Reaching Students with Difficult Behaviors: Tier 3 PBIS Behavior Supports

by Lee Collyer, MSW, Program Supervisor, Special Education Services, OSPI

by Lee Collyer, MSW, Program Supervisor, Special Education Services, OSPI

Nationally, between 1989 and 2013, the percentage of students with disabilities who were in a general education class for 80 percent or more of the school day increased from about 32 percent to nearly 62 percent. Special-education advocates have been pushing for the change — especially for students who have mild to moderate disabilities. Some research shows as many as 85 percent of students with disabilities can master general-education content if they receive educational supports. Supports can include access to a special-education teacher, positive behavior systems, having test questions read aloud, or access to choice or preferred seating in the classroom. Classrooms that successfully include students with disabilities are designed to welcome diversity and to address the individual needs of all students, whether they have disabilities or not.

In the state of Washington, during the 2017–2018 school year, students with I.E.Ps were 3 times more likely to experience exclusionary discipline for a behavioral violation than their peers without an IEP. We are seeing positive behavioral interventions and support (PBIS) implemented in school buildings across “tier 1 and tier 2.” However, in our classrooms that are providing “tier 3” services throughout the day, school-wide PBIS, often stops at the classroom door. All too often, our students who are most in need of PBIS infused classrooms, are faced with a repetitive cycle of antiquated level systems, restraints, isolation and punitive discipline.

According to Simonson et all (2019):

Universal, positive, and preventive behavior intervention practices are critical to support all students, including students with disabilities and those with a history of challenging behaviors. Having positive expectations for students, explicitly teaching social and emotional skills, providing positive specific feedback, and reinforcing accomplishments create an environment that functions as a “protective factor” for students with a history of challenging behavior. Within a multi-tiered system of support, like PBIS, these are “Tier 1” practices.

In a traditional discipline model (which is still utilized in many self-contained “behavior” classrooms in Washington state), undesirable behavior is expected to stop through the use of punishment. It follows a familiar path:

  • Teachers and paraeducators wait for the problem behavior to occur
  • Appropriate alternative behavior may or may not be addressed
  • Adults often inadvertently reinforce the problem behavior
  • Adult implements a negative consequence, which frequently involves excluding the students from learning who we have already identified as most needing to learn skills of positive behavior.

In a PBIS model, however, undesirable behavior is reduced by:

  • Altering environments to prevent common problems
  • Teaching appropriate skills
  • Rewarding appropriate behavior
  • Systematically using data to identify appropriate supports for students

What is needed to best support students with challenging behavior is a shift in how helping adults respond to behaviors. Years of research has shown us the most effective proactive positive behavior support strategies moves the focus from changing the student’s behavior, to changing adult behavior as a means to change student behavior. From a focus on prevention, rather than waiting to intervene. From using restraint and isolation as part of a comprehensive plan to change a student’s behavior. To only using restraint and isolation in emergency situations to address immediate safety concerns, with no expectations for long term change in student behavior.

In addition to how and when to intervene, communication skills are a key element in most successful positive behavioral interventions. It is especially important for adults to communicate and coordinate even the smallest of intervention strategies with a student who may be facing a personal crisis or behavior challenge. Communication is a means of building a relationship with a student, which becomes a powerful tool when working with a student who may be heading towards or is currently having a behavioral/emotional crisis. Relationships are not always easy to build with a student and can take months. Remaining patient, reviewing your personal style of working with others, and practicing different means of communication can benefit everyone involved.

Tips on Communication and Building Relationships with Students

  • Humor– Find out what makes the student laugh. Then generate laughter in his/her style of language. Ask the question: What is the funniest thing that happened to you this week?
  • Discussing Success– Look for the smallest of successes to make a student feel good about what they are doing for others.
  • Discussing the Past– Discussing a students successful past can help them prepare to be successful in the future.
  • Communication– There are a lot of different ways to say, “You’re doing great!” Build a variety of ways to say things so others understand you clearly.
  • Explore– Don’t assume that the initial issue raised by someone is the real problem or challenge.
  • Check Back– Following up on a concern or issue even a week or two after a resolution is found is a good way to show that you are still interested in the student’s concerns and can prevent potential behavioral problems or even a crisis.
  • “I”– Use “I” messages when talking with a student. For example, “I feel hurt what you yell at me,” rather than, “You shouldn’t talk that way.” Using I statements help personalize the message and reduce the “Blame” feeling. The technique can be very effective in reducing certain behaviors.
  • Actively Listen– Paraphrasing the student’s statements so that the student knows you understand their feelings, thoughts and/or concerns.
  • Empathetic– Even in personal attacks one can remain empathetic and show that personal problems/stresses can be overcome.

For further learning check out these resources:

Department of Education’s Restraint and Seclusion: Resource Document

PBIS Resource CenterPreventing Restraint and Seclusion in Schools

Government Accountability Office findings on Restraint

In this video, Dr. Catherine Bradshaw, Deputy Director of the John Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence and Co-Director of the John Hopkins Center for Prevention and Early Intervention, discusses PBIS, who it works for, and under what conditions it works best.


Office of Civil Rights. (2018b). 2017–2018 Civil Rights Data Collection: School Form. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights. Retrieved from https://–18-crdc-school-form.pdf

Peterson, R. L., Ryan, J. B., & Rozalski, M. (2013). Physical Restraint and Seclusion in Schools.

Simonsen, B., Sugai, G., George, H.P., Freeman, J., & Evanovich, L. (May, 2019). Preventing Restraint and Seclusion in Schools. Eugene, OR: OSEP TA Center on PBIS, University of Oregon. Retrieved from