A young boy who is visually impaired and multiply disabled holds a plastic spoon in one hand and hits his other hand with it.

Positive Behavior Supports

This webcast provides an overview of the shifts in thinking about Behavior Intervention over the years and the current focus on Positive Behavior Supports.

This webcast provides an overview of the shifts in thinking about Behavior Intervention over the years and the current focus on Positive Behavior Supports. Judi Beltis talks about reward vs. punishment and its impact on behavior. In addition, Judi discusses behavior triggers and effective reinforcement strategies.

Read full transcript »

Presented by Judi Beltis, Behavior Analyst

Length of time to complete: approximately 30 minutes



  1. Introduction
  2. The Case for Reward versus Punishment
  3. Recognizing Behavior Triggers
  4. Positive Reinforcement and Social Behavior
  5. Identifying Effective Reinforcing Strategies
  6. Setting Goals and Measuring Progress

CHAPTER 1: Introduction

NARRATOR: Prior to viewing this webcast, it is suggested that the viewer download a functional behavior assessment form from the internet. There are many different types available.

Judi Beltis talks about positive behavior supports.BELTIS: Well, I’d like to talk about positive behavior supports. I think of it as the culmination of 40 or 50 years of study, research, and empirical data to show us better ways to teach children and adults how to learn and how to gain new skills and knowledge. So after B. F. Skinner did his work, we had some basic principles about behavior and how it operates.

We knew that consequences controlled behaviors, that if a behavior was to recur again, or not occur again, really depended on the consequences that followed it, whether it was a reward or punishment. And parents and teachers have known this, I think, for a long time, and have used some series of rewards and punishments to get children to behave and to learn their lessons. But it wasn’t necessarily done in a systematic way.

So with the advent of applied behavior analysis, we started to do it in a more systematic way in the ’60s and ’70s. Most of the time, this happened in small, controlled settings focusing on just one behavior, often a behavior that was undesirable. We were trying to get rid of it. And people were using punishment to get rid of that bad behavior.

A young boy who is visually impaired and multiply disabled holds a plastic spoon in one hand and hits his other hand with it.NARRATOR: In a video clip, we see several adults attempting to conduct a vision evaluation with a young boy who is visually impaired and multiply disabled.

The boy holds a plastic spoon in one hand and repeatedly hits his other hand with it. The boy is not being punished for this behavior.

It is, however, an example of a behavior that his teachers, parents, and other caretakers might want to eliminate.

BELTIS: In the popular culture, and then in the scientific literature, this system became known as behavior modification. There were some problems with using punishment, and people started to raise ethical questions about it. And the fact that we were focusing only on the consequences, and not on what happens before the behavior, were starting to raise questions as well.

CHAPTER 2: The Case for Reward versus Punishment

BELTIS: So that’s exactly the question that came up. Aside from the ethical challenges of punishing children, we found out that — through lots of research — that reinforcement actually is much more effective in teaching new skills. And so, in the ’80s and ’90s, the whole debate about whether the use aversives — as punishments is called — or nonaversives was going on within the field of behavior analysis.

I was lucky enough to hear B. F. Skinner talk at a national convention in Boston. It was for parents, and advocates, and professionals, and he very clearly said that punishment was not an educational tool. So as more and more behavior analysis — behavior modification, which now has sort of merged into being called behavior management.

We started to get away from using punishment so much. There’s a number of problems with punishment, and the biggest one is that the child or the person who’s getting punished is going to try to escape or avoid that situation. Or they might try to avoid the person that’s providing the punishment.

A teenage girl huddled on the floor in the corner of a classroom and hides her face with her right hand.NARRATOR: In a black and white photograph, we see a teenage girl who is huddled on the floor in the corner of a classroom. She hides her face with her right hand and pulls at her hair with her left.

BELTIS: It also prompts them to lie about their own behavior, and so that doesn’t make for a good relationship between the adult caretaker or educator in the child or the person whose behavior we hope to change. And again, they are ethical considerations.

Effective punishment will work really quickly and stop a behavior, but as soon as the threat of punishment is lifted, that behavioral reemerge because the student hasn’t learned any new skills.

CHAPTER 3: Recognizing Behavior Triggers

BELTIS: So in the ’80s and ’90s, there was that shift from — there was the discussion and the debate about using aversives, or not using aversive behaviors. And there was also a start to look at the function of behaviors.

