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By Cynthia Warger

Fighting, biting, hitting, scratching, kicking, screaming-as well as extreme withdrawal-are behaviors that challenge even the best educators and families. For years, researchers and practitioners alike have asked the question: Why does a particular child act that way?

Unlike traditional behavioral management, which views the individual as the problem and seeks to "fix" him or her by quickly eliminating the challenging behavior, positive behavioral support (PBS) and functional analysis (FA) view systems, settings, and lack of skill as parts of the "problem" and work to change those. As such, these approaches are characterized as long-term strategies to reduce inappropriate behavior, teach more appropriate behavior, and provide contextual supports necessary for successful outcomes.

PBS and FA can help practitioners and parents understand why the challenging behavior occurs-its function or purpose for the individual. In addition to helping practitioners and families understand the individual with the challenging behavior, PBS and FA also help them understand the physical and social contexts of the behavior. Moreover, PBS and FA provide a framework for helping the child to change challenging behaviors.

The 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires the IEP team to consider using PBS to address behavior that impedes the child's learning and/or the learning of others [Section 614 (d)(3)(B)]. In addition, IDEA requires that a functional behavioral assessment be conducted for a student either before or not later than 10 days after a disciplinary action [Section 615 (k)(1)(B)(I)]. A functional behavioral assessment ensures that the student's behavioral intervention plan is designed to meet that child's unique needs.

Research-much of it supported by the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP)-has demonstrated that PBS and FA are effective in assisting students with challenging behaviors. The following sections describe some of this research.

What Do We Know About Positive Behavioral Support? A synthesis of more than 100 research articles that involved individuals with various cognitive disabilities found that:

  • PBS is widely applicable to individuals with serious challenging behaviors.

  • Research in PBS is rapidly contributing to our knowledge of how to use the results of assessments and how to correct environmental deficiencies.

  • PBS is effective in reducing problem behavior by 80 percent in two-thirds of the cases.

  • Success rates are higher when intervention is based on prior functional assessment (Carr, as reported by the Beach Center on Families and Disability, 1998).

Many teachers already take the following actions, which have been identified by research as supporting positive behaviors:

  • Respond to individual needs. PBS requires that services and programs are responsive to the preferences, strengths, and needs of individuals with challenging behavior. For example, some school systems may need to add self-determination skills to their curriculum.

  • Alter environments. If something in the individual's environment influences the challenging behavior, it is important to organize the environment for success. For example, clearly defined work paces and quiet work areas may assist a child who is noise-sensitive.

  • Explicitly teach new skills to the individual with challenging behavior and members of his or her social network. Individuals frequently need to learn alternative, appropriate responses that serve the same purpose as the challenging behavior.

  • Genuinely appreciate positive behaviors. It is important to reinforce and acknowledge all positive behaviors consistently.

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