Educational Researcher, Vol. 39, No. 1, pp. 48–58
© 2010 AERA. http://er.aera.net
School discipline addresses schoolwide, classroom, and individual stu-
dent needs through broad prevention, targeted intervention, and
development of self-discipline. Schools often respond to disruptive
students with exclusionary and punitive approaches that have limited
value. This article surveys three approaches to improving school dis-
cipline practices and student behavior: ecological approaches to
classroom management; schoolwide positive behavioral supports;
and social and emotional learning. The article examines their episte-
mological and empirical roots and supporting research, suggesting
ways to combine approaches.
Keywords: at-risk students; school psychology; student behavior/
Schools face a number of challenges related to disruptive
and antisocial students. The behavior of these students
interferes with learning, diverts administrative time, and
contributes to teacher burnout (Byrne, 1999; Kendziora &
Osher, 2009). This article deals with the range of discipline issues
that include horseplay, rule violation, disruptiveness, class cut-
ting, cursing, bullying, sexual harassment, refusal, defiance,
fighting, and vandalism. Failure to deal effectively with this low-
level aggressive behavior contributes to poor individual, school,
and community outcomes (Conoley & Goldstein, 2004).
Schools typically respond to disruptive students with external
discipline, which consists of sanctions and punishment such as
office referrals, corporal punishment, suspensions, and expul-
sions. For example, at least 48% of public schools took a serious
disciplinary action against a student during 2005–2006. Among
these actions, 74% were suspensions lasting 5 days or more, 5%
were expulsions, and 20% were transfers to specialized schools
(Dinkes, Kemp, & Baum, 2009). Such responses present a short-
term fix to what often is a chronic and long-term problem. Little
evidence supports punitive and exclusionary approaches, which
may be iatrogenic for individuals and schools (Mayer, 1995;
Skiba, Peterson, & Williams, 1997). For example, segregation
with antisocial peers can increase antisocial behavior (Dishion,
Dodge, & Lansford, 2006), and punitive approaches to disci-
pline have been linked to antisocial behavior (Gottfredson,
Gottfredson, Payne, & Gottfredson, 2005; Mayer & Butterworth,
1995) and increased vandalism (Mayer & Butterworth, 1995;
Dishion & Dodge, 2005), particularly when they are perceived
as unfair. Similarly, suspension and expulsion disproportionately
affect students with emotional and behavioral disorders and stu-
dents of color, contributing to school disengagement, lost oppor-
tunities to learn, and dropout (American Academy of Pediatrics,
1998; Morrison et al., 2001; Osher, Morrison, & Bailey, 2003;
Gregory, Skiba, & Noguera, this issue of Educational Researcher,
School discipline entails more than punishment. It is complex
and includes developing student self-discipline (Bear, 2005).
Discipline and its opposite, indiscipline, are transactional phe-
nomena nested in classroom, school, and community ecologies.
The interactions that produce disciplined behavior (or indisci-
pline) are mediated and/or moderated by the developmental
needs of students; teacher, student, and school culture; student
socioeconomic status; school and classroom composition and
structure; pedagogical demands; student and teacher role expec-
tations and capacity to meet the institutionally established expec-
tations for their roles; and school climate. These transactions can
involve issues of student–school fit; bonding to school; academic
demands; school support for at-risk youth; differential beliefs and
responses of adults to challenging behaviors; and race, gender,
and cultural factors (Eccles, Lord, & Buchanan, 1996; Hemphill,
Toumbourou, Herrenkohl, McMorris, & Catalano, 2006;
Kellam, Mayer, Rebok, & Hawkins, 1998; McNeely & Falci
2004; Osher, Cartledge, Oswald, Artiles, & Coutinho, 2004;
Skiba, Michael, Nardo, & Peterson, 2000).
This article surveys three approaches that promise to improve
school discipline practices and student behavior: ecological
approaches to classroom management; schoolwide positive
behavioral supports (SWPBS); and positive youth development
(PYD). In addition to giving an overview of these approaches, we
examine epistemological and empirical roots and supporting
research; suggest ways that the three can be combined; and iden-
tify the importance of using family-driven, culturally competent
approaches and of effectively addressing mental health needs and
the adversities of poverty. An underlying premise of this article is
that schoolwide interventions, regardless of their roots, create
cognitive and behavioral ecologies that promote both situational
order and student learning and development.
Ecological Approaches to Classroom Management
Improving school discipline through an ecological approach to
classroom management focuses on improving the efficacy and
holding power of the classroom activities in which students par-
ticipate (see Doyle, 2006). Unlike SWPBS and PYD, it is an
How Can We Improve School Discipline?
David Osher, George G. Bear, Jeffrey R. Sprague, and Walter Doyle
januaRy/FebRuaRy 2010 49
indirect approach to improving school discipline in that it is
aimed at the quality of the settings that students occupy rather
than at the students themselves. This section delineates the key
features of this ecological approach to classroom management
and applies the approach to school discipline.
From an ecological perspective, classrooms are viewed as a
behavioral stream that can be analytically divided into roughly
10- to 20-minute activity segments, each representing a particu-
lar arrangement of participants, resources and props, participa-
tion roles, location, focal content, and the like (Gump, 1969).
Each segment has a characteristic vector or program that defines
the pattern of involvement for that segment. Subject lessons have
vectors or programs that define appropriate action or work
involvement for a given event. These programs of action provide
slots and sequences for participants’ behavior; create direction,
momentum, and energy for lessons; and pull participants along.
From the perspective of classroom management, these seg-
ments both define what constitutes classroom order at a given
moment and hold those orders in place as they become routin-
ized. Segments provide situated instructions or signal systems
(Kounin & Gump, 1974) for how to participate in classroom
events. Although norms, rules, and interpersonal relationships
play a part in the overall picture of classroom management, ecol-
ogists emphasize that it is the strength and the stability of the
programs of action embedded in particular activities that create
and maintain classroom order (Doyle, 2006).
The teacher’s core management task, then, is to gain and
maintain students’ cooperation in the programs of action that
organize and shape classroom life. Teachers accomplish this by
defining activity segments, introducing them into the environ-
ment, inviting and socializing students to participate, and moni-
toring and adjusting enactment over time. This task is
collaborative: The teacher and students jointly construct class-
room order. The difficulty of this task is related to the complexity
of the activities a teacher is trying to enact, the number of stu-
dents in a class, time constraints, the demands of the work
assigned to students, the ability and willingness of students to
engage in these activities, the social and emotional capacities of
students, the quality of the relationship between and among
teachers and students, and seasonal variations and distractions.
Classroom management is an enterprise of creating condi-
tions for student involvement in curricular events, and attention
is focused on the classroom group and on the direction, energy,
and flow of activity systems that organize and guide collective
action in classroom environments. The emphasis is on coopera-
tion, engagement, and motivation, and on students learning to
be part of a dynamic system, rather than on compliance, control,
and coercion. The holding power of programs of action is, of
course, always vulnerable to some degree, and misbehavior (i.e.,
alternative vectors) is an ever-present possibility. In a classroom
with strong lesson vectors (Doyle, 2006) and an alert teacher,
alternative vectors are usually seen early and stopped quickly by
a short desist (“Shh”), a gesture, or physical proximity (Evertson
& Emmer, 1982; Evertson, Emmer, Sanford, & Clements,
1983). In fact, most of what passes as classroom discipline prac-
tice consists of these brief, often unobtrusive reminders to get
back on track. If lesson vectors are weak because of teacher skill
or an unwillingness or inability of students to cooperate, such
efficiencies are unlikely to work well. In these circumstances, dis-
cipline in a more formal sense—explicit techniques directed to
remediating individual students’ conduct—emerges as the cen-
An ecological approach deals with school discipline by increasing
the strength and the quality of classroom activities. Implicit in
this approach is the premise that participating in well-managed
classroom activities encourages self-discipline by educating stu-
dents about what is possible through cooperation and coordi-
nated action with others. In addition, it provides the essential
conditions for caring, support, clear expectations, and guidance
that foster healthy student development and motivation. The
management of the setting has concurrent limitations in the face
of strong student resistance to participation in classroom activi-
ties. In such circumstances, other schoolwide approaches, such as
SWPBS and PYD, can help establish the necessary conditions for
The ecological approach to classroom management derives from
two major sources. The first is Gump’s (1990) finding, based on
his work with the Midwest Psychological Field Station in the
1950s, that a child’s behavior conformed to the shape of the set-
ting that the child occupied. In other words, children in the same
place behaved more alike than did a single child in different
places. In Gump’s words, “Places were clearly coercive of behav-
ior. They represented phenomena more stable, more extraindi-
vidual, and more ecological than the specific psychological
situations of individual behavior streams” (p. 438). The second
was Kounin’s (1970) efforts to ascertain what teachers did that
led to high levels of student work involvement in classrooms. In
an analysis of some 285 videotaped lessons, Kounin concluded
that teachers with high levels of work involvement used proactive
strategies of “withitness,” “overlapping,” group focus, and
momentum to manage classroom group structures rather than
desists or reprimands to correct individual student behaviors.
Research on the Ecological Approach
In contrast to SWPBS and PYD, the ecological approach has
typically been framed as content for preservice teacher education
rather than as a schoolwide intervention. The research traditions
on the ecological approach area are typically descriptive and qual-
itative rather than quantitative and experimental. As a result, no
body of scientific studies supports the efficacy of the approach.
However, it is known, in general, that well-managed classrooms
support academic achievement and that variables derived from
the ecological framework have been associated with management
success (Evertson & Emmer, 1982; Evertson et al., 1983). It is
also logical that participation in well-orchestrated classroom
activities promotes personal and social development. Studies
have not been done, however, to examine whether an ecological
approach to classroom management promotes schoolwide disci-
pline or promotes self-discipline. Nonetheless, the approach
offers considerable promise for advancing the field as a supple-
ment to existing approaches by promoting classroom engage-
ment. If classroom activities lack holding power, it is unlikely that
schoolwide discipline will make up for this deficiency. At the
same time, for the ecological approach to be effective, students
must come to class ready to attend and to be engaged. This is
rarely possible in chaotic, unsafe, or alienating schools, or when
students struggle with barriers to learning (Adelman & Taylor,
1997; Osher et al., 2008). The remaining sections consider these
Schoolwide Positive Behavioral Supports and Social
Two universal approaches to schoolwide discipline have predom-
inated during the past decade:
•Schoolwide positive behavioral supports (SWPBS), which
are schoolwide systems to communicate and teach rules (and
reward students for following them) and function-based
behavioral interventions (Center on Positive Behavioral
Interventions and Supports, 2004; Horner, Sugai, Todd, &
•Social emotional learning (SEL), which incorporates
approaches that emphasize self-awareness, self-management,
social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision
making (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional
Learning, 2003; Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, &
Schellinger, in press) and builds on the connectedness of stu-
dents and staff (Osher et al., 2008; Watson, 2003).
These two approaches differ in their primary aims—developing
systems to manage student behavior versus developing student
assets that foster self-discipline—and often in the methods used
to achieve each aim. These differences are consistent with the
distinction commonly made between teacher-centered and
student-centered approaches to learning and classroom manage-
ment (e.g., Freiberg, 1999). With respect to discipline, in teacher-
centered approaches, the primary focus is on external school rules
and the adult use of behavioral techniques, especially positive
reinforcement and punishment, to manage student behavior. In
student-centered approaches, the primary focus is on developing
students’ capacities to regulate their own behavior and in build-
ing caring, engaging, and trusting relationships. Whereas SWPBS
programs tend to be teacher centered, SEL programs are student
centered. Still, the two approaches have much in common: Like
the ecological approach, which focuses on instructional engage-
ment, both have ecological components. In addition, both
emphasize the prevention of problem behaviors and the promo-
tion of behavioral and social competencies; emphasize “positive”
techniques over punitive techniques; and recognize the critical
role of academic instruction and the participation of teachers,
administrators, students, families, and communities.
The SWPBS Approach to Discipline
SWPBS is a comprehensive and preventive approach to discipline
(Sprague & Golly, 2004). The primary aim of SWPBS is to
decrease problem behavior in schools and classrooms and to
develop integrated systems of support for students and adults at
the schoolwide, classroom, and individual student (including
family) levels. SWPBS is based on the hypothesis that when fac-
ulty and staff members actively teach, using modeling and role
playing, and reward positive behaviors related to compliance with
adult requests, academic effort, and safe behavior, the proportion
of students with mild and serious behavior problems will be
reduced and the school’s overall climate will improve (Sugai,
Horner, & Gresham, 2002).
SWPBS is not a wholly original approach. Multiple branded
programs, some of which involve social and emotional learning
strategies, describe similar approaches to reducing problem
behavior and increasing positive behavior. SWPBS can be sub-
sumed under the term positive behavioral supports (PBS), which
has its roots in behavioral theory (Skinner, 1974) and its applica-
tions in applied behavior analysis (Baer, Wolf, & Risley, 1968).
PBS was initially developed to intervene with, and support, stu-
dents and adults with significant intellectual disabilities and
severe behavior problems (Carr et al., 2002). SWPBS procedures
are organized around three main themes: prevention, multitiered
support, and data-based decision making. Prevention involves
defining and teaching a common set of positive behavioral expec-
tations, acknowledging and rewarding expected behavior, and
establishing and using consistent consequences for problem
behavior (including teaching or reteaching alternative behaviors).
The goal is to establish a positive school and classroom climate in
which expectations for students are predictable, directly taught,
consistently acknowledged, and actively monitored.
Research-based support programs for students at risk of anti-
social behavior follow a three-tier approach, operating at the uni-
versal (schoolwide), selective (for students who are at risk), and
indicated (for students who are the most chronically and intensely
at risk) levels. The greater the student’s need, the more intense
and detailed that support should be. Selective and indicated sup-
ports should be based on the principles and procedures of applied
behavior analysis to define behavioral challenges, complete func-
tional behavioral assessments, and design effective and efficient
procedures for correcting patterns of problem behavior in con-
junction with student- and family-centered planning approaches
SWPBS schools also provide regularly scheduled instruction
in desired social behaviors to enable students to acquire the nec-
essary skills for the desired behavior change, and they offer effec-
tive motivational systems to encourage students to behave
appropriately. SWPBS classrooms in SWPBS schools have the
same set of common school expectations posted, and teachers
develop classroom-level rules and reinforcement systems consis-
tent with the schoolwide plan. In addition, classroom-handled
versus administrator-handled behavioral problems are clearly
defined, and data on patterns of problem behavior are regularly
summarized and presented at faculty meetings to support deci-
sion making and practice consistency.
Foundational research. Research suggests that schools can estab-
lish clear expectations for learning and positive behavior while
providing firm but fair discipline. SWPBS builds on a solid
research base to design alternatives to ineffective administrative,
teaching, and management practices in a school (Mayer, 1995).
These include (a) setting a small number of positively stated rules
and expectations (Colvin, Kame’enui, & Sugai, 1993), (b) teach-
ing appropriate social behavior (Sugai & Fabre, 1987), (c) moni-
toring compliance with rules and expectations, (d) consistently
enforcing rule violations with mild negative consequences (Acker
& O’Leary, 1987), and (e) providing a rich schedule of positive
januaRy/FebRuaRy 2010 51
reinforcement for appropriate social behavior (Walker & Buckley,
1974). The behavior support strategies needed to establish a
schoolwide social culture should be supplemented with class-
room interventions and individualized supports for students with
chronic and intense problem behavior.
Research on SWPBS. Evidence suggests that SWPBS can prevent
many of the problems that arise in school settings. Studies employ-
ing the above-described components have documented reductions
in antisocial behavior (Metzler, Biglan, Rusby, & Sprague, 2001;
Sprague et al., 2002), vandalism (Mayer, 1995), and aggression
(Grossman et al., 1997). Some studies have shown up to 50%
reductions in discipline referrals over a 3-year period (Horner et al.,
2009). In an experimental trial randomized at the school level,
Bradshaw, Mitchell, and Leaf (2009) found that students in SWPBS
schools were 35% less likely to be sent to the principal’s office than
those in comparison schools. In addition, school staff reported
improved staff affiliation and organizational health (Bradshaw,
Koth, Bevans, Ialongo, & Leaf, 2008). Staff in another study had
improved perceptions of school safety (Horner et al., 2009).
The SEL Approach to Developing Self-Discipline
SEL focuses on developing individual qualities, strengths, and
assets related to social, emotional, cognitive, and moral develop-
ment and positive mental health (Berkowitz, Sherblom, Bier, &
Battistich, 2006; Catalano, Berglund, Ryan, Lonczak, &
Hawkins, 2004). The proximal goals of SEL programs are self-
awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills,
and responsible decision making, which, in terms of discipline,
provide a foundation for more positive social behaviors and fewer
conduct problems and improved academic performance (Durlak
et al., in press; Zins, Weissberg, Wang, & Walberg, 2004). SEL
helps develop the social and emotional capacities that enable stu-
dents to realize the discipline-related goals of character educa-
tion, which include responsible decision making grounded in
moral reasoning and the capacity to exhibit such qualities as
respect, resilience, bonding with others, resolving conflicts
appropriately, caring, and self-understanding (Berkowitz &
In comparison with SWPBS, SEL’s roots are quite diverse.
SEL evolved from research on prevention and resilience
(Greenberg, Domitrovich, & Bumbarger, 2001; Weissberg,
Caplan, & Harwood, 1991; Zins & Elias, 2006). Durlak et al.
