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Positive Behavior Strategies: What You Need to Know

By Amanda Morin

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

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 you decipher the message.)

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. Here’s how positive behavior strategies can help you do that: 

These strategies help 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.

These strategies teach and reinforce new skills. Once you understand why a student is behaving a certain way, you can respond more effectively. You can teach them 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.

These strategies prompt you to consider multiple reasons for behavioral difficulties. Challenging behavior can happen for many reasons. Students may lack 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, some students may be reacting to an environment that isn’t supporting their learning. Or there could be a cultural difference, which 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?

To see a positive behavior strategy in action, watch this classroom video from Edutopia: 

For more examples of positive behavior strategies, take a look at these ready-to-use strategy articles: 

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 BehaviorHow to Get Started
Create a classroom layout that supports students.
  • Provide flexible spaces like a reading corner to support different types of learning. 

  • Position furniture to ensure smooth transitions.

  • Organize materials in safe and accessible ways.

  • Seat students near peers who model appropriate behavior and who can ignore inappropriate behavior.

  • Seat students near you so you can use strategies like active supervision and pre-correction.  

Post and define positive behavior expectations. 

  • With your students, co-create classroom expectations that are observable, measurable, positive, and understandable. 

  • Limit expectations to three to five statements.

Explicitly teach behavior expectations.

  • Plan, teach, and practice expected behaviors.

  • Plan, teach, and practice routines and procedures.

  • Reinforce and re-teach routines, procedures, and expectations throughout the year.

  • Establish ways to monitor your classroom and frequently check in with students.

Have systems to respond to behavior.

  • Acknowledge positive behavior when you see it. Research suggests making five positive comments for every correction.

  • Provide rewards (when appropriate) for demonstrating positive behavior.

  • Collect data to look at the causes of inappropriate behavior.

  • Collaborate with specialists to use data to create supports for individual students.

  • Explicitly teach and reinforce new skills aligned to appropriate behavior.

  • Set competence anchors for students.

Partner with families.

  • Gather information about students from families and caregivers.

  • Engage the family when a student demonstrates challenging behavior. 

  • Follow up with families to share when a student is demonstrating positive behavior.

 

Family Connection

Behavior expectations might be different at home than they are at school, so 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 may hear or behavior changes they may see. Also, families may want to use the same expectations at home. Share with them these parent-child behavior contracts to get started.   


Additional Resources and Research

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  • Facebook
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  • Text Message
  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom