March 24, 2010

Teachers’ use of positive behavior supports studied

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Take a whiner, add a smart-alec, mix with a daydreamer, and you have the recipe for a challenging class.

A technique that focuses on supporting positive behavior can prevent those and other such challenges before they occur. Yet, even teachers trained in the technique can’t always make it work for them, a Southern Illinois University Carbondale expert says.

“Teachers we surveyed didn’t have any difficulty in understanding positive behavior supports, but they did report having a major problem with teaching replacement behaviors,” said Morgan Chitiyo, an assistant professor in SIUC’s Department of Educational Psychology and Special Education. “We weren’t expecting that. If they understand the basic principles, they should be able to understand teaching the replacement behaviors. That’s a concern -- and a puzzling one.”

The concept of positive behavior supports draws on the knowledge and techniques of applied behavior analysis, which uses rewards to achieve desired behaviors. Teachers using this system first observe a troublesome situation, record and graph data regarding the circumstances affecting the behavior, analyze that information and then use it to redesign the environment and teach more desirable responses to that environment.

“It’s not just one strategy -- it’s a philosophy, a way of managing behavior that avoids the punitive, like suspensions or expulsions,” said Chitiyo, who also is a board-certified behavior analyst.

“For example, you may have a student engaging in problem behavior. You observe and see that the function of this behavior is to get attention from a peer, so you adjust the seating arrangement by moving the peer away from the student, preventing the problem because you removed the reinforcement.

“Or, if you have students with attention deficit, they may engage in problem behavior because they are uncomfortable. Redesigning the tasks so they’re not as long may prevent that behavior.”

Chitiyo, whose doctoral dissertation at Tennessee Technological University focused on the effectiveness of these supports in a sampling of Middle Tennessee classrooms, said he began noticing reports in professional journals of difficulties teachers faced in trying to adopt the method in class. He heard the same thing in informal discussions with teachers, so he talked with his mentor, John J. Wheeler, about looking into the experiences of some Southern Illinois teachers trained in the technique.

“We thought, ‘Why not have the teachers themselves tell us just how difficult these challenges were?’” Chitiyo said.

“That would help us when we design professional development training in the future.”

Twenty-one Southern Illinois teachers responded to a survey the pair designed and administered in 2006. The teachers said time constraints proved their thorniest problem, though they also cited lack of resources and getting the students’ families on board, in addition to the difficulties in teaching replacement behaviors mentioned earlier.

“Collecting data, analyzing it and graphing it does take time,” Chitiyo acknowledged.

“But if it is done well, over the long term it will actually save time by reducing the problem behaviors, leaving more time for teaching.”

Schools might address the problems with resources and the need to learn how to teach replacement behaviors through partnerships with nearby universities, he suggested, while building rapport with families often helped in obtaining those families’ support.

“Families are important because you need to establish consistency between the school and home so the new behavior will generalize across all environments,” Chitiyo said.

“If they understand the goals and objectives, families feel they are part of the decision-making process.”

Chitiyo and Wheeler wrote an article on their survey’s results for Remedial and Special Education, a journal with both online and print versions. In 2009, it was the online journal’s most frequently read article for several months’ running and is still in the top 10.

“We were thrilled,” Chitiyo said. “I’ve had e-mails from people inquiring about it, including requests for the survey instrument we used.”

Chitiyo and Wheeler are now doing a follow-up study with teachers in Southern Illinois and Middle Tennessee, trying to determine whether teachers who use the technique see any advantage over other systems they’ve tried, how well it fits with their existing values and whether they see visible changes -- the reward for the teachers -- as a result.

“I think the results will help us make positive behavior supports less complex and more user-friendly,” Chitiyo said. “If we get the data we need, we can make the implementation stage more efficient.”