A Brief Overview
- Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is a strategy schools use to teach children expected behavior. Read on for PBIS strategies families can use at home.
- A key PBIS principle is that punishment fails to teach children and youth what they should do instead. Adults can direct a child toward a better choice or interrupt an escalation cycle.
- The easiest way to change a behavior is to point out what a person does right. Remember this catchy phrase, “5:1 gets it done,” to ensure five positive interactions for each negative interaction.
- Parents might find success with strategies they can share with school staff eventually.
- For additional strategies unique to COVID-19, the Office of Superintendent of Public instruction (OSPI) offers a series of 3 webinars for family caregivers. For information and links to the videos, see PAVE’s article: Webinars offer Parent Training to Support Behavior during Continuous Learning.
Schedule changes and seasonal transitions cause emotional upheaval for some families in typical years. Summer 2020 includes unique conditions, with families moving into a summer with fewer-than-usual options to keep children busy after months of learning from home due to the COVID-19 building closures. A few strategies, described below, might help families keep things chill this summer.
Experts in education use a framework for creating a positive environment called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). PBIS has been implemented in more than 26,000 U.S. schools. The PBIS framework has been shown to decrease disciplinary removals and improve student outcomes, including grades and graduation rates. When done well, PBIS provides positive social skills, communication strategies and “restorative justice,” (working it out instead of punishing) and may prevent 80-90 percent of problem behaviors.
Punishment does not teach
PBIS requires an understanding that punishment fails to help a child know what to do instead. Researchers have learned that a child who is being punished enters an emotionally dysregulated state (fight/flight/freeze) that blocks learning. Adults who calmly direct a child toward a new way of problem-solving can interrupt or prevent an escalation.
Keep in mind that adults need to stay regulated to help children. For strategies related to mindfulness, see PAVE’s article: Stay Home Help: Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, Breathe. PAVE also provides a library of short videos with mindfulness and breath practices for all ages and abilities: Mindfulness Videos.
Within a PBIS framework, de-escalation strategies might include:
- Remove what is causing the behavior
- Get down to eye level
- Offer empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of another
- Provide choices
- Re-teach expectations
- Reinforce desired behaviors
- Communicate care instead of control
Behavior is a child’s attempt to communicate
Simple, consistent, predictable language is a critical component. Insights about these strategies and more were shared in a webinar by Change Lab Solutions on April 30, 2019.
Among experts talking about PBIS are staff at the University of Washington’s School of Mental Health Assessment, Research and Training (SMART) Center. Staff from the SMART center lead the School Mental Health supplement of the Northwest Mental Health Technology Transfer Center (NWMHTTC). These agencies, in collaboration with the League of Education Voters, in June 2019 hosted a webinar: How to Implement Mental Health Supports in Schools, focused on the importance of blending school and community supports with PBIS.
A University of Washington (UW) expert who participated in the webinar is Kelcey Schmitz, a former OSPI staff member who has written articles for PAVE about positive behavior supports and state initiatives and has experience helping families and schools implement PBIS.
“PBIS is a game changer for children and youth with behavior challenges and their teachers and caregivers,” Schmitz says. “In fact, everyone can benefit from PBIS. Behavior is a form of communication, and PBIS aims to reduce problem behavior by increasing appropriate behavior and ultimately improving quality of life for everyone. The same approaches used by schools to prevent problem behaviors and create positive, safe, consistent and predictable environments can be used by families at home.”
Schmitz, an MTSS training and technical assistance specialist, provides the following specific tips for creating a successful PBIS home environment.
Support Positive Behavior before there is a problem
PBIS is set up with three layers—called tiers—of support. The parent-child relationship is strengthened by loving and positive interactions at each tier.
Tier 1 support is about getting busy before there is a problem. Much like learning to wash hands to prevent getting sick, expected behavior is taught and modeled to prevent unexpected behaviors. Parents can look at their own actions and choices and consider what children will see as examples of being respectful, responsible, and safe.