(in press) suggest that SEL’s conceptualizers drew from Waters
and Sroufe’s (1983) description of competent individuals having
abilities “to generate and coordinate flexible, adaptive responses
to demands and to generate and capitalize on opportunities in
the environment” (p. 80). SEL has also built upon research in
youth development (Catalano et al., 2004; Hawkins, Smith, &
Catalano, 2004) and positive psychology (Seligman &
Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Although there have been systematic
reviews of empirical findings that relate to SEL (e.g., Denham &
Weissberg, 2004; Durlak et al., in press), no definitive document
delineates the relationships between and among the many
research areas that contribute to SEL.
SEL integrates building capacities and conditions for learning.
Capacities focus on integrating cognition, affect, and behavior—
and build on social-cognitive theory, including information
processing and problem solving (Bandura, 1986; Crick & Dodge,
1996; Spivack, Platt, & Shure, 1976), self-control (Meichenbaum,
1977), resilience (Werner, 1982), connectedness (Schaps,
Battistich, & Solomon, 1997), character education (Berkowitz
et al., 2006), and neurocognitive development (Greenberg, Kusche,
& Riggs, 2004). Conditions emphasize creating opportunities
for skill application and learning and recognition for successful
skill application (Catalano et al., 2004; Hawkins et al., 2004).
The aspects of SEL that relate to self-discipline also draw on work
in developmental psychology and community psychology. From
developmental psychology, SEL draws on research on moral and
prosocial development (Eisenberg, Fabes, & Spinrad, 2006;
Kohlberg, 1984), emotions (Goleman, 1995; Saarni, 1999),
attachment (Ainsworth, 1989), peer relations and friendship
(Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker, 2006), self-concept (Harter, 2006),
motivation (R. M. Ryan & Deci, 2000), and the ecology of
human development (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). SEL programs dif-
fer in the degree to which they draw from these areas. As we show
later, theory and research in these areas have guided many SEL
programs, often in an iterative research-development-practice-
research process in which practitioners and researchers refine pro-
grams, research, and theory.
When implemented in schools, nearly all SEL programs share
several common features, such as curriculum lessons, either
taught in a packaged program or integrated throughout the exist-
ing curriculum, designed to teach social skills and foster social,
emotional, and moral development. Often, SEL programming
includes a home–school component to foster generalization of
skills taught. Planned opportunities also are provided for students
to apply, practice, and further develop social, emotional, and
moral competencies. These may include service learning, class
meetings, and cooperative learning activities. Another common
feature is an authoritative approach to classroom management
and schoolwide discipline characterized by much greater empha-
sis on supportive teacher–student relations and student responsi-
bility than on the use of rewards and punishment in preventing
and correcting behavior problems (Bear, 2005; Brophy, 1996).
Foundational research. Research demonstrates that both problem-
atic and prosocial behaviors are mediated by social-cognitive pro-
cesses and emotional processes. For example, Dodge, Coie, and
Lynam (2006) identified social information-processing skills that
differentiate aggressive and nonaggressive children, including
impulse control, interpretation of hostile intentions in others,
number and quality of solutions generated when faced with inter-
personal problems, personal and social goals, and self-efficacy.
Research in emotions shows that aggressive children have diffi-
culty regulating their emotions and are less likely than other chil-
dren, especially those who are more prosocial, to experience
empathy and guilt—the two emotions most closely related to
antisocial and prosocial behavior (Eisenberg et al., 2006;
Hoffman, 2000). Likewise, moral reasoning research demon-
strates that, unlike prosocial children, antisocial children tend to
focus more on themselves, focusing on the rewards and conse-
quences for their behavior, with limited empathy-based guilt
(Manning & Bear, 2002; Stams et al., 2006).
Research also supports the importance of school bonding and
supportive relations between teachers and students (e.g., Hamre
& Pianta, 2006; Hawkins, Farrington, & Catalano, 1998;
Osterman, 2000), as well as developing positive peer relation-
ships (Buhs & Ladd, 2001; Rubin et al., 2006). Under such con-
ditions, students are more likely to internalize school values
(Wentzel, 2004), exhibit on-task behavior (Battistich, Solomon,
Watson, & Schaps, 1997), exhibit less oppositional and antisocial
behavior (Meehan, Hughes, & Cavell, 2003), and have fewer
conflicts with teachers and peers (Hamre, Pianta, Downer, &
Mashburn, 2008). Social supports and relationships are particu-
larly important for children at greatest risk for school disengage-
ment and problem behaviors (Hamre et al., 2008). Finally, SEL
recognizes the importance of supportive home–school relation-
ships in the prevention and correction of misbehavior (e.g.,
Haynes, Emmons, & Ben-Avie, 1997).