Why are these things occurring? So, whereas in the past, we knew that behaviors were controlled by their consequences. We didn’t pay much attention, originally, to what happened just before those behaviors occurred. Those are called the antecedents. So we started to look at those more often to see if we could redirect the behavior before it happened, to prevent it from happening by manipulating the antecedents.

And so today, there’s much more work being done on the front end of the behavior to be able to anticipate what triggers the behavior, and then set up other signals to the child or the adult to do other kinds of behaviors, and to substitute more appropriate behaviors.

A young girl who is visually impaired and multiply disabled standing with her teacher at a table.NARRATOR: In a photograph, we see a young girl who is visually impaired and multiply disabled standing with her teacher at a table.

The girl is plunging her hands into a shallow plastic pan filled with warm, soapy water. Her teachers have noticed that the girl enjoys this, and now use the activity to calm her down when she begins to get agitated.

BELTIS: So we also started to think about the biological influences on people’s behavior. We know now that children with certain kinds of disabilities tend to have behaviors that are challenging to adults and interfere with their learning. And so we try to find ways to address those behaviors. So I think that parents often know their children best and medical diagnosises have become much more advanced today.

So we’re able to tease out, often, what’s happening with the child. Why are they always holding their ears in class? Maybe it is to a sensory overload, it’s too noisy. Or why do they always act out in the lunchroom? It may be too chaotic and too noisy for them. So as positive reinforcement was recognized more and more as a teaching tool to build new skills, we also realized that we needed to work with the antecedents to set the child up to be more successful.

And so this evolution over time, from applied behavior analysis to behavior modification to behavior management, and now back to applied behavior analysis and positive behavior supports, which is what we have now in the 21st century.

CHAPTER 4: Positive Reinforcement and Social Behavior

BELTIS: So we’re in the 21st century now, and we know that positive reinforcement makes for really strong, long-lasting behaviors. And we use it to build children’s skills and knowledge. The definition of positive behavior supports is the application of positive behavioral interventions or systems to achieve socially important behavior change. So that’s George Sugai’s definition. And when he talks about socially important behavior change, we’re really talking about one of the foundations of positive behavior supports, which is to teach explicitly social skills to students in schools.

Here at Perkins, which is a school for the blind, we’ve known that we need to teach social skills explicitly for many years. And in fact, children who have a visual impairment or children who are blind have not only to learn their regular school curriculum, but also the Expanded Core Curriculum.

And one of the areas of the Expanded Core Curriculum is social skills development because students who can’t see very well or can’t see it all can’t learn through imitation. So they don’t see what their peers are doing. And so for many years, we’ve been teaching our students very important basic information about facing a speaker when you talk to them, reaching out to shake their hand when you meet a new person, how to dress a little bit so that you’re acceptable in public.

And what is OK to do and not do, and what is OK to say and not say in public. And those kind of social rules govern all classrooms. Without those social rules, classrooms can’t operate and students don’t learn.

A teenage girl who is visually impaired and multiply disabled gives her teacher a hug.NARRATOR: In a video clip, a teenage girl who is visually impaired and multiply disabled enters a classroom and attempts to give her teacher a hug. The teacher reminds the student about respecting the personal space of others, and suggests a more socially appropriate side hug.

SPEAKER: So nice to see you.

BELTIS: There’s some basic rules about positive behavior supports when we try to implement them, some basic principles. And again, the foundation is the development of social skills, but we’re also looking at academic skills and ways to increase academic skills in students. And we want the students to participate in developing plans. It’s not adults coming in and saying, this is the way it’s going to be. But it’s the students interacting with the adults and saying, this is what I want to learn, or this is what motivates me.

It’s really important to have motivators for students that are going to work, and for them to participate in planning for their own maturation, if you will, or their own behavior change. And that’s another close link between the Expanded Core Curriculum and the principles of positive behavior supports, because both of them emphasize the development and the explicit teaching of social skills. And in addition, both of them emphasize self-determination and personal responsibility.

CHAPTER 5: Identifying Effective Reinforcing Strategies

BELTIS: Well, I try to make it a collaborative process between the student and I, whenever possible. Sometimes they don’t know what will motivate them. And, of course, it’s an empirical question. Once you try something out, the behaviors you’re looking to increase will either increase or they won’t. And if they don’t increase, then the thing that you’ve labeled as a reward or a reinforcement is not really a reinforcer because the behaviors aren’t increasing.

