The problem with behaviorism

There are better ways to work with behaviorally challenging children

The “solution” recommended for schools and school systems where there are issues with student disruption and out of control behaviors is consistently “positive behavior intervention and supports.” In this document I will provide the history of positive behavior intervention and supports, the approach chosen by the national technical assistance center (, and the harm and contribution that approach is making to the disproportionate discipline rates for children with disabilities.

Positive behavior interventions and supports has held a unique place in special education law since Congress amended the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1997. 

The U. S. Department of Education first referenced the term “positive behavioral interventions and supports” (PBIS) in 1996, and the term is currently used in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (e.g., sections 601(c)(5)(F), 611(e)(2)(C)(iii), 614(d)(3)(B)(i), 662(b)(2)(A)(v), and 665).

The Department of Education indicated further that PBIS does not “mean any specific program or curriculum.”

This emphasis on using functional assessment and positive approaches to encourage good behavior remains in the current version of the law as amended in 2004.  IDEA requires:

  • The Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) team to consider the use of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports for any student whose behavior impedes his or her learning or the learning of others (20 U.S.C. §1414(d)(3)(B)(i)).
  •  A functional behavioral assessment when a child who does not have a behavior intervention plan is removed from his or her current placement for more than 10 school days (e.g. suspension) for behavior that turns out to be a manifestation of the child’s disability (20 U.S.C. §1415(k)(1)(F)(i)).
  •  A functional behavioral assessment, when appropriate, to address any behavior that results in a long-term removal (20 U.S.C. §1415(k)(1)(D)).

The Positive Behavior Intervention & Supports (PBIS) OSEP Technical Assistance Center was established in 1997 to deliver direct and indirect technical assistance and implementation support to local and state education agencies across the United States and territories.  According to the “Brief Introduction” dated June 29, 2018, “PBIS implementation involves explicitly prompting, modeling, practicing, and encouraging positive expected social skills across settings and individuals.”

The Brief goes on to explain “When students are taught to effectively use relevant expected social skills for themselves and with others, school climates are described as more positive, learning environments are designated as safer and student-educator relationships are referred to as more trusting and respectful.  This document indicates that students and educators have improved perceptions of organization health and school safety and school climate when PBIS is implemented over time. The authors are clear that PBIS is not an intervention or practice, but rather a framework for selection and use of proven practices.  According to the Brief, the PBIS framework is visible in all 50 states and has been used since the 1980’s.  The PBIS Center and it’s national network support 26,316 schools.

Issue One:

The evidence of long-term effectiveness is not available.  On the contrary, after 22 years, our country’s schools continue to struggle with restraints, seclusion, suspensions and expulsions.  In some cases, these statistics are increasing, even in schools where PBIS is in place.  (The website cites the effectiveness of the PBIS framework and lists many references.  However, a look at the references reveals that most are not recent, are limited in scope, and do not reflect research about long term outcomes of implementation of PBIS).  

According to the document Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports: Implementation Blueprint (October 2015), PBIS is grounded in the behavioral and prevention sciences and emphasizes within a multi-tiered support system framework (a) measurable outcomes, (b) evidence-based practices, (c) implementation systems, and (d) data for decision making.  

Issue Two:

Though Positive behavior intervention and supports is not an intervention or practice and does not require a specific approach, the leaders of the national TA organization base all their technical assistance on a behavioral model. Despite the explosion of information from the 1990’s “Decade of the Brain” and the continuing research in the areas of child development, neurobiology, trauma, attachment, and more, the leaders have not updated the PBIS approach. Behaviorism is harmful for vulnerable children, including those with developmental delays, neurodivergence (ADHD, Autism, etc.), mental health concerns (anxiety, depression, etc.).

The concept of Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports is not the issue.  The promotion of behaviorism is the issue. focuses only on surface behavior, what one can observe.  Whether this is due to lack of understanding of the complexity or an intentional omission is unknown. The focus on surface behavior, without seeming to understand or be concerned about the complexity, or even the simple dichotomy of volitional versus autonomic (stress response) and the use of outdated, compliance based, animal based behaviorism (which has no record of long term benefits) continues to fail our country’s students. 

Specific Concerns Are Detailed Below:

The May 2019 policy document Preventing Restraint and Seclusion in Schools states the following:

Educators must understand that behavior is a form of communication and that all behavior serves a functionStudents use their behavior to communicate that they want to get something (like attention or an activity) or avoid something (like escape an unpleasant or undesired situation). Therefore, when implementing more targeted (Tier 2) or intensive (Tier 3) prevention supports, educators must (a) teach students a replacement skill (i.e., more appropriate behavior) that effectively results in similar consequences and (b) make individualized adjustments to the classroom and school environment to set students up for success. For example, some evidence-based strategies include providing reminders, establishing predictable routines, adjusting academic instruction and tasks, and arranging the environment so the replacement skills “work” for the student. Increasing the likelihood of student success reduces the likelihood of a crisis situation.

