Positive Behavior Support in the Home

Implementation of positive behavior support (PBS) in schools is rapidly increasing, and for good reason. Among other things, teachers and other support staff learn how to analyze problem behavior by noting what happens before and after the behavior, and what makes the behavior better or worse.

PBSEverythingElem3Next, they plan and implement environmental adjustments and interventions that work to decrease negative behavior and increase positive behavior. They may plan ways to interrupt the cycle of events that lead to undesired behavior, change their own responses to undesired behaviors, and offer positive reinforcement for appropriate behavior.  These changes can be implemented on a school-wide, small group, or individual basis.

Children who have special needs often require individual plans because they may have a wide variety of “triggers” or negative responses to the environment that increase the likelihood of disruptive and sometimes violent behavior.  Often these behaviors are triggered by things unlikely to cause similar behavior in typically developing children.

How teachers respond to this behavior is important. For instance, instead of sternly telling a student to “stop that right now or you’re going to the office,” a teacher might calmly redirect the behavior or ask the student to explain what’s bothering him, and offer the student a break or access to a place to calm down.

Meanwhile, many parents of children who have disabilities face similar challenges at home. Fortunately, the principles of positive behavior support can work just as well at home and in the community.

My son Jalen, age 19, has severe cognitive and developmental disabilities including low-functioning autism, and began developing problem behaviors by the age of two. They included hitting himself and others, destroying household items, throwing himself to the ground, and prolonged screaming. To complicate matters, his ability to communicate and understand the world around him is severely impaired. I quickly realized that just saying no or trying to reason with him didn’t work. Figuring out what was likely to upset him, and using distraction or redirection to divert him became my first line of defense.

Even now I find that talking to him in a calm voice and otherwise modeling the behavior I want to see quickly calms him down. I also find that using slow movements and reminding him of previously taught calming techniques such as deep breathing often do the trick.

However, Jalen occasionally strikes out physically when very upset or overwhelmed, hitting himself or whoever happens to be closest to him. Such behaviors are often explained by something in the environment that frightens or startles him, such as a child having a meltdown in a grocery store, or my husband changing the channel on the television.

This means our family has to pay very close attention to the surrounding environment and make adjustments when possible. For instance, if we notice rowdy kids in a restaurant, we’ll ask for a table on the other side of the room.

My husband Don used to get angry when Jalen would insist on keeping the television constantly tuned to the same channel. Don would sound angry when telling Jalen it was his turn. “You can’t always watch what you want,” he’d snap. The irritation in his voice would only escalate the situation, which too often ended with Jalen pulling Don’s hair or hitting him, and Don getting angrier.

He now tells Jalen in advance when he wants to watch something on television, and reassures him that he’ll get his chance again soon.


An extra benefit of positive behavior support is that it improves the overall family atmosphere, and helps parents feel more positive about themselves. Instead of seeing a child as “bad,” parents find themselves looking at undesired behaviors and utilizing a problem solving approach. They know these techniques have a proven track record, and the whole family is rewarded with a far less stressful home environment.

Have you had any experience or success with using positive behavior support at home? Let us know what worked and what didn’t work in the comments below.