School-Wide Positive Behavior Support and Response to Intervention

Schools are complex environments where the collective skills, knowledge, and practices of a culture are taught, shaped, encouraged, and transmitted. Teachers are challenged to provide effective and explicit instruction that maximizes students’ acquisition of concepts, skills, and information, and students are challenged to remain attentive, responsive, and engaged to benefit from these instructional opportunities. These formidable goals are enriched and complicated by learners with diverse learning histories, unique strengths and limitations, and defining cultural influences. In addition, schools, families, and students continually must adapt to maximize benefits from the school experience.

In recent years, achieving these goals has required that schools a) increase instructional accountability and justification, b) improve the alignment between assessment information and intervention development, c) enhance use of limited resources and time, d) make decisions with accurate and relevant information, e) initiate important instructional decisions earlier and in a more timely manner, f) engage in regular and comprehensive screening for successful and at-risk learners, g) provide effective and relevant support for students who do not respond to core curricula, and g) enhance fidelity of instructional implementation (Sugai, 2007).

In response, a general problem-solving framework, Response to Intervention (RTI), has evolved to address these need statements. Although not new or limited to special education, RTI initially appeared as policy in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA 2004), and it has conceptual and empirical foundations in, for example, applied behavior analysis, curriculum-based measurement, precision teaching, pre-referral intervention, teacher assistance teaming, diagnostic prescriptive teaching, data-based decision making, early universal screening and intervention, behavioral and instructional consultation, and team-based problem solving (Sugai, 2007). RTI has been described as an approach for establishing and redesigning teaching and learning environments so that they are effective, efficient, relevant, and durable for all students, families, and educators (Sugai, 2007). Specifically, RTI is shaped by six defining characteristics (Brown-Chidsey & Steege, 2005; Christ, Burns, & Ysseldyke, 2005; Fuchs & Deshler, 2007; Fuchs & Fuchs, 2007; Fuchs, Mock, Morgan, & Young, 2003; Gresham, 2005; Gresham et al., 2005; Kame’enui, 2007; National Association of State Directors of Special Education, 2006; Severson, Walker, Hope-Doolittle, Kratochwill, & Gresham, 2007):

  1. Universal screening: Learner performance and progress should be reviewed on a regular basis and in a systematic manner to identify students who are a) making adequate progress, b) at some risk of failure if not provided extra assistance, or c) at high risk of failure if not provided specialized supports.
  2. Data-based decision making and problem solving: Information that directly reflects student learning based on measurable and relevant learning criteria and outcomes should be used to guide decisions regarding instructional effectiveness, student responsiveness, and intervention adaptations and modifications.
  3. Continuous progress monitoring: Student progress should be assessed on a frequent and regular basis to identify adequate or inadequate growth trends and support timely instructional decisions.
  4. Student performance: Priority should be given to using actual student performance on the instructional curriculum to guide decisions regarding teaching effectiveness and learning progress.
  5. Continuum of evidence-based interventions: An integrated and linked curriculum should be available such that:
    1. A core curriculum is provided for all students;
    2. A modification of this core is arranged for students who are identified as nonresponsive, and
    3. A specialized and intensive curriculum is developed for students whose performance is deemed nonresponsive to the modified core. Elements of this continuum must have empirical evidence to support efficacy (intervention is linked to outcome), effectiveness (intervention outcomes are achievable and replicable in applied settings), relevant (intervention can be implemented by natural implementers and with high fidelity), and durable (intervention implementation is sustainable and student outcomes are durable).
  6. Implementation fidelity: Team-based structures and procedures are in place to ensure and coordinate appropriate adoption and accurate and sustained implementation of the full continuum of intervention practices.

Although most RTI implementation efforts have focused on academic curriculum and instructional practices (e.g., early literacy and numeracy), applications of the RTI framework also are represented in the implementation of School-wide Positive Behavior Support (SWPBS) practices and systems (Sugai et al., 2000). A comparison of RTI applications in early literacy and social behavior reveals similarities within core RTI characteristics (see Figure 1).


A particularly important feature of SWPBS and RTI is an emphasis on prevention (see Figure 2), which has its roots in public health and disease control and occurs at three levels:
  1. Primary tier prevention: All students are exposed to a core social behavior curriculum to prevent the development of problem behavior and to identify students whose behaviors are not responsive to that core.
  2. Secondary tier prevention: Supplemental social behavior support is added to reduce the current number and intensity of problem behavior.
  3. Tertiary tier prevention: Individualized and intensive behavior support is developed to reduce complications, intensity, and/or severity of existing problem behavior.
This three-tiered prevention logic has direct application to both academic and social behavior supports (Kame’enui, 2007; Lane et al., 2007; O'Shaughnessy, Lane, Gresham, & Beebe-Frankenberger, 2003; Sadler & Sugai, in press).