This paragraph illustrates several major concerns about the guidance being provided by the OSEP funding national technical assistance center:

  1. The documents on imply that all behavior is willful.  There is no acknowledgement in the literature that behaviors can be stress responses (fight-flight-freeze responses).  This is a profound omission that does great harm to children whose brains and bodies have highly sensitive neuroception of danger.  To be punished for a stress response is harmful and traumatic. 
  • The answer to misbehavior is teaching a replacement behavior or adjusting the environment, instructions and tasks.  This brings up two important points.  First, there is no mention here about the importance of relationship. It is through relationships that children find safety, and through safety, children are able to calm, co-regulate (and learn to self-regulate) and be available for learning those instructions. 

The research from the 1990’s and ongoing continues to affirm the key importance of relationships for children to feel safe and learn. In the “Brief Introduction” document mentioned previously, the following statement is made: “Adult-student trusting relationships are the result of positive school and classroom climate, experiences of academic and social success, predictable school routines and supports, positive adult modeling.” This is contrary to what has been learned over the past 30 years through neurobiological research, attachment research, child development and trauma research.  The relationship with a caring, trusted adult is primary.  It must come first. 

The second concern about teaching replacement behaviors goes back to the lack of distinction between willful behaviors and stress behaviors.  Teaching replacement behaviors is not possible for stress responses since they are automatic responses that occur beneath the level of conscious thought.  

  • An additional concern is that some “mis” behaviors occur because a child’s brain has not developed the necessary skills to inhibit the undesired behavior or to produce the desired behavior. This can be the case for children with developmental delays, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, among others.  No amount of incentives (positive or negatives) can motivate a child to do something that their brain does not have the capacity yet to do. The recommendations throughout include positive incentives, teaching and reteaching, then consequences (punishment) when students do not meet the expectations.  Rewards and consequences, even for children who have the capacity to meet the expectations, are short-term solutions that do not solve the root causes for behaviors and create additional problems, including decreased internal motivation, loss of interest in activities that had been interesting, competition between students, shame for students unable to meet the expectations, and more
  • There is no mention of dysregulation which is a major issue with trauma, ADHD, and other conditions.  It is an underlying feature of disruptive behavior.  Children must learn how to regulate their emotions and their bodies, something that is first learned through co-regulation with a trusted adult. 
  • The other point is the comment about the tiers.  Tier 2 and Tier 3 are described as available to students when more support is needed than what is provided through Tier 1. However, though much is said about PBIS being preventative, Tier 2 and Tier 3 do not seem to be available proactively, but rather after a student has failed to succeed at Tier 1. 

There are two points to be made about this.  First of all, the training of all school staff must be updated so that everyone who comes in contact with students understands brain development, fight-flight-freeze behaviors, is able to recognize signs of stress by noticing students’ facial expressions and body language and by talking with students; and knows how to respond in a situation where a student begins to escalate or is escalated, so  that the student is supported rather than further escalated. Secondly, students with IEPs would be provided the supports needed proactively (as Tier 2 or Tier 3 supports) rather than waiting for problems to occur.

There are additional concerning features of the PBIS guidance from the national technical assistance center.  The first is the delineation of behaviors into classroom managed and office detention referral.  Rather than determining whether the behavior is volitional or a stress response, or even if the behavior could be a result of an expectation that is beyond the child’s capacity to meet, there is simply a decision between managing the behavior in the classroom or sending the child to the office. This is a false choice which misses the point of helping a vulnerable child who is having difficulty meeting an expectation.

Another concern is the functional behavioral assessment.  There is no question that behavior is a form of communication.  It does serve a function.  However, the range of possible functions is much wider than simply trying to get out of something or trying to get something.  This reduction of the function to a simple either/or option negates all the other equally possible explanations, including nonvolitional behavior and behaviors that were beyond the child’s skill level, trauma flashbacks, and more.  The FBA involves analyzing the antecedent – what happened immediately before the behavior in question and what happened after the behavior and drawing conclusions based on what function the behavior was like to have served.  The people participating in the analysis include the teacher, the behavioral specialist and any other adults working with the child.  There are several problems with this approach.  It does not include the child’s perspective.  It does not consider that many factors that are unseen, including sensitivity to light, sound, movement; or internal pain; or trauma flashbacks, worry about a grandparent who had a stroke last night, fear because he doesn’t know how to do the assignment he was just given, or a myriad of other potential factors not visible to the evaluators.  The FBA and indeed the entire positive behavior intervention and supports framework focuses on behavior, not on root causes.  Without addressing root causes, true growth cannot be expected.

