2.3 Positive Behaviour Support

Key factors and principles

When using a positive behaviour support (PBS) approach to addressing challenging behaviour, key factors and principles are drawn from ABA. The first principle is that behaviour is learned as a result of reinforcement. Reinforcement generally is perceived to originate in the environment rather than within the individual. If behaviour is learned, then problem behaviour can be changed through teaching and learning.

“The environment affects behaviour in predictable ways” (Scott, Anderson & Alter, 2012, p. 17).

Understanding that behaviour is the result of an interaction between it and the environment, is a key principle of a positive behaviour support approach. Within the environment some examples of influence on behaviour could be the space itself, the people in it, the expectations or the task. If a behaviour is followed by a positive or favourable outcome, then it is more likely to keep happening or occur again. Therefore, inappropriate student behaviour occurs because the consequences of the behaviour are reinforcing. To reduce the behaviour, a teacher must identify these consequences and alter them. This leads to the next important principle, behaviour can be changed.

Bubble diagram with three bubbles intersecting. One bubble says 'learned,' one says 'chnangeable,' and one says 'affected by the environemnt.'
Figure 2.1 Govind Krishnamoorthy and Kay Ayre licensed under CC BY-SA.

The conditions surrounding the behaviour are changed to reduce or stop the undesirable behaviour and increase appropriate behaviour. The focus is upon determining the antecedents or events that trigger the behaviour, alter the consequences maintaining the behaviour and reinforce the desired behaviours. By scrutinising the environment, looking for patterns and influences on the behaviour, the function or purpose of the behaviour can be determined, and behaviour interventions can be developed to match the function, teach and reinforce new (replacement) behaviours.

Think back to earlier in the chapter when you considered your own beliefs regarding the causes of disruptive student behaviour. Can you see that the belief that the causes of misbehaviour lie within the student are in direct contrast to the underlying ABA belief that observable behaviour is an important source of behaviour change? From a PBS perspective, the blame for the disruptive behaviour is not levelled at the individual, the family, the home life or the disability rather, it is directed at the environment and what is happening there.

Considering disruptive student behaviour from the point of view of its relationship to the environment (a behaviourist view) means that the teacher is more likely to persist in trying to discover the function of the behaviour and how to change the environment to prevent, teach and reinforce the desired student behaviour. So how can teachers do this? Teachers can embrace a positive behaviour support mindset, employing ABA methods and interventions to help reduce disruptive student behaviour. Proactive and preventative, a positive behaviour support framework uses the core principles of applied behaviour analysis to promote student discipline at the whole school, small group and individual levels (Bambara, Janney & Snell, 2015). Kincaid (2016, p. 71) states that “PBS relies on strategies that are respectful of a person’s dignity and overall well-being and that are drawn primarily from behavioral, educational, and social sciences,” in addition to other evidence-based procedures. Kincaid (2016, p. 71) notes that PBS may be applied at an individual level and a larger level (e.g., families, classrooms, schools, social service programs, and facilities).

There is an emphasis on proactive, preventative behaviour of staff and students through altering the environment and explicitly teaching students the behaviour expectations and any skills they may need to effectively participate and achieve their best at school. Using the principles of applied behaviour analysis, PBS expands upon these principles by providing a multi-tiered (tier one, tier two and tier three) structure that caters for all students across different degrees of support for behaviour.

An introduction to PBS [6 min 37 sec]

Watch this animated video which introduces the key elements of positive behaviour support.

Positive Behavioural Interventions and Supports (PBIS)

Explore this website to learn more about positive behavioural interventions and supports (PBIS).

Thinking functionally to support positive behaviour

Thinking functionally about disruptive student behaviour is an important objective of positive behaviour support focussed on changing the conditions surrounding the behaviour to reduce or stop the undesirable behaviour and increase appropriate behaviour. Scrutinising the environment is key to determining why the behaviour is happening. Working from this perspective shifts the focus from something being wrong with the student (within the child that is not observable) to the actual behaviour. The focus is upon determining the antecedents or events that trigger the behaviour, altering the consequences maintaining the behaviour and reinforcing the desired behaviours. Determining the function of the disruptive behaviour is at the core of any intervention developed from a behavioural perspective. From this behaviourist perspective, there are only two functions to peoples’ behaviour, to access/get a thing, person or event or sensory stimulation (these are examples of positive reinforcement) to avoid/escape something, a
person or event or sensory stimulation (these are examples of negative reinforcement).

Sensory regulation/sensory stimulation is often outlined in the literature as a third function of behaviour. This is just another way of explaining the functional outcomes of behaviour where sensory stimulation is viewed as a separate category of a possible function. For our purposes here, we will remain focused on the two primary functions of access and escape. “Reinforcement always increases a behaviour, but it does so in two different ways” (Scott et al., 2012, p. 24) – positively and negatively. When a student ‘gets/accesses’ something as a result of their behaviour this is positive reinforcement. For example, during reading time Julie pushes another child and her peers laugh, she gets peer attention. Something is added to the behaviour of pushing – peer attention, so this is positive reinforcement. When the behaviour serves the purpose to escape or avoid something, this is called negative reinforcement. If Julie was sent to ‘buddy class’ when she pushed the other child, and she kept pushing the other child, we would say that the pushing behaviour (that was still happening) was negatively reinforced – Julie escaped/avoided reading groups (she pushed and was sent to buddy class).

When we are thinking functionally about behaviour the process of gathering and analysing the data is to help us to determine and understand the purpose of the challenging behaviour. We want to find out the function or what is in it for the student? Behaviour is communication. It is important to remember that challenging behaviour will often serve different functions for the student depending on the context, so looking closely at the behaviour within the context in which it happens is vital. Think for a minute about your own behaviour and how it changes depending on the context. How do you behave in the context of your own home, in your car when driving, or at a sporting event? Does your ‘teacher behaviour’ look and sound like your ‘socialising’ behaviour? Behaviour is related to the particular environment in which it happens.

Toxic stress: a story [8 min 38 sec]

This video clip provides a snapshot of behaviour management approaches across time.


Bambara, L. M., Janney, R., & Snell, M. E. (2015). Behavior support. (3rd ed.). Baltimore, Maryland: Paul H. Brookes.

Kincaid, D., Dunlap, G., Kern, L., Lane, K. L., Bambara, L. M., Brown, F., Fox, L., & Knoster, T. P. (2016). Positive behavior support: A proposal for updating and refining the definition. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 18(2), 69-73. doi: 10.1177/1098300715604826

Scott, T. M., Anderson, C. M., & Alter, P. (2012). Managing classroom behavior using positive behaviour supports. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

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