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Skills for Success: A Three-Tiered Approach to Positive Behavior Supports

By Jeffrey Sprague and Vicki Nishioka

Many students who are at-risk leave school without diplomas and ill-prepared to function as productive adults (Kasen, Cohen, & Brooks, 1998). In addition to the problem of school dropout, students who experience academic difficulties are at-risk for becoming involved in juvenile crime (Gottfredson & Gottfredson, 1985) and for behavior problems at school. Students who are at-risk often come to school with emotional and behavioral difficulties that interfere with their attempts to focus on academic instruction. Others may experience interpersonal issues with other students or school staff that make concentrating on learning difficult. Best practice for these students begins with early identification of emotional, behavioral, and interpersonal needs, followed by interventions to reduce obstacles to successful school adjustment. If appropriate educational and behavioral supports were more widely provided, the long-term benefits would greatly exceed the costs (Alternbaugh, Engel, & Martin, 1995).

In response to this need, the University of Oregon Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior created a pilot program called Skills for Success (SFS) that combined school-wide positive behavior supports with specialized supports for students who are at-risk in the school. Two middle schools (grades 6-8) from the same urban school district located in the northwest region of the United States participated in a treatment and comparison school study for two years. Both middle schools had high rates of student mobility, use of free/reduced lunch, and academic failure. Both middle schools adopted Best Behavior (Sprague & Golly, in press) and the Second Steps violence prevention curriculum (Committee for Children, 1997) as universal violence prevention procedures. In addition to these school-wide programs, the treatment school implemented Skills for Success, which provided further supports for those students identified as at-risk for school failure and academic problems (see Figure 1). These additional supports were in the form of specialized school-based services, family support services, and service coordination. At the end of the two years the rates of overt aggression, covert behavior, juvenile arrests, and authority conflicts were measured and changes assessed by drawing upon data from office discipline referrals (type, frequency), self-reported perpetration of and victimization by aggressive or violent behavior, and juvenile department records. In the remainder of this article, the three categories of specialized services will be described, as well as the pilot program's outcomes.


Figure 1: Skills for Success Alternative Education Program Services

Supports for All Students


School-Wide Positive Behavior Supports

  • Best Behavior
  • Second Step Violence Prevention

Additional Supports for Students Who Are At-Risk


Universal Screening Procedures

  • Multi-gated System
  • Early Identification
  • Systematic School Planning

School-Based Services

  • Adult Mentoring
  • Academic Tutoring
  • Alternative Discipline
  • Self-Management
  • Check In/Check Out
  • Inclusion Support
  • Increased Monitoring in School

Family Support

  • Parent Collaboration
  • Resource Linkage
  • Family Advocacy
  • Solution-Focused Planning

Service Coordination

  • Multi-Agency Monitoring
  • Agency Linkage
  • Individual Service Plan
  • Case Management


School-Based Supports

Although we tailored services to meet the needs of individual students, we employed a general framework of evidence-based interventions in the schools. These school-based supports included adult mentoring, individualized social skills instruction, increased academic support, alternative discipline, and school-based case management:

Family Support

Many students placed in the SFS program required more comprehensive services to support their success in school and the community. The families of these students often had difficulty providing the supervision and stability required to adequately support their child in school. Moreover, the chronic patterns of adverse life events they experienced on a daily basis often made school attendance and academic success a low priority. Given this, a primary goal of SFS family support services was to build collaborative partnerships between the student's family and the school to increase parental involvement in school. The SFS program staff coordinated all school contact to minimize parent confusion and provided parents with daily reports regarding their child's school progress. Additionally, the SFS staff worked collaboratively with parents to build school/home interventions that increased positive relationships, limit setting, monitoring, praise, and constructive problem-solving – factors that reduce the likelihood of school and community failure for students who are at-risk. In essence, the SFS case manager became an ally to the parent in managing the many needs of their child.

Service Coordination

For some students, the SFS staff matched community services to individual student and family needs. Staff developed a program service plan with the student, their parents, and involved community agency representatives. The purpose of this service plan was to organize systematic and integrated services across school, home, and community settings that would assist students in reducing anti-social behavior and increase positive school engagement. The purpose of service coordination was to build linkages to community agencies that ensured students had stable adult mentoring relationships, shelter, food, safety, and medical care. Moreover, SFS program staff worked collaboratively with community agencies to increase after-school supervision, encourage activities with non-delinquent peers, and build mental health support for students in managing the many stressful events of their day-to-day life.

Effectiveness of Skills for Success

Both the treatment and comparison schools showed a reduction in the relative percentage of total overt aggression and covert behavior over the course of the two-year study. The treatment school showed a higher reduction (35%) in overt aggression than the comparison school (26%), a reduction that was statistically significant (p<.01).

Moreover, the frequency and severity of juvenile arrests for students served by the SFS alternative program was much lower than an equivalent control group in the comparison school. Prior to placement, the SFS group had over twice as many students with juvenile arrest histories and, as a whole, committed more crime than the comparison group. However, post-placement arrest data indicated only a 10% increase in frequency and severity of arrests for the SFS group (two arrests during intervention) as compared to a substantial increase for the comparison group (264% or 40 arrests).

Both schools showed an increase in the relative percentage of authority conflict behaviors (i.e., defiance, disruption, and school attendance), with the treatment school showing an increase of 9% as opposed to one of 20% for the comparison school. An increase in authority conflict behaviors in both schools may be attributed to normal adolescent adjustment and attempts at independence. The lower increase in the treatment school can be attributed to the additional supports provided to the students who were at-risk.

This pilot program provides promising results that support the combined use of school-wide interventions with individual student interventions for students who are at-risk. Further, the application of universal screening to middle school programs may assist in early identification and, in turn, increased school services for students at-risk for school failure and antisocial behavior.



Altenbaugh, R. J., Engel, D. E., & Martin, D. T. (1995). Caring for kids: A critical study of urban school leavers. Washington, DC: Falmer Press.

Committee for Children (1997). Second steps middle school curriculum. Seattle: Committee for Children.

Evelo, D., Sinclair, M., Hurley, C., Christenson, S., Thurlow, M. (1996). Keeping kids in school: Using check and connect for dropout prevention. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration.

Gottfredson, G. D., & Gottfredson, D. C. (1985). Victimization in schools. New York: Plenum.

Kasen, S., Cohen, P. & Brooks, J. S. (1998). Adolescent school experiences and dropout, adolescent pregnancy, and young adult deviant behavior. Journal of Adolescent Research, 13(1), 49-72.

O'Neill, R.E., Horner, R.H., Albin, R.W., Sprague, J.R., Newton, S., & Storey, K. (1997). Functional assessment and program development for problem behavior: A practical handbook. Second edition. Pacific Grove CA: Brookes/Cole Publishing.

Sprague, J.R., & Golly, A. (in press). Best behavior: Building positive behavior supports in schools. Longmont, CO: Sopris West Educational Services.

Walker, H. M., Horner, R. H., Sugai, G., Bullis, M., Sprague, J. R., Bricker, D., & Kaufman, M. J. (1996). Integrated approaches to preventing anti-social behavior patterns among school-age children and youth. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 4(4), 194-209.

Jeffrey Sprague is Co-Director and Vicki Nishioka is Research Associate, with the University of Oregon Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior, Eugene. They may be reached at 541/346-3592, or at or


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Citation: Gaylord, V., Johnson, D.R., Lehr, C.A., Bremer, C.D. & Hasazi, S. (Eds.). (2004). Impact: Feature Issue on Achieving Secondary Education and Transition Results for Students with Disabilities, 16(3). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Available from


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