Research on SEL. Comprehensive literature reviews document the
effectiveness of universal SEL programs. They include reviews of
school-based programs for promoting mental health and pre-
venting school violence, aggression, and conduct problems (e.g.,
Hahn et al., 2007; Lösel & Beelmann, 2003; D. B. Wilson,
Gottfredson, & Najaka, 2001; Wilson & Lipsey, 2007; S. J.
Wilson, Lipsey, & Derzon, 2003) and more focused reviews of
programs identified as SEL (Durlak et al., 2007), character edu-
cation (Berkowitz & Bier, 2004), and PYD (Catalano et al.,
2004). Rigorous experimental studies of several programs dem-
onstrate improvements in student school behavior. They include
studies of PATHS (Providing Alternative Thinking Strategies),
Second Step, Steps to Respect, and Caring School Communities
(formerly the Child Development Project). Significant findings
include reductions in aggression and disruptive behavior
(Greenberg et al., 2004), decreases in antisocial behavior and
increases in socially competent behavior (Battistich, 2003; Frey,
Nolen, Van Schoiack-Edstrom, & Hirschstein, 2005), and less
bullying and argumentative behavior (Frey, Hirschstein, et al.,
Comparing SEL and SWPBS
No studies have directly compared the relative efficacy of SWPBS
and SEL programs. However, several meta-analyses have com-
pared social-cognitive and behavioral programs for preventing
behavior problems among children and youth. Findings have
been mixed. In a meta-analysis limited to studies that employed
a randomized control group design, Lösel and Beelmann (2003)
reported that behavioral, cognitive, and cognitive-behavioral
programs yielded similar effect sizes (.37, .39, and .39, respec-
tively) at the end of intervention. However, in studies that
included a follow-up phase, a larger effect size was found for cog-
nitive (.36) and cognitive-behavioral (.37) programs than for
behavioral programs (.17). In contrast, S. J. Wilson et al. (2003)
reported larger overall effect sizes for behavioral classroom man-
agement programs than for social-cognitive programs but only
when their analyses included experimental, quasi-experimental,
and nonexperimental pre-post intervention designs with no con-
trol group. When their analyses were limited to research-focused
studies or demonstration projects (excluding the few “routine
practice” programs in their meta-analysis) that employed a ran-
domized control group design, the effect size difference between
intervention and control groups in social-cognitive programs was
.36, whereas the difference was .18 for behavioral programs.
Those effect sizes were further reduced to .24 and .08, respec-
tively, when statistically corrected for behavioral programs having
a greater number of participants with serious behavior problems.
Perhaps the best comparison of social-cognitive and behavioral
programs comes from a meta-analysis by S. J. Wilson and Lipsey
(2007) that included a more focused comparison of universal
school-based programs for preventing aggressive and disruptive
behavior. When quasi-experimental and randomized control
experimental studies were included, the average effect size was
.21 with no significant differences between programs that empha-
sized cognitive/emotional techniques, behavioral techniques, or
social skills training.
Methodological issues. Randomized control designs have tended to
yield much smaller effect sizes than quasi-experimental and non-
experimental designs (S. J. Wilson & Lipsey, 2007). Although
this problem applies to both approaches to schoolwide discipline,
until recently it has been a problem for evaluating SWPBS, which
has relied primarily on case studies without control groups (e.g.,
Horner & Sugai, 2007). Another common shortcoming of uni-
versal prevention studies is that they rarely demonstrate that pro-
gram effects last or generalize across settings. This gap may be
particularly important in SEL studies, because they are expected
to create portable capacities for self-management. However, lon-
gitudinal studies of PATHS (Greenberg & Kusche, 2006), Caring
School Communities (Watson & Battistich, 2006), and the Seattle
Social Development Program (Hawkins et al., 2007) demonstrate
sustained behavioral impacts.
Most SWPBS and SEL studies lack multilevel research designs
and analyses that examine or control for effects at the individual,
classroom, and schoolwide levels. Studies that examined multi-
level effects on disruptive behavior (e.g., Thomas, Bierman,
Thompson, & Powers, 2008) and school climate (e.g., Koth,
Bradshaw, & Leaf, 2008) report that schoolwide-level variance is
substantially less than individual- and classroom-level variance.
This raises an important question with respect to schoolwide dis-
cipline: Are schools likely to have a greater impact on reducing
disruptive behavior and improving school climate by focusing
not on universal schoolwide interventions but on interventions
at the classroom and individual levels? For example, longitudinal
research on the classroom-based Good Behavior Game found
robust effects on aggressive males (Ialongo, Poduska, Werthamer,
& Kellam, 2001). Future research is needed to examine whether
schools experience greater overall effectiveness in reducing
schoolwide disruptive behavior (and in more efficiently using
scarce resources) by targeting the most disruptive classrooms and
individuals rather than the entire student body.
