Positive behavior strategies are evidence-based, proactive approaches to changing challenging student behavior. Some examples of positive behavior strategies are pre-correcting and prompting and nonverbal signals.
There’s a lot to think about when it comes to teaching. You plan and deliver lessons to cover the curriculum. You adjust your lesson plans to meet your students’ needs. On top of it all, you manage student behavior.
You’re not alone if you feel like managing behavior sometimes gets in the way of teaching. That’s where positive behavior strategies come in. These strategies are also known as positive behavior supports, or PBS.
Why use positive behavior strategies?
Positive behavior strategies encourage you to see behavior as a form of communication. Every behavior sends a message about what a student needs. Some messages are easy to read. Some need more deciphering. (In those cases, a behavior specialist, a school psychologist, or other colleagues can help.)
Once you understand the message behind the behavior, you can better support students. As Jerome Schultz, PhD, puts it, “If you can read the need, you can meet the need.”
Instead of reacting to challenging behaviors, you can proactively reduce them. Using positive behavior strategies can help you:
Build a trusting relationship between teachers, students, and families.
Instead of seeing behavior as a problem, you’ll show empathy by looking at students with compassionate curiosity. With this view, you can shift your focus from “fixing” students to understanding them. You can also develop a more collaborative relationship with students by working together to understand when and under what circumstances a behavior occurs.
Teach and reinforce new skills.
Once you understand why a student behaves a certain way, you can respond more effectively. You can teach new behaviors that serve the same purpose. Many social-emotional learning programs incorporate specific strategies for teaching behaviors, like how to follow directions or ignore peer distractions.
Prompt you to consider multiple reasons for behavioral difficulties.
Students might not have the language or communication skills to express what they need. Or the behavior could be a way to avoid a difficult situation or task. Some students behave in negative ways to get attention or to get what they want. In other cases, they may be reacting to an environment that isn’t supporting their learning. Or there could be a cultural difference. This may prompt you to take a culturally responsive approach to analyzing the behavior and your response to it.
As a classroom teacher, you may not have all the time, tools, or training to look at student behavior in depth. You can work with other school staff to do a functional behavior assessment (FBA). The specialist who does the FBA can work with teachers to create an appropriate behavior intervention plan.
What do positive behavior strategies look like?
Explore examples of positive behavior strategies:
To see a positive behavior strategy in action, watch this classroom video from Edutopia.
How do I put positive behavior strategies into practice?
Handling challenging behavior can be frustrating. Use this chart to reflect on where you are in your practice and where you might focus your next efforts.
|Practices to support positive behavior||How to get started|
|Create a classroom layout that supports students.|
Post and define positive behavior expectations.
Explicitly teach behavior expectations.
Have systems to respond to behavior.
Partner with families.
How can families support this at home?
Behavior expectations might be different at home than they are at school. It’s important for families to know what’s expected in your classroom. Talk with families about the behavioral expectations in the classroom and the language you use to talk about behavior.
This will help families understand new phrases they hear or behavior changes they see. Also, families may want to use the same expectations at home. Share with them these parent-child behavior contracts to get started.
How do I use positive behavior strategies during distance learning?
- Schedule regular check-ins with students and their families.
- Explicitly teach and review expectations and routines for distance learning.
- Teach strategies and provide flexible supports for organization, planning, and self-regulation.
- Help students develop strategies for managing stress and anxiety, including using distance learning brain breaks during live lessons.
- Learn more about trauma-informed teaching and strategies for supporting students’ social and emotional needs.
Additional resources and research
- “Positive behavioral support: Strategies for teachers,” from Intervention in School and Clinic
- “Modifying the Classroom Environment” and “Culturally Responsive Practices and Implicit Biases With Discipline,” from Preventing Suspensions and Expulsions in Early Childhood Settings
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About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.
Jerome Schultz, PhD is a clinical neuropsychologist and lecturer in the Harvard Medical School Department of Child Psychiatry.