Positive Behavior Support as a Family Affair
Positive Behavior Support as a Family Affair
Positive behavior support (PBS) has been shown to be an effective approach for supporting children’s behavior. It involves proactive, teaching, and management strategies within daily routines. Whereas PBS is commonly thought of as an individualized approach, it can also be applied in larger systems such as schools or organizations. What many people do not know is that PBS may be used to structure and support entire families, improving their lives in general. This article will describe this family systems approach to PBS, providing examples from the second author’s family.
Goals and expectations
Families are most successful and happy when every member is clear about expectations. Expectations include overall house rules and an understanding of what behaviors are acceptable and not acceptable in typical family circumstances. They include how family members want to be treated, as well as each person’s responsibilities in the home. Expectations should be clear, concise, and doable.
At the Ruiz house, our rules are simple: “We keep ourselves, each other, and our things safe.” As our three children have become preteens and teenagers – and their interests, strengths, and challenges have evolved – our expectations have changed. We have gone from emphasizing behavior such as resolving problems with words to rules that are more about accountability and independence. For example, we expect our children to let us know who, what, where, and when before leaving the house and to check in with us at regular intervals. And we do the same for them. We also maintain a family calendar so we know what is going on.
Families’ strengths, needs, preferences, and challenges are unique. Therefore, PBS strategies should be individualized based on an understanding of patterns. It is often beneficial to look at situations that are the most and least successful, teasing out factors that might make the difference.
We have noticed that our children experience the most difficulty during transitions. These include the transition to and from school for Ben and Caden and moving between her mother’s and father’s homes for Kiya. During these times, the children are more likely to argue and misplace their stuff. The reason for this difficulty may be different for each child. Ben tends to forget belongings, which creates stress. Caden does not particularly like school and therefore procrastinates. For Kiya, the expectations tend to be quite different across her households. Recognizing this pattern helps us plan our approach.
It may also be helpful to look more broadly at what behavioral support practices are already in place. The attached setting checklist can be helpful in this regard (include setting checklist).
Behavior support strategies
Once a family is clear about expectations, circumstances affecting their behavior, and what strategies are currently working and not working, they can build out a “family plan”. This plan includes proactive strategies to prevent problems and prompt positive behavior. Prevention might include reorganizing the household or restructuring routines. Prompting involves teaching the specific behaviors expected through explanation, example, practice, and feedback. The plan also should also include consequences to reward positive behavior and discourage problem behavior. Consequences might include incentives for completing chores or treating one another kindly and/or natural consequences such as restricting privileges for misbehavior. In general, family plans should be about teaching – helping everyone in the household learn to communicate effectively, interact socially, and pitch in to make the household successful.
The Ruiz family puts a heavy emphasis on being proactive. We review our expectations, calendars, and chore responsibilities regularly. While doing so, we problem-solve in advance. Because transitions tend to be a challenge, we use visual reminders (pictures of room showing what “clean” looks like, lists of items needed) and count-downs to help the kids get ready. We also recognize that teaching is part of good parenting. Instead of assuming that our children know how to handle situations, we help them come up with words they can use to resolve problems and use modeling and coaching to help them do their chores correctly and completely. Caden, for example, gets pretty anxious during transitions. We have created a visual of strategies he can use to decompress (e.g., deep breathing, rocking on a ball, stretching). We reward positive behavior as well. We catch our children being good and give them specific feedback, for example, when they share their things or speak kindly to one another. Because Caden and Ben are prone to arguing, we reward good days between them with V-Bucks for their Fortnight game. We also hold the children accountable, requiring them to repair or replace anything that is damaged (e.g., by completing extra chores).
In these busy times, it is important for families to be continually monitoring how they are doing so they can stay on track with their family plan. The questions they might ask include:
- Are family members communicating effectively?
- Do positive interactions outweigh the negative ones?
- Do all the necessary household tasks get done on time?
- Do family members treat one another with kindness?
- Do family member respect established rules and limits?
- Does the family go places and do the things they enjoy?
Most families simply reflect on questions like this periodically. When things are challenging, however, it may be helpful to record progress. For example, this could be done by rating each of these or other items from 1 (poor) to 5 (great) or keeping track on what percent of chores get done or how many family outings occur.
The Ruiz family tracks progress on our calendar and chore chart. We record how well our boys get along by having the boys put either a red (fighting) or green (getting along) check mark on their calendars, as well as check off chores from the list as they are completed. We review our progress during our family meetings, celebrating our successes, gradually adding or changing expectations (e.g., chores assigned), and problem solving as needed. Upon review, we might let the children trade chores or start reducing the amount of assistance we provide. If new issues arise, we use this time to sort through them.
The Ruiz family provides a nice illustration of how PBS can be applied for entire households. With careful planning and a systems approach, families can improve their children’s behavior and family functioning in general.
Meme Hieneman, has a Ph.D. in Special Education and is nationally certified as a behavior analyst. She has published a variety of articles, chapters, and books including “Parenting with Positive Behavior Support: A Practical Guide to Resolving Your Child’s Difficult Behavior.” In her professional career, Meme has worked with children with severe behavior problems for more than 20 years.