Effect sizes are affected by a study’s outcome variables. Two
measures used in evaluating SEL and SWPBS programs may
inflate evidence of program effectiveness: teacher ratings of stu-
dent behavior and office disciplinary referrals. Although teachers
are natural raters (Kellam & Van Horn, 1997), teachers in inter-
vention schools may believe that negative reports could result in
loss of resources. For example, treatment group teachers in an
experimental study of positive behavioral interventions and sup-
ports reported enhancements in their “principal’s ability to lobby
for resources for the school and positively influence the allocation
januaRy/FebRuaRy 2010 53
of district resources” (Bradshaw et al., 2008, p. 466). Teacher
perceptions of key issues such as bullying may also differ from
those of students (e.g., Bradshaw, Sawyer, & O’Brennan, 2007).
These and other differences may contribute to S. J. Wilson and
Lipsey’s (2007) finding that teacher reports typically yield larger
effect sizes than student reports. Similarly, although disciplinary
referrals are an important outcome and a valid measure (Irvin,
Tobin, Sprague, Sugai, & Vincent, 2004), their use alone to
infer changes in student behavior is problematic because changes
in referrals may reflect changes in referral practices and not
decreases in problem behavior (Bear, in press; Morrison,
Redding, Fisher, & Peterson, 2006). For example, a school can
drastically decrease office referrals for tardiness by simply
instructing teachers to no longer refer students to the office for
that behavior; however, no actual decrease in tardiness may actu-
Combining SWPBS and SEL
Effective schools establish shared values regarding mission and
purpose; promote prosocial behavior and connection to school
traditions; and provide a caring, nurturing climate involving col-
legial relationships among adults and students (Bryk & Driscoll,
1988; Gottfredson et al., 2000).
Research suggests the following:
•There are least four social and emotional conditions for
learning—emotional and physical safety, connectedness,
authentic challenges, and a responsible peer climate (Durlak
et al., in press; Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004;
Goodenow, 1993; Osher & Kendziora, in press; Osterman,
2000; Wentzel, 1998).
•These conditions can be facilitated by four types of student
support: positive behavioral support, supportive relation-
ships, engaging and supportive teaching, and SEL (Osher,
Dwyer, & Jimerson, 2005; A. M. Ryan & Patrick, 2001;
Thuen & Bru, 2009).
•These conditions and supports are interrelated, and interven-
tions that address them should align (Kendziora & Osher,
2009; Osher et al., 2008).
SWPBS and SEL have different objectives. SWPBS targets
office referrals and data-based decisions related to behavior
problems; SEL targets self-awareness, self-management, social
awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making
(Durlak et al., in press). Although SEL programs may help stu-
dents develop social and emotional competencies related to self-
discipline, they provide few interventions to help educators
manage disruptive behavior. Conversely, SWPBS programs that
focus exclusively on concrete reinforcers to manage student
behavior are less likely to help students develop social and emo-
tional competencies related to self-discipline (Bear, 2005, 2009,
SWPBS and most SEL programs have modest intervention
effects (Bradshaw et al., 2009; D. B. Wilson et al., 2001), which
may be due to the multitude of factors that contribute to prob-
lem behavior. Alone, SWPBS and SEL may not be sufficient to
address the variation of school contexts (Benbenishty & Astor,
2005; Kellam & Rebok, 1992). Behavioral interventions do not
always generalize to settings that lack behavioral support systems
(Biglan, Wang, & Walberg, 2003; Kauffman, 1999) and may be
insufficient in districts with a high rate of mobility between
schools. Alternatively, some schools are so chaotic that they are
not initially ready for SEL (Kendziora & Osher, 2009).
The need to meet these challenges, to coordinate what are
often a hodgepodge of unaligned prevention interventions
(Gottfredson et al., 2000), and to provide multiple types of sup-
port drives efforts to align and/or combine SWPBS and SEL.
Combining SWPBS intervention components with the develop-
ment of social-emotional competencies and supportive teacher–
student relations should produce meaningful behavioral changes
at the whole-school level, compared with singular, poorly inte-
grated intervention approaches (Metzler et al., 2001; Sprague
et al., 2002). Although not designed to determine the impacts of
individual components, studies of prevention/intervention
approaches that combine programs or components suggest that
the combination of some SWPBS and SEL programs should
enhance the power of each (Metzler et al., 2001). One example is
Best Behavior (Sprague et al., 2002), which combines SWPBS
and Second Step. Another is PeaceBuilders, which uses daily ritu-
als, prompts, cues, and positive reinforcement to teach elemen-
tary school students to praise people, avoid put-downs, seek wise
people as advisors and friends, notice and correct hurts they
cause, and right wrongs. These rules are learned through daily
rituals that instill these concepts (Flannery et al., 2003).
