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The impact of positive behavior support to decrease discipline referrals with elementary students.

The study in this article was designed to examine the outcomes of positive behavior support approaches at a Southeastern suburban elementary school that had been experiencing increased discipline referrals. School-wide initiatives were implemented as well as a support group for targeted students. Post-intervention data indicated that behavioral referrals decreased. Additionally, the positive behavior ratings reported by teachers increased for most of the children who participated in the support group. After participating in the intervention, 60% of those students participating in the support group reduced their discipline referrals to zero.


As administrators seek ways to address the behavior problems in their schools, the norm seems to be a reactionary approach rather than a proactive one (Tidwell, Flannery, & Lewis-Palmer, 2003). The methods used are often general responses such as a "get tough" approach to problem behaviors rather than efforts grounded in empirical research (Muscott, Mann, Benjamin, & Gately, 2004; Sugai & Homer, 2006). Researchers have found that general approaches to problem behaviors are often unsuccessful and may actually exacerbate these behaviors (Tidwell et al.). Additionally, common solutions to chronic discipline problems such as the use of suspending and expelling students from school do not solve the problem (Muscott et al.). Schools are meant to be places that provide students with a safe climate that encourages learning (Hirsch, Lewis-Palmer, Sugai, & Schnacker, 2004). However, school professionals have recently seen an increase in violent behaviors that have taken place in a setting that was once considered safe (Metzler, Biglan, & Rusby, 2001). Although behavior issues in the school setting are not a new problem, there has been an outcry for more effective discipline procedures especially in the face of recent school shootings and violence (Muscott et al., 2004). Moreover, school accountability and reform have added new demands for the restructuring of discipline systems as well as restructuring the school day (Frey, Lingo, & Nelson, 2008).

The present study describes what one school and school counseling program did to address the increase in discipline referrals. The school counselor implemented a year-long program that included practical schoolwide discipline approaches along with the use of targeted approaches in an effort to reduce the number of discipline referrals. Combining the schoolwide approaches with the use of targeted approaches was found to be the most effective in creating a positive change (i.e., decreased discipline referrals) in students who displayed a wide variety of problem behaviors at school.


According to Metzler et al. (2001), the search for procedures and plans to impact increasing behavior problems is not just an issue of safety but is also associated with other issues including school failure, delinquent behavior, substance abuse, and risky sexual behavior. Due in part to the growing need to increase student achievement, many educators, including administrators and school counselors, are spending much of their time and effort addressing negative or problem behaviors displayed by students (George, Harrower, & Knoster, 2003). School counselors are uniquely trained and situated in the school setting to help address the increasing numbers of behavior problems. School counselors can assist in reducing the number of behavior referrals by implementing proven systemic interventions supported by research in the field of professional school counseling.

Given the complexity of the problems created by students engaged in disruptive behaviors, a variety of approaches and models have been used in an attempt to decrease discipline referrals. Effective models have included a variety of strategies structured in multilevel processes (Muscott et al., 2004). One proactive strategy that addresses behavior problems across multiple settings is positive behavior support (PBS). Sugai and Homer (2006) have described PBS as "the integration of valued outcomes, behavioral and biomedical science, empirically validated procedures, and systems change to enhance quality of life and minimize or prevent problem behaviors" (p. 246). Additionally, Frey et al. (2008) posited that PBS includes a broad range of both systemic and individualized strategies that include managed classrooms and other school areas thus creating a positive school climate. The processes in PBS benefit the individual who exhibits inappropriate behaviors by evaluating and adjusting the setting so that the problem behavior will decrease. Consequently, the decrease of problem behaviors allows the individual's quality of life in other areas to increase (Hendley & Lock, 2007). Hendley and Lock further explained that the purpose of PBS is not to increase the severity of the punishment in hopes that the problem will go away, but to develop effective interventions for challenging behaviors so that positive social and academic development can occur.

