IABA: Positive Behaviour Support


Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) is widely acknowledged to be the most effective way to support people whose behaviour challenges the families, carers, schools and services that support them. From April 2014, this has been the required model for all adult learning disabilities, social care and health services to follow. In contrast to other models of behaviour change, the focus is not on eliminating behaviour by blocking reinforcing consequences and applying negative ones in their place. The use of punishment and sanctions therefore does not fit with this approach as the emphasis is instead on teaching alternative and replacement skills.

PBS focuses on a person’s indisputable rights to be treated with dignity and compassion, to be valued, to be listened to, to be supported to have the best quality of life possible, and to be empowered to make choices and decide on how they want to live that life. In relation to behaviour, the success of the approach is measured not in terms of whether behaviour has reduced and therefore services are finding it easier to cope, but rather on whether the individual who experiences the difficulties has a richer, more fulfilling and improved quality of life, with greater access to community services, opportunities and experiences. A PBS approach makes use of the principles of applied behaviour analysis to observe, analyse and understand the messages which a person is communicating through their behaviour; it recognises that behaviours occur in part as a response to environmental triggers and demands, and seeks to create a better match between a person’s needs and services offered, whilst teaching important coping and tolerance skills; it makes use of effective teaching techniques to teach pupils new ways to get their needs met (for example, by developing or improving communication systems and skills, finding alternative ways to gain equivalent sensory feedback, teaching self-help and independence skills, or developing additional social interaction and play skills); it acknowledges that reinforcement and reward strategies can be useful tools to employ when helping children to begin to use newly acquired skills and to employ self-control when this too is being developed; and it emphasises that adult responses when undesired behaviour occurs can make the situation either better or worse, and consequently focuses on ensuring staff develop skills in recognising warm-up signs that a child is having difficulty and take steps to reassure, redirect and calm a pupil rather than confront, threaten or apply a sanction or punishment and provoke escalation of the situation.


“PBS is based on the principle that if you can teach someone a more effective and more acceptable behaviour than the challenging one, the challenging behaviour will reduce… There is nothing wrong with wanting attention, to escape from a difficult situation, wanting certain items, or displaying behaviours which just feel good, PBS helps people to get the life they need by increasing the number of ways of achieving these things”

The Challenging Behaviour Foundation

Within IABA’s multi-element PBS model, the emphasis is on teaching a pupil new skills so that they do not have to present challenging behaviour to get their needs met. Staff are supported to develop skills in understanding the messages behind behaviour and in identifying and reducing triggers which are causing the most distress and difficulty, while new skills are being taught. Staff learn to spot warm-up signs that a pupil is having difficulty and take action to address the underlying message so that the pupil does not need to display more challenging behaviour to convey that message: requests are explained, environments are altered, transitions are forewarned, demands are reduced, emerging problems are solved. Within a PBS framework, all reactive responses (ie those responses which adults make when behaviour challenges begin to be displayed) are intended to reassure the pupil, to help them overcome the problem or reduce their emotional response to it: in short, the focus is on keeping everyone safe by helping the pupil who is experiencing difficulty to calm and resettle as quickly and as effectively as possible.

IABA’s multi-element model recognises that traditional responses when unwanted behaviour is occurring, such as applying negative consequences (eg taking away a favourite toy or game, withholding a planned treat or favoured activity, removing earned tokens, removing the pupil from the group to an area of isolation [commonly referred to as “time out”]), or ignoring the behaviour (and by default, ignoring the message the pupil is trying to convey through it), often lead to an escalation in behaviour, since the pupil can become anxious, angry or upset, or feel the need to try harder to get their message acknowledged. Since the sole purpose of a reactive strategy is to keep people safe, IABA recommends using a range of alternative positive strategies to promote calming. These may include using active listening (to reassure a pupil that you are listening and understand their difficulty), distracting the pupil by initiating an unexpected but interesting occurrence or event, or redirecting the pupil by offering an alternative activity which s/he enjoys. If these types of positive strategies are used correctly (ie the right response, in the right way, at the right time), they can preclude the need for more “reactionary” responses which have the potential to escalate the situation further (for example, using physical contact to support a pupil to leave an anxiety-provoking or over-stimulating area and move to one where they will be better able to calm).