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The Preview: Disabilities

Bringing It Home: Positive Behavior Support

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Looking for ideas on how to implement PBS? Consider these examples of problem solving for difficult family routines in this free download

We asked the authors of Parenting with Positive Behavior Support for their insight on how and why PBS works. Fundamentally, PBS helps parents learn how to identify behaviors of concern, understand the reasons behind the behaviors, and prevent or replace the behaviors. Jane Sergay, parent education specialist and mother of three daughters, shared her perspective with us:

It was so exciting to find a scientifically based process like PBS that would guide parents through a process to understand the behavior of their child and to find ways to prevent, replace, and manage it, while keeping the dignity and respect of the child–parent relationship intact.

I have always believed in the necessity of understanding where behavior comes from before a parent can successfully change a problem behavior. To be effective, parents need to look for the purpose of a problem behavior. What does the child want out of the behavior and what is causing it? This is what PBS is all about.

As a parent, the way you respond to behavior is as important as the behavior of your child. I have stressed that each circumstance is uniquely different depending on a child’s strengths and weaknesses as well as the attitudes of the parents and the home environment. Managing behavior is an individualized process that depends on the priorities of the family, the styles of the parents, and the circumstances and context in which the behavior is seen. PBS does not believe in using negative discipline tools to get quick fixes in order to stop a certain behavior.

PBS is more than a step by-step strategy to reduce negative behavior. It is a thoughtful and probing process that helps a parent reflect on why a behavior is happening, diagnose it and find common sense and effective ways to discover patterns in behavior, measure it, and minimize it.

A real-life example of PBS in action

I worked with a family whose 8-year-old son had inconsistent explosive tantrums throughout the day. The parents never knew when they were going to happen or how severe they would be. The family would be having a great time and then one would occur. They were anxious and never knew what to do.

The parents usually covered up for Matthew when they were with other people, either telling people he was tired or belittling him or telling him to stop acting like a baby. Sometimes they would get so frustrated and embarrassed they would bribe him with a gift or end up hitting him so they looked like they were in charge of this unruly child. Nothing seemed to work and it was getting worse at home and in school. The parents were so tired of reacting inconsistently to Matthew’s behavior and felt they were exacerbating the problem. They were tired of being scared of these outbursts and embarrassed by their own behavior.

The parents tried to figure out where this behavior was coming from. They wanted to understand it—the initial step with the PBS process. The parents spoke to family members, teachers, and coaches. They were searching to find answers to what triggered it. With careful examination the parents started to monitor the behavior.

They made charts focusing on the severity of the outburst, the frequency of the outburst, and when during the day the outburst occurred. No pattern was emerging and they needed more information. Next, a behavior log and a journal were created for two weeks. Some patterns started to emerge by studying the behavior log and reading the journal.

By looking at the behavior that occurred before the outburst and what happened, the parents began to detect a pattern within a half hour of every outburst. It was either a time when Matthew needed to change from one activity to another or one environment to another. They saw that Matthew’s outbursts seemed to correlate with transition periods during his day, not immediately before the transition was asked of him but within the half hour prior to transition. Because of the delay, it was so difficult to see it at first. His anticipation and anxiety of moving from one place or one activity to another was enough to trigger his outburst.

Once we established what we thought was a pattern and what set Matthew off, Mom and Dad worked on ways to prevent this anxiety when a transition was going to happen. They worked on replacing negative behavior with helpful tools and then ultimately giving consequences when they saw less negative behavior occurring or else they made sure they did not pay off the problem behavior in some way.  

  • Matthew’s parents were able to prevent problem behavior by giving him fewer transition periods during his day and preparing him far in advance (more than most children need) by making a daily calendar and showing him how the day was planned and when he could anticipate a move of environment or activity. 
  • They replaced his negative behavior by purchasing a timer for Matthew to carry in his pocket that was set for a certain time that reminded him that a transition was soon going to occur, giving him control in the situation. 
  • They taught him a song ("Whistle a Happy Tune") that he could sing when he felt the anger and frustration of having to stop what he was doing or leave a certain place.
  • They explained that it was all right to feel the way he did and encouraged him to come to his parents so they could help him wind down from one activity to the next by stroking his back, tickling his arm, or just sitting next to him.
  • They then set up consequences (dinner dates, special trips, fun activities) and gave him positive talk when they saw that he was trying hard to hold in or redirect the negative behavior. 

A very noticeable change was seen in Matthew in a 2-month period.

Because PBS believes behavior is so individualized and respects each family’s differences, there is no one strategy to eliminate negative behavior. PBS provides a format or a structure of how to think through difficult behavior and then allows parents to fit their unique situation into it.

It is similar to learning a new language. Everyone might learn the same language by studying the syntax and vocabulary of that language, but what words we ultimately choose to use to express ourselves are unique to each communicator. The more you practice your new language the closer you are to speaking fluently. Just like a new language, PBS becomes a way of thinking about behavior that if used continuously becomes internalized and becomes the natural way to view behavior.

Negative behavior is not seen in a vacuum. You must understand behavior before you can react to it. The more a parent uses PBS, the more it becomes part of them and they are able to incorporate it into their daily lives. Their first thought is not how am I going to change this behavior quickly, but where is this coming from, why does my child need to exhibit this behavior, and how can I help minimize it by preventing, replacing, and managing it. That is why PBS is seen as a process individualized to each family’s story.

From the Authors

I was fortunate enough to learn the PBS approach early in my adult life. I had been sort of indoctrinated with it in my profession prior to parenthood. It is the foundation for how I approached problem behavior. When I looked at my children’s undesirable behavior, I didn’t just consider how I needed to respond to stop it (through punishment); I looked at the behavior as a way of communicating something to me. My job as a parent was to figure out what that was. The more I came to understand why the behaviors were happening, the more likely I was to create situations that prevented the problems and to predetermine consequences that made sense and reduced the likelihood of those behaviors in the future.

PBS has been helpful in small things, like making shopping trips less troublesome, and in large things, like reducing chronic disorderly behaviors. Without PBS, I am certain that the quality of our family life would have been greatly diminished. ... PBS is for anyone and everyone who interacts with others; the approach can apply to all people and their behaviors. (You can use it to deal with your spouse!)

—Karen Childs, Technical Assistance Specialist
Florida's Positive Behavior Support Project

PBS is a set of principles (rather than procedures); using these principles, parents can develop their own solutions or select and evaluate options for addressing behavior.

PBS is a process by which parents can generate individualized solutions; it is driven by questions rather than answers, making it applicable with every situation.

PBS is inclusive; it encourages collaboration among all the people involved in a child’s life and does not exclude other disciplines, perspectives, and approaches. (It is not reliant on experts.)

—Meme Hieneman, Director of the Positive Family Intervention Project
University of South Florida, St. Petersburg


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