The focal point of PBS is problem behavior prevention using a three-tiered approach that includes primary (or universal), secondary, and tertiary prevention (George et al., 2003). Primary prevention involves universal behavior strategies that are likely to result in a positive response from 80% to 90% of the school population (Muscott et al., 2004). Secondary prevention incorporates the use of targeted interventions for populations that have been identified as being at risk for problem behavior (George et al.). These specialized, group interventions are found to positively influence 10-20% of the students (Tidwell et al., 2003). Tertiary prevention incorporates differentiated, targeted approaches that focus on the function of behavior for students whose behaviors have not been positively affected by primary or secondary initiatives (Sugai & Homer, 2006). Tertiary prevention provides behavior support for students with chronic, established behavior problems. These interventions are targeted at the less than 10% of students who need interventions based on presenting behaviors and who also need these interventions implemented across various settings to be effective in reducing individual problem behaviors (Tidwell et al.).

In addition to this three-tier prevention model, PBS can be implemented across three school-based levels including (a) school-wide, specific settings (non-classroom); (b) the classroom setting; and (c) individual students (Hendley & Lock, 2007). The schoolwide prevention tier includes approaches that use reinforcement through defining, teaching, and acknowledging expected behaviors while applying clear consequences to inappropriate behaviors (George et al., 2003). This tier provides prevention in specific areas of the school, such as the cafeteria, playground, or hallways (Tidwell et al., 2003), and takes into consideration the distinct characteristics of the setting and the problem behaviors that are specific to that location (George et al.). The next tier of intervention includes the classroom and related procedures, rules, and routines created by the teacher to enhance the learning environment (Tidwell et al.). The third and final tier focuses on the individual student and these prevention measures include individualized plans used to address the specific problem behaviors of the students who have chronic behavior problems and those at risk of developing behavior problems.


Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this study was to address the increasing discipline referrals experienced by the targeted school. Using the approaches related to positive behavior support, interventions were designed and implemented to reduce discipline referrals. The interventions were examined to determine if they were indeed effective in reducing discipline referrals. The overriding question was, "Will a schoolwide program intervention and targeted small-group counseling reduce discipline referrals?"


The participants in the schoolwide approach included the entire school population of 468 students. Fifty-one percent of the students were female and 49% were male. The student population was composed of African American students (52%), White students (31%), multiracial students (7%), Asian students (5%), and Hispanic students (5%). Further, the targeted group included five fifth-grade male students. Three of the targeted students were White and two were African American.

As each student received the schoolwide approach, the discipline records also were monitored. Discipline referrals were obtained from the school's student information system (SASI[TM]) and the school's assistant principal who maintains the discipline records. Using this information, students who received three or more discipline referrals in the fall semester were identified. These students were invited to participate in a counseling group called Positive Results in Discipline Education (PRIDE).

Five students were identified to participate in the PRIDE group. Although there were four other students who were considered for the group, those students were being served by other programs such as Exceptional Children Services. The participants selected were students who had received three or more discipline referrals and one student who had two discipline referrals but was at risk of having further problems. Three of the students were from single-parent homes and two were from families whose parents had recently divorced. One participant lived in a home with a blended family.


The intervention was implemented on two levels, a schoolwide initiative and a targeted group approach. The schoolwide intervention included lessons that were taught to every student by their homeroom teachers during the first 3 weeks of school. The lessons were created by a team of teachers who desired to see changes in student behavior and focused on teaching the students the schoolwide rules, expectations, and history of the school. Posters were placed throughout the school to encourage the students to follow the rules taught in the classroom. To ensure that all students knew the rules and expectations, a schoolwide quiz was given to the students after the third week of lessons.

As stated earlier, behavior referrals were monitored using SASI to select the students to participate in PRIDE. Once a student received three or more discipline referrals, he was then considered for the program. After the names were finalized, the parents of the students were called to discuss the group and permission forms were sent home. Once the parents gave their consent, the students were called together to give their assent to participate in the group as well.