Although conceptualized as a three-tiered framework, this continuum of evidence-based practices of RTI and SWPBS applications is best represented as a blended integration that has relevance and application across the range of teaching and learning environments that exist in schools and communities. In Figure 3, examples of specific school-based behavioral interventions are organized in the traditional three-tiered framework but also are aligned along this integrated curriculum. If done properly, each practice should have decision rules for determining movement up and down the continuum based on student performance. The specialized nature of interventions and breadth of the continuum will vary by developmental level (e.g., early childhood/preschool, elementary, middle, high school), environmental constraints (e.g., small vs. large school), alternative programming (e.g., correctional school, hospital setting), and so on. For example, an intensive program for students with significant emotional and behavioral disorders might have a structured level system and token economy for all students that involves hourly social behavior progress monitoring and feedback associated with school-wide social skills (primary tier); a peer- or adult-based individualized behavioral contracting system with continuous prompting, monitoring, and feedback (secondary tier); and cognitive-behavioral counseling sessions every morning that are linked to psychopharmacological and person-centered process planning (tertiary tier).


Although applications of the RTI logic and SWPBS approach seem straightforward, research (Christ et al., 2005; Fairbanks, Sugai, Guardino, & Lathrop, 2007; Fuchs & Deshler, 2007; Gresham, 2005; Klingner & Edwards, 2006; Sandomierski, Kincaid, & Algozzine, 2007) has shown that school personnel need to continually rethink their practices in a number of areas.

In conclusion, RTI is a good framework and logic for organizing and increasing the efficiency with which evidence-based practices are selected, organized, integrated, implemented, and adapted. Examples and applications of the RTI logic are being developed, demonstrated, and tested in a number of academic content areas and in social behavior supports. As represented in SWPBS, RTI gives priority to the continuous monitoring of important student performance indicators in response to high-fidelity implementation of evidence-based practices. Timely screening and data-based decisions are encouraged so that more effective and efficient interventions can be provided for students whose behaviors are not responsive to core practices and interventions. Preventing the development and lessening the intensity of problem behavior must be a high priority of instructors seeking to maximize student learning and the impact of effective interventions. If done wisely in the context of other initiatives and interventions across classroom and nonclassroom settings, the possibility of improving student academic and social behavior outcomes can become a reality for all students.

  1. How curriculum adoptions and instructional design decisions are made;
  2. How special and general educators work together to address the needs of all students;
  3. What assessment tools and procedures are used to make reliable and valid instructional decisions;
  4. How high fidelity of implementation of best practices is assessed, evaluated, and supported;
  5. What communications among students, teachers, and families look like;
  6. How resources are organized to respond effectively and efficiently with students who do not achieve the desired oucomes in response to the intervention;
  7. What criteria are used to determine whether a practice is evidence based;
  8. How the practices and systems align with the social, cultural, and educational vision and values of students, family members, and school staff.


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Christ, T. J., Burns, M. K., & Ysseldyke, J. E. (2005). Conceptual confusion within response-to-intervention vernacular: Clarifying meaningful differences. Communique, 34(3), 1–8.

Fairbanks, S., Sugai, G., Guardino, D., & Lathrop, M. (2007). Response to intervention: Examining classroom behavior support in second grade. Exceptional Children, 73, 288–310.

Fuchs, D., & Deshler, D. D. (2007). What we need to know about responsiveness to intervention (and shouldn’t be afraid to ask). Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 22, 129–136.

Fuchs, D., & Fuchs, L. S. (Eds.). (2007). Responsiveness to intervention [Special issue]. Teaching Exceptional Children, 39(5).

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Gresham, F. M., Reschly, D. J., Tilly, W. D., Fletcher, J., Burns, M., Prasse, D., et al. (2005). A response to intervention perspective. The School Psychologist, 59(1), 26–33.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, Pub. L. No. 108-446, § 1400 et seq.
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Lane, K. L., Rogers, L. A., Parks, R. J., Weisenbach, J. L., Mau, A. C., Merwin, M. T., & Bergman, W. A. (2007). Function-based interventions for students who are nonresponsive to primary and secondary prevention efforts: Illustrations at the elementary and middle school levels. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 3, 169–184.

National Association of State Directors of Special Education. (2006, May). Myths about response to intervention (RtI) implementation. Retrieved May 2007, from

O’Shaughnessy, T. E., Lane, K. L., Gresham, F. M., & Beebe-Frankenberger, M. E. (2003). Children placed at risk for learning and behavioral difficulties: Implementing a school-wide system of early identification and intervention. Remedial and Special Education, 24(1), 27–35.

Sadler, C., & Sugai, G. (in press). Effective behavior and instructional support: A district model for early identification and prevention of reading and behavior problems. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions.

Sandomierski, T., Kincaid, D., & Algozzine, B. (2007). Response to intervention and positive behavior support: Brothers from different mothers or sisters with different misters? Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports Newsletter, 4(2), 1–4.

Severson, H. H., Walker, H. M., Hope-Doolittle, J., Kratochwill, T. R., & Gresham, F. M. (2007). Proactive, early screening to detect behaviorally at-risk students: Issues, approaches, emerging innovations, and professional practices. Journal of School Psychology, 45, 193–223.

Sugai, G. (2007, December). Responsiveness-to-intervention: Lessons learned and to be learned. Keynote presentation at and paper for the RTI Summit, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, DC.

Sugai, G., Horner, R. H., Dunlap, G., Hieneman, M., Lewis, T. J., Nelson, C. M., et al. (2000). Applying positive behavior support and functional assessment in schools. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 2, 131–143.

The development of this article was supported in part by Grant H029D40055 from the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. Opinions expressed herein are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Education or the RTI Action Network, and such endorsements should not be inferred. George Sugai may be contacted at the OSEP Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.

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