The last concern is the use of rewards and consequences to achieve the desired goals. This is a top—down, power over, authoritarian approach that is not in alignment with the rest of the goals of the educational system that is designed to teach children to think and learn.  The PBIS system expects students to comply.  When they do, they are rewarded.  When they do not, they are punished.  (They may be taught first, though not necessarily in a way that they are able to learn), but they will be punished if they do not or are not able to comply.

In Addressing the Wicked Problem of Behaviour In Schools, published online in the International Journal of Inclusive Education April 25, 2019 David Armstrong reviews the challenges of the systems used to address behavioral issues in schools across several countries, including the United States. Behavior management, described as an influential educational cliché in Australia, Canada, England, New Zealand and US, utilizes a manage and discipline model which Armstrong asserts is misinformed by a deeply-rooted set of interconnected notions about how to ensure an orderly and productive classroom. 

Students with disabilities affecting their behavioural development or who have mental health difficulties (MH) frequently face disadvantage, suspension or exclusion as a result of the application of this model in practice. Evidence-based initiatives designed to address this dilemma in the us since the late 1990s, using PBS (Positive Behavior Support) and SWPS (School-Wide Positive Behavior Support) do not appear to have been successful.  Armstrong cites research indicating the harm of manage and discipline approaches to students with mental health issues and the escalation of exclusionary discipline in the United States and criminalization, even for offenses that in earlier years would have been handled much differently.  

Armstrong also suggests that policies such as ranking schools encourages schools to exclude children with disabilities who will negatively impact their school’s performance.  Per the abstract, “this article recommends wholehearted rejection of the manage and discipline model by practitioners; targeted support for teachers experiencing (or at risk of experiencing) occupational burnout; and the introduction of tangible educational policy incentives intended to encourage schools to include students who might otherwise face suspension or exclusion on behavioural grounds. Finally, this article advocates radical change in attitudes by teachers toward student conduct in schools and argues that educational practice should align with insights about human behaviour arising from research in developmental psychology. 


The information from the national Behavior Technical Assistance Center ( is contributing to the misunderstanding school leaders, teachers, and support staff have about behavior.  Specifically, the repeated assertion that students use their behavior to get something or to get out of something, along with the lack of information about autonomic reactions (stress responses) is incorrect and results in children being misunderstood and punished for behaviors that are not within their volitional control.  

Another major concern is the heavy reliance on rewards and punishment.  Though the name, Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports, sounds nice, the children with or without IEPs who need support to help with their behavioral struggles are not getting those supports, and instead are being blamed for their behavior. Children are being punished (and shamed) through dojos and color charts, and by being left out of class celebrations and school activities, by being secluded and restrained, by being moved to more restrictive schools, or by being suspended, expelled, or referred to juvenile justice.  Some are being handcuffed at school by police.

Based on countless reports from families on social media groups, newspaper reports, government accounts and personal accounts, many of the disciplinary actions directed toward students with disabilities are for behaviors that are flight-fight-freeze behaviors.  Teachers, paraprofessionals, school resource officers, and other school personnel do not recognize the difference between willful and involuntary stress responses – and it is HURTING our children.  And the leaders of the national technical assistance center are contributing to this.


  1. Require that National Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports IMMEDIATELY STOP using an outdated behavioral management system which has not made significant progress toward solving our school discipline problems in the 20 years that Behaviorism has been the primary approach. 
  • Require the National Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports to provide guidance based on current findings from neuroscience, trauma research, attachment research, child development research, brain research, consulting such experts as the leaders of Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child, Dr. Dan Siegel, Mona Delahooke, Ph.D., Stephen Porges, Ph.D., Ross Greene, Ph.D., Bruce Perry, M.D., Jack Shonkoff, M.D., Stuart Shanker, Ph.D., Heather Forbes, LCSW.
  • Fully fund IDEA.  State funding for education must also be increased to support appropriate class sizes through appropriate staffing, appropriate staff salaries, entitled supports and services for children with disabilities, and ongoing training and team time for teachers and other school staff. 


This research was conducted by Beth Tolley. Beth retired in 2018 from a leadership position in Virginia’s lead agency for early intervention for infants and toddlers and is a mother, grandmother and advocate. Beth is the Director of Educational Strategy for the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint.

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