To collect feedback on the behavior of the students, modifications were made to the Empowered Youth Programs Academic Monitoring Form (AMF), developed by Bailey (2004). The modified form, the Academic/Behavior Monitoring Form (see Appendix A), was completed by the homeroom teacher. This form was used to monitor the behavior of each student in the group. To ensure that the students were making progress throughout the process of the group, this form was completed weekly to document an improvement or decline in behavior. There were 12 items on this form; six items were based on behavior information and the remaining items focused on skills appropriate for maintaining good study habits.

In addition, the students were given pretests and posttests in each session to assess their knowledge regarding the content covered in the sessions. The pretest was given immediately before lessons began and the posttest was given after the lessons were taught. The results of the pretests and posttests were used to evaluate whether the students were learning the skills being taught in the lessons and also were used to identify knowledge and skills that students lacked.


The PRIDE group curriculum was designed as a school counselor-led unit with eight lessons lasting approximately 30 minutes, once a week, for 8 weeks. Lessons were presented the first 30 minutes of school on Thursdays when there was an alternative schedule.

The eight lessons discussed were based on the needs of the students and were aimed at addressing the problems these students experienced in the school setting. Each lesson began by reminding the students of the group rules and expectations. After the rules were discussed, the content of the last session was reviewed to increase transfer of knowledge.

Lesson 1 focused on orientation to the group experience. The students discussed the purpose of the group and group expectations and created rules. The students also were given an opportunity to become acquainted with their peers by playing a group game. Lesson 2 continued to focus on rules. The students were asked to imagine a world without rules and to identify why rules are important in various situations such as playing games and driving cars. The students were later asked to evaluate the rules developed at the school level and whether they are essential and appropriate for maintaining safety.

The importance of relationships was discussed in Lesson 3 and the goal was to teach students to use problem-solving methods to build better relationships with others. The students discussed the characteristics of those individuals they called friends and those they disliked and were later asked to evaluate whether they have the same characteristics that they value in their friends. An activity was included that gave them suggestions on how to deal with problems that occur in these relationships. Lesson 4 addressed anger and how it makes people feel. The goal of the lesson was to teach students how to recognize the warning signs of anger so they can respond rather than react when angry feelings arise.

The goal of Lesson 5 was to help the students recognize the specific behaviors that distract them from learning and understand the direct connection between their behavior and their academics. This lesson discussed how inattentiveness, socializing, and disturbing the class affect their learning. Four fictional characters were introduced to the students to teach this lesson and represented the same roles that they play in their classroom (e.g., class clown, socializer). The students were asked to identify the behaviors that hindered the characters' academic progress and to identify the character that was most like them. Finally, the students brainstormed strategies they could use to help them decrease these problem behaviors so they could increase their academic progress. Lesson 6 addressed using positive communication skills. The students were taught how to use "I-messages" to express their feelings, rather than using an accusatory method of communicating. The students were given various situations and asked to use an "I-message" when they are disappointed, angry, or blamed for something.

Lesson 7 focused on addressing the need for students with chronic behavior problems to shed the negative label that follows them. During this lesson the students shared the label they thought that others had put on them, how "wearing this label" made them feel, and how to overcome being labeled. The students were given strategies they could use to shed these negative labels and reflect a more positive image of themselves. During Lesson 8, the final lesson, the students discussed what they had learned in the seven preceding sessions. Then, the group discussed how our attitude may affect our response to difficult situations. The ultimate goal of this lesson was to encourage the students to have positive attitudes despite the disappointments that may come their way.


Schoolwide Approach

Overall, there was a 26% decrease in the number of discipline referrals. During the 2006-2007 school year there were 219 discipline referrals, compared to 162 referrals during the 2007-2008 school year. Six major types of discipline referrals were examined from the 22 behavior referral categories that were reported in the student data system. Interestingly, these six discipline referral categories had consistently been the highest of the 22 categories over the past 4 years.

These major areas were targeted to effect the most change. Targeting these areas resulted in the following outcomes: Four of the six infractions decreased and two infractions increased from one year to the next. Referrals for students not following directions decreased by 43%, physical aggression referrals decreased by 40%, bus referrals decreased by 53%, and referrals for inappropriate behavior decreased by 66%. However, the number of referrals for disrespectful behavior increased by 25% and disruptive behavior referrals increased by 63% (see Table 1).

