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School-wide Positive Behavior Support: Investing in Student Success

By Robert Horner, George Sugai and Claudia Vincent

Problem behaviors, such as aggression, defiance, truancy, property destruction, disruption, and self-injury remain a major challenge in schools and a dramatic barrier to academic achievement. Historically, schools have assumed that social skills should be learned at home, and that children who behave inappropriately at school should be identified and given a strong disciplinary message that such behavior will not be tolerated. When the “get tough” response does not result in an immediate elimination of the problem behavior, next steps are exclusionary (e.g., suspensions), in some cases moving children to “special” contexts. Students identified with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) are especially at risk of exclusion from general education settings, even though they are likely to benefit most from the typical social interactions occurring in general education classrooms (Panacek & Dunlap, 2003).

Exclusionary approaches have never been effective, and as the number of students with problem behavior has increased, schools face an overwhelming demand from teachers and families to respond. In a variety of ways policy-makers, school boards, administrators, and teachers are being asked to make schools safe, positive, predictable places of learning. Increasingly and ironically, schools that do not invest in building a positive social culture have difficulty achieving the academic standards that are now expected.

School-wide positive behavior support (SW-PBS) is an approach that begins with a school-wide prevention effort, and then adds intensive individualized support for those students with more extreme needs. SW-PBS has five core strategies:

Over the past six years, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) has invested in technical assistance to states and districts choosing to implement SW-PBS. Over 2900 schools across 34 states are now implementing or in the process of adopting SW-PBS. Implementation is occurring primarily in elementary and middle schools, but the approach is now being adapted, applied, and studied in over 200 high schools. A 90-school study using a randomized, wait-list, control group design is currently being funded by OSEP to assess the a) impact of technical support on the ability of schools to adopt SW-PBS practices with high fidelity, b) impact of SW-PBS practices on the social and academic outcomes for students, and c) sustainability of SW-PBS practices and outcomes over time. Evaluations that have accompanied implementation of SW-PBS efforts identify the following seven key “lessons learned” that have relevance for future policy and practice (Lewis & Sugai, 1999; Horner, Sugai, Todd & Lewis-Palmer, 2005; Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support, 2004):

In summary, schools will not achieve the academic standards we now require if they fail to build the positive social culture needed for sustained academic engagement. Traditional punishment and exclusionary strategies are not effective practices for improving student behavior. SW-PBS is an innovative combination of evidence-based practices that emphasize investing in a) prevention, b) teaching of basic social expectations, c) acknowledging appropriate behavior, d) preventing problem behavior from interrupting instruction, e) collecting and using data for active decision-making, and f) establishing the organizational and policy structures that improve the effectiveness, efficiency, and relevance of practice adoption, implementation, and durability. SW-PBS is being used on a significant scale across the country with strong evaluation outcomes in both behavioral and academic domains.

Note: Preparation of this article was supported, in part, through grant #H326S030002 from the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. However, opinions and recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of this federal agency, and no official endorsement should be inferred.


Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (2004). Implementers blueprint and self-assessment. Eugene, OR: Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, University of Oregon.

Eber, L. (2005). Illinois PBIS evaluation report. La Grange Park: Illinois State Board of Education, PBIS/EBD Network.

Horner, R. H., Sugai, G., Todd, A. & Lewis-Palmer, T. (2005). School-wide positive behavior support: An alternative approach to discipline in schools. In L. Bambara & L. Kern (Eds.), Individualized support for students with problem behaviors: Designing positive behavior plans (pp. 359-390). New York: Guilford Press.

Lewis, T. J., & Sugai, G. (1999). Effective behavior support: A systems approach to proactive school-wide management. Focus on Exceptional Children, 31(6), 1-24.

Panacek, L.J. & Dunlap, G. (2003). The social lives of children with emotional and behavioral disorders in self-contained classrooms: A descriptive analysis. Exceptional Children 69(3), 333-348.

Robert Horner and George Sugai are both professors of special education and co-directors of the Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, University of Oregon, Eugene. Dr. Horner may be reached at 541/346-2462 or Dr. Sugai may be reached at 541/346-1642 or Claudia Vincent is an administrative assistant with the department and center. For further information on SW-PBS see


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Retrieved from the Web site of the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota ( Citation: Gaylord, V., Quinn, M., McComas, J., & Lehr, C. (Eds.). (2005). Impact: Feature Issue on Fostering Success in School and Beyond for Students with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders 18(2). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Available at

The PDF version of this Impact, with photos and graphics, is also online at

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