How Behavior Analysts are Making Schools Safer, Healthier Places

By Chelsea Wilhite, M.A., BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

With our culture’s increasing awareness of bullying in schools, our nation’s dropping academic scores, and the news coverage of violence against children, I wanted to find happy news about how children are growing up in today’s world. I found it in the story of Nevada’s comprehensive, behavior science-based approach to school settings. It’s called Nevada’s School Climate Transformation Project and it’s a project of Nevada Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (Nevada PBIS). I reached out to Project Director Ashley Greenwald to learn more about the program. Greenwald, a BCBA and Ph.D. Candidate, explained how Nevada schools are changing for the better.

CJW: What is Nevada’s School Climate Transformation Project?

Ashley Greenwald, M.A., BCBA

Ashley Greenwald, M.A., BCBA

AG: Nevada’s School Climate Transformation Project (SCTP) is a project of Nevada PBIS in collaboration with the Nevada Department of Education working to build multi-tiered behavior frameworks in schools districts across the state.

CJW: How is it funded?

AG: Nevada’s SCTP is funded by the Federal Department of Education, more specifically the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.

CJW: How does it work (i.e., what does your team do)?

AG: Our team provides ongoing training and coaching to school districts to build capacity to implement Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) in their schools.  This training and coaching includes systems support and universal strategies for all students (defining school-wide behavioral expectations, teaching behavioral expectations, reinforcement systems, discipline systems, and data collection systems with data-based decision making), bully prevention, targeted group interventions, and individual function-based interventions.  A hierarchical coaching structure from the state to the district level allow for continuous training, professional development and technical assistance to the individual schools. Fidelity data and student outcomes are reported to the state Department of Education. 

CJW: How many schools/districts are implementing it now?

AG: This project has been operating for less than a year and in Cohort 1, there are currently 10 pilot schools implementing with high fidelity across three rural school districts in Nevada.  In this new fiscal year, we intend to add an additional 35 schools across four new districts, including both of Nevada’s urban districts.

CJW: How many will be implementing by the end of the current funding schedule?

AG: The project is federally funded for five years, ending in 2019, and will have seven total districts with over 90 schools implementing across Nevada.  The idea behind the grant funding, however, is to influence state policy and leverage state resources to continue to scale-up these efforts statewide.

CJW: On what literature/body-of-evidence are the PBIS practices founded?

AG: PBIS is an interdisciplinary field with a body of research unto itself.  The theory behind PBIS comes from Applied Behavior Analysis while the application is largely driven by practices within Prevention Science and Implementation Science.  Large scale randomized control trials of PBIS indicate that when school-wide PBIS is implemented with fidelity, the results include significant reductions in office discipline referrals, suspensions, teacher ratings of classroom problem behavior, concentration problems, emotion regulation problems, bullying and peer rejection (Bradshaw, Mitchell, & Leaf, 2010; Bradshaw, Waasdorp, & Leaf, 2012; Horner et al., 2009; Waasdorp, Bradshaw, & Leaf, 2012) while increases in students’ prosocial behavior, school climate, organizational health, teacher self-efficacy, and academic achievement are demonstrated (Bradshaw, Koth, Bevans, Ialongo, & Leaf, 2008; Bradshaw, Koth, Thornton, & Leaf, 2009; Bradshaw, Waasdorp, & Leaf, 2012; Horner et al., 2009; Bradshaw, Pas, Goldweber, Rosenberg, & Leaf, 2012).

CJW: Why are these practices important?

AG: School-wide PBIS is a systems approach to establishing a climate of social and behavioral supports for all students in order to achieve social, emotional, and academic success.  A positive and consistent school climate, including clear behavioral expectations and high rates of reinforcement for appropriate social and academic behaviors is pertinent to student success and well-being. The model of prevention that is implemented within a multi-tiered behavior framework allows for a continuum of supports for all students, thereby ensuring access to behavioral supports as needed but also reducing the administrative time and resources spent on discipline referrals and individualized support plans.  With mental and behavioral health being recognized as a priority in today’s educational settings, it is imperative to have supports for all students as well as using sophisticated data collection methodologies to make informed decisions, allowing for maximum student support and the minimum resources required to meet those needs while maintaining and enhancing academic achievement.     

CJW: What has been the reaction from school staff (teachers, aides, administrators)?

AG: Incredible!  Just incredible!  We are only five months into implementation at our initial cohort of schools and the staffs have been unbelievably satisfied.  While we need and value our quantitative data on student outcomes, our qualitative data have been some of the most significant. The teachers are feeling more productive, stating that the students are better behaved, know what is expected of them in all locations, the overall school climate is more positive, and they have more time to teach as opposed to deal with behavior problems.  Administrators have been thrilled at the early progress and overall change in their behavioral systems, while having more time to focus on school improvement.  Perhaps most importantly, students and parent report of students are explaining that they feel safer at school, know the school rules, and actually look forward to going to school.  We had one parent recently thank her school principal for implementing this work, explaining that she is so pleased at the social and emotional skills her child is learning at school and how important it is that these invaluable life skills are taught in both the home and school environments.

