Positive Behavior Intervention & Support for students with ASD

The problem behaviors of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are among the most challenging and stressful issues faced by schools and parents. The current best practice in treating and preventing unwanted or challenging behaviors utilizes the principles and practices of positive behavior support (PBS). PBS has been demonstrated to be effective with individuals with a wide range of problem behavior and disability classifications. Although used successfully both in the classroom and school-wide, PBS is not a specific intervention per se, but rather an approach that has evolved from traditional behavioral management methods. PBS refers to a set of research-based strategies that are intended to decrease problem behaviors by designing effective environments and teaching students appropriate social and communication skills. The objective of PBS is to decrease potentially problematic behavior by making environmental changes and teaching new skills rather than focusing directly on eliminating the problem behavior.

An essential component of PBS is a functional behavior assessment (FBA) to help determine the events that influence and maintain the student’s challenging behavior. FBA methods are considered best practice in identifying and designing behavioral interventions. An important goal of a functional assessment is to identify antecedents or environmental situations that will predict the occurrence and nonoccurrence of the student’s challenging behavior. Another goal is to obtain and expand information that will improve the effectiveness and efficiency of intervention strategies. FBA identifies the function(s) that the behavior appears to serve for the student. For example, students might exhibit challenging behaviors with the goal of escape or the goal of seeking attention. When the curriculum is difficult or demanding, students may attempt to avoid or escape work through their behavior (e.g., refusal, passive aggression, disruption, etc.). They may also use challenging behavior to get attention from adults and peers. Because students with ASD also have significant social and pragmatic skills deficits, they may experience difficulty effectively communicating their needs or influencing the environment. Thus, challenging classroom behavior may serve a purpose for communicating or a communicative function. When we understand the goal of student behavior then we can begin to teach alternative replacement behavior and new interactional skills.

The process of conducting an FBA is best described as (a) an strategy to discover the purposes, goals, or functions of a student’s behavior; (b) an attempt to identify the conditions under which the behavior is most likely and least likely to occur; (c) a process for developing a useful understanding of how a student’s behavior is influenced by or relates to the environment; and (d) an attempt to identify clear, predictive relationships between events in the student’s environments and occurrences of challenging behavior and the contingent events that maintain the problem behavior. An FBA can be conducted in a variety of ways. There are two general assessment tools to assist in the collection of information about the variables and events that surround the occurrence (or nonoccurrence) of the student’s challenging behavior. The first are interviews and rating scales that provide information from the individuals (parents, teachers) who know the student best, along with the student themselves. The second method is direct observation of the student in his or her natural daily environments. One observation strategy for collecting observational information is the A-B-Cformat. The observer records the Antecedent to the behavior (what happened immediately before the behavior), describes the Behavior, and the Consequence of the behavior (what happened immediately after). The following steps are a general guide to developing a comprehensive student behavior intervention or support plan.

  • Development of the plan should begin with a functional assessment (FBA) of the problem behavior to understand the student and the nature of the challenging behavior in the context of the environment.

  • Next, the professional team examines the results of the functional assessment and develops hypothesis statements as to why the student engages in the challenging behavior. The hypothesis statement is an informed, assessment-based explanation of the challenging behavior that indicates the possible function or functions served for the student.

  • Once developed, the hypothesis provides the foundation for the development of intervention strategies. The focus of intervention plan is not only on behavior reduction, but for also teaching appropriate, functional (generally communicative) skills that serve as alternative/replacement behaviors for the undesirable behavior.

  • Following implementation of the BIP, the team regularly reviews and evaluates its effectiveness and makes modifications as needed.

Research indicates that PBS can be effective for eliminating and preventing problem behaviors of children with ASD. For example, a review of published research studies found that in cases where PBS strategies were used, there was as much as an 80% reduction in challenging behavior for approximately two-thirds of the cases studied. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has endorsed PBS as a preferred form of intervention for managing the challenging behavior of students with disabilities. The following is an excellent resource for both teachers and parents.

Positive Behavior Support: A Classroom-Wide Approach to Successful Student Achievement and Interactions (2005). University of South Florida.

Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, CCBT, NCSP is author of the award-winning book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. He is also editor of a text in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools and author of the new book, Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT.

© Lee A. Wilkinson

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