Tiers 2 and 3 are where adults provide more support for specific behaviors that are getting in the way of relationships or how the child or youth functions. In a school setting, Tier 2 is for students who need a social group or some extra teaching, practice, and reinforcement. Tier 3 supports include a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) to find out why the behavior is occurring, and an individualized Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP).
Any student may access supports that include aspects of Social Emotional Learning at all three Tiers. At home, Tiers 2 and 3 naturally will be more blended and may include support from a community provider. Note that targeted interventions in Tiers 2-3 work best when Tier 1 is already well established.
Define, teach, and routinely acknowledge family expectations
- Discuss how you want to live as a family and identify some “pillars” (important, building-block concepts) that represent what you value. Talk about what those pillars look like and sound like in every-day routines. To help the family remember and be consistent, choose only 3-5 and create positive statements about them. Here are a few examples:
- Speak in a respectful voice.
- Be responsible for actions.
- Be safe; keep hands, feet, and objects to self.
- Identify a couple of “hot spots” to begin. Challenging behaviors often occur within routines. Perhaps mornings or mealtimes create hot spots for the family. After discussing 1-2 ways to be respectful, responsible, and safe in the morning, teach what each looks like. Have fun with it! Set up “expectation stations” for practicing the plan and assign each family member one pillar to teach to the rest.
- Behaviors that get attention get repeated. Notice when a child does the right thing and say something about each success: “I noticed you stopped to pick up your shoes in the hallway. Thanks for putting them away and keeping the walkway safe for others.” The easiest way to change a behavior is to point out what a person does right!
- Remember this catchy phrase, “5:1 gets it done” to ensure five positive interactions for each negative interaction. When the expected behavior becomes routine, the reinforcement can fade away.
Create engaging and predictable routines
- Children crave structure and routine. Adults may look forward to a relaxing evening or weekend, but kids often need regular activity and engagement. Consider that either the kids are busy, or the adults are busy managing bored kids!
- Use visuals to create predictability. A visual schedule can display major routines of the day with pictures that are drawn, real photos or cut-outs from magazines. Create the schedule together, if possible. Parents can ask a child to check the schedule – especially when moving from a preferred to non-preferred activity. It’s hard to argue with a picture!
Set the stage for positive behavior
- Teach, pre-teach, and re-teach. Children need to learn behavior just like they learn colors and shapes. A quick reminder can help reinforce a developing skill: “When we get in the car, sit up, buckle up, and smile!”
- Give transition warnings or cues to signal the end of one activity and the beginning of another: “In five minutes, it will be bath time.”
- First/then statements set up a child for delayed gratification: “First take your bath; then we can play dolls.”
- Focus on Go instead of Stop. Children often tune out words like No, Don’t and Stop and only hear the word that comes next, which is what an adult is trying to avoid. Tell a child what to do instead of what not to do: “Take your plate and put it in the sink.” Save Stop and No for dangerous circumstances that need a quick reaction.
- Choices prevent power struggles: “Would you rather play for five more minutes or get in the bath now?” “Feel free to choose the pink pajamas or the green ones.”
While these strategies may not eliminate all problem behaviors, they create consistency, predictability, and a more positive atmosphere. They teach new skills to help children get their needs met. The solid foundation will help even if challenging behaviors persist by creating a bedrock for additional layers of support.
Here are places to seek additional information:
Parenting with Positive Behavior Support: A Practical Guide to Resolving Your Child’s Difficult Behavior
Home and Community Based Positive Behavior Support Facebook Page
Home and Community PBS Website
Parent Center Hub Positive Behavior Supports Resource Collection
Intensive Intervention: An Overview for Parents and Families
The Association for Positive Behavior Support
Getting Behavior in Shape at Home
Family Resources for Challenging Behavior
The National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (NCPMI) Resource Library, articles in multiple languages