Gains seen from School-Wide Positive Behavior Support

Rob Horner, UO College of EducationEUGENE, Ore. -- (July 23, 2009) -- Two University of Oregon-led studies provide insights on a fast-growing positive-reinforcement behavioral program for improving the social and academic outcomes for schools.

Both studies on School-Wide Positive Behavior Support (SWPBS) appeared in the July issue of the Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions.

The first study reports that, in addition to safer environments, third-graders in elementary schools in Illinois and Hawaii elementary that use SWPBS increased their mastery of state reading assessments compared to students in control schools. Researchers, however, cautioned that academic gains were not a result of just improving the behavior support in these schools; such improvement like came from the new behavioral approach coupled with effective instruction.

The second study, looking at high-school adoption of SWPBS, found that high-school teachers were suspicious of any new approach to behavior support. The results suggest that strong buy-in and commitment from administrators -- and possibly from students -- are needed for successful implementation.

More than 9,000 schools in 44 states -- including more than 1,000 schools in Illinois alone -- have or are in the process of implementing SWPBS, said Robert H. Horner, a UO professor of special education and lead author on the study of elementary schools. More than 800 high schools currently are engaged in its implementation.

SWPBS initially was developed by George Sugai in the early 1990s when he was on the faculty of the UO College of Education. Sugai now holds an endowed College of Education chair at the University of Connecticut. Horner and Sugai now share the lead in the National Technical Assistance Center on SWPBS, a five-year, multi-institutional program funded by the U.S. Office of Special Education designed to foster positive behavior in the nation's schools.

Evaluations of SWPBIS so far have found that schools adopting it have seen 20-60 percent reductions in discipline referrals, fewer suspensions and expulsions and reduced referrals of students to special education, Horner said.

"The fundamental message from this research is that schools become effective learning environments not only through attention to quality curriculum and instruction, but also by creating a school-wide culture that is predictable, consistent, positive and safe," Horner said. "Investing in the social behavior of students is central to achieving academic gains."

Brigid Flannery, College of EducationThe study on high-school implementation was led by K. Brigid Flannery, also a UO professor of special education, who teamed with Sugai and Cynthia M. Anderson, a UO professor of school psychology. They surveyed 43 implementation-team leaders in 12 states -- most had been involved in their projects for at least one year but less than three years.

Understanding the challenges to implementation is important as more high schools begin to move in this direction, Flannery said, noting the complexities involved at the high-school level, where set-up teams must draw from representatives from multiple departments and faculties.

Researchers found that barely 50 percent of faculty members were supportive of SWPBS and that actual participation by teachers was even lower. Previous research by Sugai and Horner had found that a minimum of 80 percent support by teachers was necessary for successful implementation. Among reasons for resistance was a feeling that appropriate behavior was expected by high-school students and that rewards were not necessary.

Flannery says the research suggests that leadership teams at the high-school level may need to be larger and draw from the departmental infrastructure when building implementation teams. "More time is needed for high schools to secure faculty support and develop strategies to break down barriers to increase support," she said. Part of that strategy, she noted, needs to be aimed at getting staff to acknowledge student behaviors in addition to their academic prowess.

Flannery's team also concluded that while student participation may not be needed in the implementation process in lower schools levels, such representation in high schools may be critical. The researchers cautioned that the study's results should be considered preliminary because they did not include a control group and their sample size was small.

"We do feel that our results may be useful to high schools implementing or considering SWPBS," Flannery said. "Our findings suggest that more time is needed up front to lay the groundwork for its implementation so that buy-in can be realized from students, staff and administrators."

Flannery is leading a national review of high schools that have adopted SWPBS with precision and success. Her results will be reported in October at a national forum on SWPBS in Chicago.

Co-authors with Horner and Sugai on the elementary school study were Keith Smolkowski, Anne W. Todd and Jody Esperanza, all of the University of Oregon, Lucille Eber of the Illinois State Board of Education and Jean Nakasato of the Hawaii State Board of Education.

The U.S. Department of Education supported the research.