Skinner's Theory of Operant Conditioning as seen Through Positive Behavior Support



In recent years, many schools have been moving towards employing more positive means of dealing with problem behavior through the use of positive behavior support, after it has been shown that punishment, which had commonly been used as the most widely used technique of dealing with problem behaviors, may actually do more harm than good. Bohanon et al. (2006) tells us that positive behavior support employs a wide variety of strategies in an attempt to improve the quality of life of students while at the same time reducing the incidence of problem behaviors through more positive means of reinforcement. PBS applies more positive, preventative, collaborative techniques rather than the harsh, reactive, disciplinary practices that have been employed in the past. It focuses on antecendent and consequent factors that contribute to both appropriate and problematic behavior as well as arranging environments to maximize prosocial behavior. Behavioral expectations for various school settings are defined and explicitly taught to students.

It is also a three-tiered system in which more individualized interventions are made in each successive level after a failure to respond to the previous level. School-wide positive behavior support models provide a continuum of behavior support through the use of three intervention levels used in the entire school: universal, selected, and intensive (Sugai & Horner, 2002). A three-tiered system such as this is helpful in targeting more intensively those problem behaviors that are most resistant to change.
. Through the use of school wide positive behavior support, behavioral supports are designed to be used with all students, not just those who currently and most severely display problem behaviors. Additionally, this program is implemented in all areas of the school including classrooms, lunchrooms, bathrooms, and the playground. Its main purpose is to increase teaching and learning and to create the most conducive environment possible to achieve this goal (Brusnahan & Gatti, 2008). 

Overview of Core Elements

Prevention Tier

Universal (Primary)

Selected (Secondary)

Targeted (Tertiary)

Core Elements

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

Universal Screening
Progress Monitoring for At Risk Students
System for Increasing Structure and Predictability
System for Increasing Contingent Adult Feedback
System for Linking Academic and Behavioral Performance
System for Increasing Home/School Communication
Collection and Use of Data for Decision-Making

Functional Behavioral Assessment
Team-Based Comprehensive Assessment
Linking of Academic and Behavior Supports
Individualized Intervention Based on Assessment Information
Collection and Use of Data for Decision-Making

Fundamental Components of Positive Behavior Support

1.) Redesign Physical Learning Environment
                      2.) Sound Instructional Design and Delivery
     - Active Supervision                                                                 - Differentiated instruction
     - Organization of physical space                                              - Explicit strategic instruction
     - Scheduling                                                                             - Academic and curricular restructuring
     - Activities are structured                                                         - High performance expectations & rates of success
     - Routines are clear                                                                  - Active student engagement

3.) Proven Behaviorally-Based Interventions
     - Continuum of procedures for encouraging display of
       behavioral expectations and discouraging displays of
       rule-violating behavior
     - Effective classroom management
     - Many components come from Applied Behavior Analysis

Why Move Towards the Use of Positive Behavior Support?

Brusnahan and Gatti (2008) compare what schools are like before implementation of school wide positive behavior support programs and then after such programs have begun. Before these programs, discipline strategies vary across classrooms, school safety is based on reacting to behavior problems, administrators react to student problems, behavior is controlled, and schools concentrate time on punishing challenging behavior. After the implementation of such programs, discipline strategies are consistent school- wide and across classrooms, school safety is based on preventing behavior problems, teams proactively anticipate and plan for student problems, behavior skills are taught, and schools concentrate time on reinforcing problem behaviors. From this research, we can see that school-wide positive behavior support programs are much more comprehensive and much more unified than traditional methods that have previously been employed.

How is PBS better than more punishing methods such as suspension/expulsion?

Positive behavior support programs provide an alternative to the use of punishing methods such as suspension and expulsion. Suspensions and expulsions do not typically lead to positive, long-lasting educational outcomes for students. While these methods do result in a safer school climate, punishment typically only works for brief amounts of time to change behaviors and may have long-term negative consequences both for the student and for the school (Brusnahan & Gatti, 2008; Kohn, 1996). Continuing to use methods that may have detrimental effects not only on the student but also on the school, when a safer, more effective alternative that can be used exists, seems counterintuitive.

Additionally, what is unique about positive behavior support programs is that they do not focus solely on those individuals with problem behaviors, but rather focus on the entire school climate and allow schools to examine why problems are occurring on a larger scale. Thus, a positive environment can be created in which children can feel safe, thrive, and learn appropriate behaviors (Brusnahan & Gatti, 2008). Positive behavior support programs also have higher levels that provide more individualized attention if school wide methods are not effective for particular children. This allows more intensive attention to be given to those students who may need more help to achieve the desired level of behavior.


Overall, based on all of the above research, and the information and suggestions from B.F. Skinner, reinforcement seems to be the more effective method when managing problem behaviors. Although the transition from punishment to using methods of reinforcement has just begun in recent years, the use of programs such as positive behavior support has been gaining widespread attention. The use of punishment has gradually been declining as more people are becoming aware of positive behavior support. Although it is not as quick and easy as using punishment, the long-term benefits of positive behavior support are tremendous and can provide children with the skills and information necessary to learn to manage their problem behaviors.

For more information on Positive Behavior Support, check out these websites!

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports
The TA Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports has been established by the Office of Special Education Programs, US Department of Education to give schools capacity-building information and technical assistance for identifying, adapting, and sustaining effective school-wide disciplinary practices.

Association for Positive Behavior Support
The Association for Positive Behavior Support (APBS) is an international organization dedicated to promoting research-based strategies that combine applied behavior analysis and biomedical science with person-centered values and systems change to increase quality of life and decrease problem behaviors. The Association is made up of professionals, family members, trainers, consumers, researchers, and administrators who are involved and interested in positive behavior support.

PBS Fact Sheet
Positive Behavioral Supports Information for Educators from the National Association for School Psychologists

Positive Behavior Support Surveys
PBS Surveys is a web application that enables schools implementing positive behavior support plans to monitor progress, solicit feedback from teachers and other staff, adjust to local needs and challenges, and identify accomplishments. Surveys assessing implementation status and needs can be conducted online and reports can be viewed as soon as a survey is completed. These surveys have been developed to meet the data requirements of PBS usage in schools. PBS school teams can use this survey data to assess whether school-wide behavior support programs are (a) being implemented with fidelity and (b) providing benefits to students. A PBS Implementers' Blueprint and Self-Assessment guide is available from the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) of the U.S. Department of Education.

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