All these procedures a data-driven, and we look back on the research to use best practices and to use interventions that we know have worked before, in the past, with similar students with similar problems. But then we test it out. We take data while we’re working with the student and then look at the data and say, is this successful? Is this student improving? Some students can’t tell you what works for them. And in those cases, you make your best guess or you observe the student and see how they’re spending a lot of their time, how they choose to spend their time. And in some cases, those activities may become the reinforcers that you use for them.

A young boy who is blind and multiply disabled is shown playing a bowling game on Xbox.NARRATOR: In a video clip, a young boy who is blind and multiply disabled is shown playing a bowling game on Xbox, allowing him to roll the ball down the lane virtually. The boy’s teachers use time on the Xbox as a reward and reinforcer for positive behavior.

BELTIS: I’ve had a few students who have problems letting go of their technology. So the explosion of technology and technological devices to communicate with others is a real boon for students with visual impairments. There’s all kinds of Braille Notetakers and audio programming so that kids can talk into their iPhones and get YouTube videos and YouTube music. But some students really have a problem, then, letting go of that.

They want to do that all day. And so these are essential tools for them to manage as students, but they can’t let go. So they might be skipping classes because they want — because they’re stuck, literally stuck, on their Braille Notetaker. So we might develop a plan to limit their access to the Braille Notetaker, give them access for just a certain period, or certain amount of time per day, and reinforce them through the day for doing the other things that we need them to do, like go to classes, participate in classes, do their homework, be polite to others.

And I’ve had several students who have been — we award them iPoints, since they’re so into their iTunes and their iPhones, we award them iPoints. And they can collect those iPoints, and then that gets translated to cash that they can use to spend in their own iTunes account.

CHAPTER 6: Setting Goals and Measuring Progress

BELTIS: Well, I think that we want students to be successful, and kids often know– if you set a bar too low and it’s easy for them to jump over it, they don’t feel challenged. And most children have an innate experience of success when they know that they’ve put out some effort. So we don’t want to be always reinforcing behaviors that are very easy for kids to do.

We always want to sort of push them to what they can achieve, both academically and in terms of behavioral control. And sometimes they might overshoot it, and then we have to back up a little bit. Many kids have trouble regulating their behavior, and so they’ll have a period of time when things are going well, but then another period of time and when they’ll backslide, or go down in what their behavior expectations are, or they’re not meeting them. And so then, in those cases, we’d back up a little bit.

So we always want to be working right at the edge of the student’s success, ability for success, and just pushing them a little bit beyond, because we don’t know how far they’re going to be able to go. In many cases, they’ll surprise us if we just keep setting the bar just a little bit higher.

Anxiety also is a big problem for many students who have special needs. And so we try to help them to relax and find ways to use relaxation strategies so they can feel more calm and more in control of their own behavior. So they don’t have to act out in the classroom, where they don’t aggress at another student or the teacher, they don’t we have to leave the room because they can’t handle the stress of being in the classroom.

In a photograph, we see an area of a classroom that has been set aside as, what the teacher refers to as a peace place.NARRATOR: In a photograph, we see an area of a classroom that has been set aside as, what the teacher refers to as a peace place. In a small rocking chair sits a teddy bear.

There is a basket of colorfully illustrated books about feelings and behavior. On the floor, there are two smiley face circular rugs where students are encouraged to sit it and talk about conflicts, rather than engage in aggressive behavior.

BELTIS: Just like anybody else, kids will learn what behaviors are expected in one classroom, and what behaviors are expected in another classroom, and sometimes, what they can get away with. So we really try to have a team approach where everybody’s collaborating and everybody’s following the same basic rules.

I think it’s important to not have a really long, complicated program, because teachers don’t have time to do those for lots of kids. But some real basic rules about what to do when a student is doing well, what behaviors we want them to be reinforced for across the board, and what behaviors we might not want to see reinforced.

Sometimes teacher’s attention is reinforcing the wrong behavior and we encourage people to not always attend to those misbehaviors or undesired behaviors, but to really focus on the behaviors that are going to help the child to be successful.

NARRATOR: Additional resources can be found on the following websites — ideapartnership.org, pbis.org, and parentcenterhub.org.

A collage of images of positive behavior supports.

Quizlet logo

How I use Quizlet with low vision

Veronika Bernstein

Challenging Behavior: Impulsivity

preschool hands on a teacher-made braille book with illustration of a boat on water with stick figures of a dad and boy.

Tactile graphic rich environments series: The missing link