustainable implementation of the behavior support plan, and lastly (e) carry on frequent and specific collection of data on intervention effectiveness.

Resources About SW-PBS

By using SW-PBS to teach and reinforce social and other skills, and embed prevention and intervention into natural daily routines, educators are able to improve social-emotional well-being of students with and without disabilities, prevent and reduce problem behaviors, enhance learning, and facilitate a positive school climate. To learn more about implementing SW-PBS, the following resources can be consulted:

  • Horner, R., Sugai, G., & Vincent, C. (2005). School-wide Positive Behavior Support: Investing in student success. Impact: Feature Issue on Fostering Success in School and Beyond for Students with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders, 18(2), 4–5. Retrieved from

  • Kansas Institute for Positive Behavior Support. (2009). School-Wide Positive Behavior Supports Newsletter, 1(1), 1. Retrieved from