CJW: Do you have any data you can share at this point?

AG: We have a ton of data to share but in this limited space, I will share just a few examples of current outcomes and what other schools can expect implementing a program like this.  We use an online data collection platform called School Wide Information System (SWIS) wherein schools enter behavior data and allow our office to monitor data of individual students, classrooms, schools, and districts all from our office.  Across the ten schools in our first cohort, we saw a 74% increase in school staff that could state the school rules (from an average of 8% to 82%) and a 56% increase in students who could state the school rules (from an average of 11% to 67%).  We also saw an increase in staff who reported acknowledging students for appropriate behavior (from an average of 58% to 95%) and students who reported being acknowledged for appropriate behavior (from an average of 46% to 90%).  Data collected following our first series of walk-through assessments demonstrate a significant increase in scores on the Tiered Fidelity Inventory, increasing from an average of 10% at the baseline assessment to an average of 50% following three months of implementation.  These gains correspond to the data above, plus improvements in systems relating to having a team that handles behavior support, using data to make decisions, and having consistent behavior definitions and consistent consequences for both appropriate and inappropriate behavior.  Another good example of outcome data comes from one of our middle schools; they decreased their average rate of office discipline referrals per week per month from 14 to eight within three months. We look forward to the ability to report significant findings from our schools and districts at the end of the school year when we will put out a final report from our office targeted at state stakeholders.

CJW: Is there anything else about this project (or projects like it) people in the community should know about?

AG: The most important thing to know when implementing School-wide PBIS is to understand that it is a framework and not a packaged intervention.  Many different interventions can be included within the framework, as long as they are evidence-based programs and there are data to support their ongoing implementation.  Interventions and initiatives can be integrated within the framework to save resources and avoid duplication of efforts or trainings.  Additionally, PBIS is not a train-and-hope model but rather a model that builds local capacity for sustainable implementation along with ongoing training, coaching and technical assistance to ensure high fidelity of implementation, continuous data-based decision making, and significant and sustainable improvements in student outcomes. 

Many thanks to Ashley Greenwald for taking time to answer my questions… and further thanks for going to the extra effort of providing references.  Please share your experiences with PBIS in the comments below and remember to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


Bradshaw, C., Koth, C., Bevans, K., Ialongo, N., & Leaf, P. (2008). The impact of school-wide positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) on the organizational health of elementary schools.  School Psychology Quarterly, 23 (4), 462-473.

Bradshaw, C., Koth, C., Thornton, L., & Leaf, P. (2009).  Altering school climate through School-wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports:  Findings from a Group-Randomized Effectiveness Trial. Prevention Science, 10, 100-115.

Bradshaw, C. P., Mitchell, M. M., & Leaf, P. J. (2010). Examining the effects of School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports on student outcomes: Results from a randomized controlled effectiveness trial in elementary schools. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 12, 133-148

Bradshaw, C. P., Pas, E. T., Goldweber, A., Rosenberg, M., & Leaf, P. (2012). Integrating schoolwide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports with tier 2 coaching to student support teams: The PBISplus Model. Advances in School Mental Health Promotion, 5(3), 177-193.

Bradshaw, C., Waasdorp, T., & Leaf P. (2012) Examining the variation in the impact of School-wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.  Pediatrics, 10 (5), 1136-1145.

Horner, R., Sugai, G., Smolkowski, K., Todd, A., Nakasato, J., & Esperanza, J.  (2009). A Randomized Control Trial of School-wide Positive Behavior Support in Elementary Schools.  Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 11 (3), 113-144.

Waasdorp, T., Bradshaw, C., & Leaf , P., (2012) The Impact of School-wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports on Bullying and Peer Rejection: A Randomized Controlled Effectiveness Trial. Archive of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine. 166(2):149-156

Chelsea Wilhite, M.A.

Chelsea Wilhite, M.A., BCBA has always wanted to better understand the world around us. As a television journalist, Chelsea worked her way up the ranks to produce the number one rated television news broadcast in the Fresno television market, an area covering five California counties. Along the way, she won two regional news Emmys and a Radio and Television News Directors Award for best news producer. In an effort to further her understanding of natural phenomena, Chelsea left television after more than a decade, turning to Behavior Analysis. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Nevada, Reno. While behavior science research and instruction is now her primary interest, Chelsea never lost her passion for journalism and regularly contributes to behavior science oriented blogs, magazines, and newsletters. You can contact her at [email protected].

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