K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

About this series

Special education: Telling facts from fiction

As a teacher, hearing that students in your classroom have a diagnosed learning disability or other special need can be overwhelming and even intimidating. Preparing lesson plans for twenty students already seemed difficult enough. Now you are expected to provide specialized instruction with no real training or guidance from special education staff!

It’s perfectly natural to feel concern or frustration. And you’re not alone — many teachers have been in your shoes at some point in their careers. This blog is here to help.

Each article in this series considers a commonly held belief about special education, providing special instruction to students with special needs, and the behavior problems you might encounter in an inclusive classroom. Many students with learning disabilities also have underlying behavioral or processing disorders, and researchers have struggled to design ways to reliably identify those problems and to treat them. Here, though, we’ll concentrate on classroom practices. The authors look at each issue, ask what the research says, and offer teacher-tested strategies for teaching students with learning and behavior problems.

This series is based on LEARN NC’s blog of the same title, which ran during 2009–10.

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Related pages

  • Social skills in the classroom: Are teachers responsible for teaching social skills? Especially when working with children with exceptionalities, the answer is yes. This article gives you some strategies.
  • Understanding twice-exceptional students: This article discusses the twice-exceptional student, defined as a student with both gifts and a learning disability. The author lists three categories of twice-exceptional students, addresses the challenges involved in identifying these students' exceptionalities, shares strategies for teaching twice-exceptional students, and emphasizes the importance of supporting the students' social skills.
  • Inclusion strategies for students with autism spectrum disorders: This article discusses the characteristics of a variety of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and shares concrete strategies for increasing motivation, communication, and academic success in students with ASD.

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The myth

The Positive Behavior Interventions & Supports model (PBIS) is suitable for general education students.

The facts

On the contrary, the PBIS model was developed with special education students in mind.

In a previous article, we discussed the connection between social skills and academic success. No matter how effective we are at teaching social skills and appropriate behavior, there will always be students who find it more difficult to meet these standards than others. Students with special needs require special assistance when addressing behavior issues; teachers must take care that the behavior is not due to the disability. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA) requires that only “scientifically research-based interventions” be used with special education students.

PBIS (formally known as PBS) was developed by university researchers in conjunction with the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and fulfills the requirements of IDEA. The OSEP Technical Assistance Center on PBIS serves the purpose of providing schools with the methods necessary to implement PBIS according to both research-based and best-practice studies, ensuring compliance with IDEA. The references at the end of this article are just a few of the articles showing the connection of PBIS with positive effects in student behavior, academic performance, and mental health.

School-wide PBIS is a three-tiered approach to prevention of behavior problems.

PBIS model

This diagram represents the three-tiered model of PBIS. Diagram by Daniel Lunk.

The elements of each level are as follows:

Prevention tierCore elements
Primary
  • Behavioral expectations defined
  • Behavioral expectations taught
  • Reward system for appropriate behavior
  • Continuum of consequences for problem behavior
  • Continuous collection and use of data for decision-making
Secondary
  • Universal screening
  • Progress monitoring for at risk students
  • System for increasing structure and predictability
  • System for increasing formative adult feedback
  • System for linking academic and behavioral performance
  • System for increasing home/school communication
  • Collection and use of data for decision-making
Tertiary
  • Functional behavioral assessment
  • Team-based comprehensive assessment
  • Linking of academic and behavior supports
  • Individualized intervention based on assessment information focusing on (a) prevention of problem contexts, (b) instruction on functionally equivalent skills, and instruction on desired performance skills, (c) strategies for placing problem behavior on extinction, (d) strategies for enhancing contingence reward of desired behavior, and (e) use of negative or safety consequences if needed.
  • Collection and use of data for decision-making

Individual PBIS has multiple components that integrate four elements: benchmarks of values desired, research-validated practices, changes in the school’s system of discipline, and incorporation of behavioral science. The overall concept is that teachers use behavior supports and interventions that not only stop the undesirable behavior at the moment, but encourage a change of values so that behavior continually improves. Children are identified along a spectrum of the three tiers (much like the Response to Intervention, or RtI, model). All children are given instruction and expectations, at-risk students are taught core skills more frequently, and high-risk students are targeted for reinforced social skills and behavior assessments.

Many specific evidence-based practices exist for teachers to use in the PBIS model. As an introduction, we provide six generalized guidelines for implementing PBIS.

  1. Establish a safe learning environment. This is the core value of the PBIS system. Behavioral problems often arise in classrooms where students have fear of ridicule and feel that they can’t share their feelings and knowledge freely. Classrooms feel respectful and safe have students who succeed. Be sure to be particularly attuned to students’ making rude comments about their classmates and let them know that behavior will not be tolerated.
  2. Use data to assess students’ instructional and behavioral needs. As you can see in the school-wide model above, data collection is key to the PBIS model. Having specific records of student behaviors (e.g., checklists, charts, journals) helps teachers to make informed decisions about the specific interventions they would like to use. This data collection should be an ongoing process so you can monitor improvements.
  3. Establish clear behavioral and learning expectations. In previous articles, we discussed the “hidden curriculum.” For PBIS to be successful, the expectations cannot be hidden; students need to understand clearly how they are to behave. Clear expectations can include posted class rules, established routines, and consistent consequences for misbehavior.
  4. Focus on effective instruction at the appropriate level. Students who are struggling with their academic work may act out to hide their frustration. On the other hand, students who find their work too easy may misbehave out of boredom. Differentiating your instruction to match students’ learning levels is not only good practice for teaching, but it will save you time and effort in correcting behavior issues.
  5. Encourage students to become self-aware of their own behavior. A core value of the PBIS model is that students are to begin to recognize and change their behavior and decision-making on their own. Ask students to reflect on their behavior often, especially when you have noticed them acting out or improving their responses to difficult situations. Ask them, “What about your behavior caused this difficulty?” or “What do you think you did that made June feel good about herself?”
  6. Continually reflect on your own practice. Are you finding one class or group of students particularly difficult? Effective teachers not only monitor their students’ behaviors, but their own as well. Review your lesson plans and your student interactions from the past several weeks. Perhaps you are relying on one instructional method repeatedly and students are becoming restless. Is your pace too quick or too slow? Are you reacting to your students at the end of the day differently than at the beginning? Teachers are only human, and we all experience times when we are tired or short on patience. Reflecting often on our own behavior can help us improve our classes just as much as reflecting on our students’ actions.

The bottom line

Because PBIS is often implemented school-wide, it is often seen as a general education model. However, PBIS is suited for students with disabilities and helps to ensure that teachers are complying with IDEA. Educators interested in implementing PBIS in their own classrooms or schools should read the helpful (and free) blueprint provided by OSEP.