If programs are implemented in the same school, it is impor-
tant that they be aligned to address the explicit and implicit
assumptions of the interventions to ensure that they are compat-
ible (Osher et al., 2004; Osher & Kane, 1993). For example, a
combined SWPBS and SEL intervention may require more train-
ing and/or result in low overall treatment adherence because of
increased complexity, time, and resource requirements (Bradshaw
et al., 2009). Similarly, some SEL interventions are constructivist
and may not align with schools that employ direct instruction
approaches (Osher et al., 2004). Finally, if the combined pro-
grams are not aligned, staff may experience program activities as
contradictory rather than complementary (Fixen, Naoom, Blasé,
Friedman, & Wallace, 2005).
This article identified the transactional nature of discipline, the
multiple factors that affect discipline, and the importance of the
schoolwide context. It examined three approaches to creating a
disciplined school environment and suggested how they could be
integrated or aligned. However, other challenges remain, and
three are particularly important: collaboration with families, cul-
tural and linguistic competence and responsiveness, and ways to
respond to the needs of students with substantive mental health
needs. Families play a key role in improving behavior and engage-
ment, but families often are estranged from schools, particularly
parents of children with behavioral problems (Comer & Haynes,
1991; Eccles & Harold, 1993; Friesen & Osher, 1996). Racial
and cultural disparities in services and discipline (Osher,
Woodruff, & Sims, 2002; Townsend, 2000) indicate the need for
cultural and linguistic competence and responsiveness (Gay,
2000; Osher et al., 2004). The mental health needs of some stu-
dents may require intensive supports, and the aggregate mental
health needs of students in some schools may be so great that, as
a group, these students incapacitate their schools by negatively
socializing other students and/or by demoralizing staff or driving
adult behavior in unproductive directions. These schools may
need effective mental health services and internal systems to facil-
itate appropriate conditions for discipline and learning
(Kendziora & Osher, 2009; Sebring, Allensworth, Bryk, Easton,
& Luppescu, 2006; Warren, Schoppelrey, Moberg, & McDonald,
These challenges are often related. Addressing them will likely
improve the impact of each approach. Overall, these challenges
may become greater because of the worldwide economic down-
turn, which may exacerbate risk factors that are the sequelae of
stress and poverty and eviscerate safety nets that buffer these risk
factors’ impact. The problems may be compounded if account-
ability systems fail to overcome the barriers that teachers and
students face in creating productive, disciplined learning envi-
ronments. Fortunately, districts (e.g., Cleveland) are expanding
the measures they collect and the metrics they report to include
the conditions for learning and are using ecological approaches to
classroom management and evidence-based SWPBS and SEL to
improve those conditions (Osher & Kendziora, in press). These
data can be aligned with school demographics to identify evi-
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DAVID OSHER is vice president in the Education, Human Development
and the Workforce Division at the American Institutes for Research,
1000 Thomas Jefferson Street NW, Washington, DC 20007; dosher@
air.org. His work focuses on collaboration, children’s services, preven-
tion, youth development, and culturally competent interventions for
youth with mental health needs and their families.
GEORGE G. BEAR is a professor in the school psychology program at
the University of Delaware, 221A Willard Hall Education Building,
Newark, DE 19716; email@example.com. His research interests are in the
areas of school discipline, social and emotional learning, and school
JEFFREY R. SPRAGUE is a professor of special education and director of
the University of Oregon Institute on Violence and Destructive
Behavior, 1265 University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403; jeffs@uoregon
.edu. He directs federal, state, and local research and demonstration proj-
ects related to positive behavior supports, response to intervention,
youth violence prevention, alternative education, juvenile delinquency
prevention and treatment, and school safety.
WALTER DOYLE is a professor in the Department of Teaching,
Learning, and Sociocultural Studies in the College of Education at the
University of Arizona, 1430 East Second Street, P.O. Box 210069,
Tucson, AZ 85721; firstname.lastname@example.org. His research focuses on
classroom management, curriculum theory, and the enactment of activ-
ities and task in classroom systems.
Manuscript received June 23, 2009
Revision received October 21, 2009
Accepted November 2, 2009