Targeted Group Approach

The data reported by teachers on the Academic/ Behavior Monitoring Form (adapted from the AMF; Bailey, 2004) indicated that many of the students improved their behaviors. The teachers were asked to respond to the form based on a Likert-style scale of answers (e.g., always, most of the time, some of the time, never, does not apply). These responses were given a number value with always receiving the value of 4 and never receiving the value of 1. Each week's responses were then averaged together to attain a number value for the teacher's perception of the child's behavior for that week. Three students' average teacher behavior rating positively increased, one student's average behavior rating remained the same, and one student's average behavior rating decreased (see Table 2). The data were analyzed using a t test that indicated that the behavioral referrals significantly decreased (p = .009, p < .05) for the targeted group after the students participated in the intervention (see Table 3).


There is increased interest in programs designed to decrease behavioral referrals (Tidwell et al., 2003). While many interventions are referred to in the literature, PBS appeared in several research-based articles to be most closely aligned with meeting the needs of the targeted school in this study. Additionally, students at the targeted school mirrored those that Sugai and Homer (2006) classified as needing tertiary prevention where targeted approaches were necessary for 8% to 10% of the student population. Students who met the criteria for targeted approaches were invited to be a part of the PRIDE group. Eight lessons on how to handle problem behaviors were taught to the targeted group. The lessons taught to the students were meant to help them gain the knowledge and skills they lacked in order to be better decision-makers by understanding rules, managing anger, establishing relationships, and learning communication skills. Teaching expectations make a difference in the number of discipline problems experienced in this school, as supported by the data collected.

The data from this study support the premise that as students' knowledge, attitudes, and skills increase, their behavior improves. As the behavior of the students improves, the teacher's perception ratings improve. Therefore, the decreased number of post-intervention referrals may be attributed to the knowledge gained by the students' involvement in the group and the positive perceptions of the teacher.


Although the results were positive, there were other variables that may have contributed to the decrease in discipline referrals. During the 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 school years, the assistant principal in this school changed. The former assistant principal was promoted to principal at another school and a new assistant principal was introduced. The change in the assistant principal is important because in the participating school he or she handles a majority of discipline issues. The assistant principal also decides on the punishment given and whether the discipline referral should be processed and entered into the student information system. Therefore, a change in leadership and thus a change in ideas about managing discipline may have contributed to the number of discipline referrals reported.

Additionally, the use of an Academic/Behavior Monitoring Form completed by teachers provides subjective views about the students' behavior. The teachers' ratings are subjective and can be influenced by a variety of factors and may not be solely related to the students' behavioral performance. Therefore, one must be careful when interpreting this information as it is not an actual documentation of behaviors but rather a rating based on the teachers' perceptions of the students' behavior. Further, the teachers were asked to rate the behavior, not describe it in detail. A detailed description of the behaviors that students exhibited may have provided a more valid method of rating the problem behaviors exhibited by students.

Implications for School Counselors

While PBS has been shown to decrease discipline referrals when used appropriately, other strategies also could be used in conjunction with PBS that may increase its effectiveness. Because there is a risk of group meetings being used as a venue for members to share and brag about negative behaviors, it is important to include at least one positive role model when selecting members for the targeted groups. Including a strong student who is a role model and not easily influenced by the group may decrease the likelihood of children bragging about negative behaviors during group meetings.

Additionally, it may be helpful to conduct a school climate survey that includes all the stakeholders in the school. Gathering school climate dated before the intervention is implemented (at the beginning of the school year) and again upon completion of the intervention (immediately before school ends) could provide useful data regarding changes in school climate that may be attributed to PBS. School climate surveys also may reveal whether students feel that their school is a safer place to learn and grow after the implementation of the program.


