Behavior Problems Leave Students Far Behind

by Denyse Doerries, Ph.D.

The No Child Left Behind Legislation (NCLB) may provide the impetus for schools to revisit their approach to behavior problems and include evidence-based practices on a systemwide basis. Misbehavior is the primary reason why students are removed from the classroom (Lewis & Sugai, 1999). Students who are removed and placed in programs for students with emotional disturbance (ED) have the lowest grades, the poorest rate of success, and the highest rate of poverty of any students in special education (Sugai & Horner, 2001). Of students labeled ED, 50% drop out of high school, and of those who remain, only 42% graduate (Lewis & Sugai, 1999). A school climate that relies on negative consequences increases antisocial behavior, interferes with student-teacher relations, and decreases academic achievement (Sugai & Horner, 2001). Students with behavior problems are being left behind.

When a student lacks the prerequisite skills in reading, for example, teachers assess what the student knows and provide direct instruction designed to match the student's needs. On the contrary, when a student lacks the prerequisite skills of prosocial school behavior, teachers and administrators typically increase the use of verbal reprimands and the use of punitive and exclusionary consequences (Sugai & Horner, 2001). There appears to be an underlying belief that, as a result of punishment, students will behave better next time, learn from their errors, and understand that deviant behavior will not be tolerated (Preliminary draft, 2002). In brief, there is an assumption that students already possess the prerequisite skills to do better.

Research indicates that prevention - providing positive behavior support (PBS) to encourage appropriate behavior - and early intervention are the primary strategies needed to address behavioral issues in schools (Preliminary draft, 2002). This approach is not new, but rather employs what we already know as effective research-based practices in a more systematic manner (Sugai & Horner, 2001). The PBS model organizes the learning and teaching environments so as "to prevent a) developing new problem behaviors, b) worsening existing problem behaviors, and c) triggering problem behavior" (Preliminary draft, 2002, p.19). The PBS model emphasizes teaching students the behaviors necessary to the learning process. Thurs, behavioral and social skills are taught through direct instruction, guided practice, multiple opportunities to practice in a variety of settings, and positive reinforcement.

Building a positive school climate that supports social competence requires a systematic schoolwide approach. The PBS educative approach includes both classroom and schoolwide behavior plans that use a continuum of interventions across multiple settings. Reduction in problem behaviors becomes an issue of teaching more appropriate replacement behaviors at the schoolwide level, the classroom level and, if needed, at a more individualized level. At the schoolwide level, the focus is on defining and teaching schoolwide expectations. Teachers apply the schoolwide expectations by defining and teaching how they apply in their particular classroom. In addition, for students who are at risk for problems, more intensive classroom instruction is provided on core behavioral skills. Finally, at the individual level, for students with severe chronic behavior problems, a functional behavior assessment is completed to determine what social skills need to be taught.

In practice this approach may mean creating better interventions and implementing them for longer periods of time. Developing effective interventions does not mean searching for the key critical strategy, but, considering all the relevant variables that contribute to the problem behaviors and the problem contexts (settings). Professionals are encouraged to focus on fixing contexts rather than fixing problem behaviors of individual students (Carr et al., 2002). Teachers and administrators need to evaluate their data to look for patterns of when, where, and with whom the problem behaviors occur in order to modify the contexts (settings) to reduce problems. For example, if the lunchroom is the source of referrals to the office, this might be the first setting to examine closely for patterns as to when, where, and with whom problems occur. Alternate strategies could be developed such as providing incentives, staggering the arrival of students, and providing activities for students when they finish eating.

The following is a list of some of the strategies needed to promote desirable behaviors.

  • Match instructional needs of the student with appropriate tasks and instructional strategies (Doerries, 2002)

  • Clearly define, teach, and communicate expectations

  • Evaluate data to look for patterns of inappropriate behaviors

  • Catch problems before they escalate

  • Change contexts that are triggers for misbehavior

  • Create more positive than negative interactions

  • Teach the prerequisite social skills

  • Provide lots of positive reinforcement

  • Accommodate individual differences

Schools are expected to provide the full continuum of positive and effective learning and teaching environments for all students. However, learning and teaching occur best in schools that have positive climates, orderly routines, and where students and professionals act respectfully toward each other (Sugai & Horner 2001). Schoolwide discipline programs that are based on positive behavioral support can provide the foundation for such a positive learning and problem-solving community.


Carr, E. G., Dunlap, G., Horner, R. H., Koegel, R. L., Turnbull, A. P., Sailor, W., et al. (2002). Positive behavior support: Evolution of an applied science. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 4(1), 4-16.

Doerries, D. B. (2002). Instructional assessment: An essential tool for effective instruction. TTAC Link Lines, February-March 2002, 2-3.

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

Preliminary draft, School-wide positive behavior support: Implementers' blueprint and self-assessment. (2002). OSEP positive behavioral interventions and supports. Retrieved December 16, 2002, from

Sugai, G., & Horner, R. (2001). School climate and discipline: Going to scale. OSEP positive behavioral interventions & supports. Retrieved December 16, 2002, from

Date: February/March 2003