As educators seek to solve problems that interfere with learning (e.g., increasing behavioral problems, decreasing test scores), PBS appears to be an effective approach to address these issues. In fact, Hendley and Lock (2007) explained that when schools properly and effectively implement PBS, students benefit by improving academic achievement and increasing appropriate behaviors. Additionally, Fleming et al. (2005) supported this notion, stating that programs that attempt to enhance social and emotional skills and decrease certain problem behaviors during elementary and middle school may affect academic achievement. When behavior problems are addressed by viewing the discipline data, implementing schoolwide prevention programs, and creating early intervention plans, "research and experience indicate that schools can expect to see decreases in the number of behavior incidents as well as positive changes related to academic achievement and overall school climate" (George et al., 2003, p. 175). PBS provides the framework for these applications and can help create a productive environment for learning in the school setting by using prevention and intervention methods to decrease discipline referrals, which is likely to result in a safer learning environment and increased academic performance.




Bailey, D. F. (2004). Empowered youth programs academic monitoring form. Unpublished assessment form.

Fleming, C. B., Haggerty, K. P., Catalano, R. F., Harachi, T. W., Mazza, J. J., & Gruman, D. H. (2005). Do social and behavioral characteristics targeted by preventive interventions predict standardized test scores and grades? Journal of School Health, 75, 342-349.

Frey, A. J., Lingo, A., & Nelson, C. M. (2008). Positive behavior support: A call for leadership. Children & Schools, 30, 5-14.

George, H. P., Harrower, J. K., & Knoster, T. (2003). School-wide prevention and early intervention: A process for establishing a system of school-wide behavior support. Preventing School Failure, 47, 170-176.

Hendley, S. L., & Lock, R. H. (2007). Use positive behavior support for inclusion in the general education classroom. Intervention in School and Clinic, 42, 225-228.

Hirsch, E.J., Lewis-Palmer, Z, Sugai, G., & Schnacker, L. (2004). Using school bus discipline referral data in decision making:Two case studies. Preventing School Failure 48, 4-9.

Metzler, C. W., Biglan, A., & Rushy, J. C. (2001). Evaluation of a comprehensive behavior management program to improve school-wide positive behavior support. Education and Treatment of Children, 24, 448-479.

Muscott, H. S., Mann, E., Benjamin, T. B., & Gately, S. (2004). Positive behavioral interventions and supports in New Hampshire: Preliminary results of a statewide system for implementing schoolwide discipline practices. Education and Treatment of Children, 27, 453-475.

Sugai, G., & Homer, R. R. (2006). A promising approach for expanding and sustaining school-wide positive behavior support. School Psychology Review, 35, 245-259.

Tidwell, A., Flannery, K. B., & Lewis-Palmer, T. (2003). A description of elementary classroom discipline referral patterns. Preventing School Failure, 48, 18-26.

Maria Dunn Sherrod, Ed.S., is a professional school counselor in Fayette County, GA. E-mail: Sherrod.maria@ Yvette Q. Getch, Ph.D., is an associate professor and Jolie Ziomek-Daigle, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the counseling and human development services department at the University of Georgia, Athens.
Table 1. Comparison of the Six Targeted Behavior Referrals for
Consecutive Years

Behavior Referrals         2006-2007   2007-2008   Percent Change

Inappropriate behavior        44          15           66%
Bus referral                  32          15           53%
Physical aggression           67          40           40%
Not following directions       7           4           43%
Disruptive                     4          12           -- (a)
Disrespect                    12          16           -- (b)

(a) Negative change of 63%.

(b) Negative change of 25%.

Table 2. Teachers' Perception Ratings

Participant   Pre-Intervention   Post-Intervention   Percent Change

1                    2                  2.5                20%
2                    1.5                1.83               18%
3                    2                  2                  -- (a)
4                    2.67               2                  -- (b)
5                    2.83               3.33               15%

(a) No change.

(b) Negative change of 25%.

Table 3. Number of Discipline Referrals Before, During, and After

Participant   Pre-Intervention   Intervention   Post-Intervention

1                    3                0                 0
2                    4                3                 0
3                    2                3                 1
4                    3                1                 1
5                    4                0                 0
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Author:Sherrod, Maria Dunn; Getch, Yvette Q.; Ziomek-Daigle, Jolie
Publication:Professional School Counseling
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2009
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