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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response


April 2017


What does the research say about differentiated or disproportionate behavioral interventions?


Following an established REL Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports, descriptive studies, and policy briefs on behavioral interventions. In particular, we focused on identifying resources related to disproportionate interventions and differentiated approaches to behavior management at multiple levels, including in the classroom and schoolwide. For details on the databases and sources, key words and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the methods section at the end of this response.

Here, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. We have not evaluated the quality of references and resources provided in this response, but offer this list to you for your information only.

Research References

Banks, T., & Obiakor, F. E. (2015). Culturally responsive positive behavior supports: Considerations for practice. Journal of Education and Training Studies, 3(2), 83–90. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Classrooms are not culturally neutral terrains, but rather are constructed around sets of norms, values, and expected behaviors that are culturally bound. Low tolerance levels and expectations are an indication of the incongruence between the education strategies utilized by teachers and the cultural and linguistic differences of students that are served in an educational system in which they are required to perform based on standards that are not similar to their own. Combining Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (PBIS) with cultural and linguistic variables will help to enhance positive behavior of culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students. This paper describes Culturally Responsive Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (CRPBIS) as a system that specifically acknowledges the presence of CLD students and the need for them to find relevant connections among themselves and with the behavioral goals and objectives that schools ask them to perform. Suggestions are offered that support the infusion of culturally responsive practices throughout the implementation of PBIS.”

Belser, C., Shillingford, M. A., & Joe, J. R. (2016). The ASCA model and a multi-tiered system of supports: A framework to support students of color with problem behavior.
Professional Counselor, 6(3), 251-262. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) National Model and a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) both provide frameworks for systematically solving problems in schools, including student behavior concerns. The authors outline a model that integrates overlapping elements of the National Model and MTSS as a support for marginalized students of color exhibiting problem behaviors. Individually, the frameworks employ data-driven decision making as well as prevention services for all students and intervention services for at-risk students. Thus, the integrated model allows schools to provide objective alternatives to exclusionary disciplinary actions (e.g., suspensions and expulsions) that are being assigned to students of color at a disproportionate rate. The manuscript outlines the steps within the integrated model and provides implications for school counselors and counselor educators.”

Benner, G. J., Beaudoin, K. M., Chen, P., Davis, C., & Ralston, N. C. (2010). The impact of intensive positive behavioral supports on the behavioral functioning of students with emotional disturbance: How much does fidelity matter? Journal of Behavior Assessment and Intervention in Children, 1(1), 85–100. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The two purposes of the pre-post naturalistic research design were to: 1) Investigate the impact of positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) on the behavioral functioning of students with emotional disturbance (ED) (N = 37) served in self-contained settings; and 2) examine the extent to which teacher fidelity of PBIS implementation influenced student changes in behavioral functioning over the course of a school year. Results revealed significant reductions in externalizing and total problem behaviors for the students. Additionally, teacher fidelity to PBIS played a large and statistically significant role in improving the behavior of students with emotional disturbance. Limitations of the design and implications of the findings are discussed.”

Bicard, S., Casey, L. B., Nichols, K., Plank, E., & Finley, S. (2009). Using technology in multi-tiered interventions to differentiate instruction. Journal on School Educational Technology, 4(4), 1–6. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Differentiated instruction denotes varying instruction in terms of content, product, and process to meet the needs of all learners. One way to differentiate the instructional process is to provide multi-tiered instruction. Examples of systematic approaches to multi-tiered instruction are response to intervention (RTI) and school-wide positive behavior support (SWPBS). RTI and SWPBS involve layers or tiers of increasingly more intensive high-quality research-based instruction, progress monitoring, and data-based decision making. Students receive additional tiers of instruction if they do not show progress towards attaining an academic or behavioral goal with the current level of instruction. These data are then used to determine the supports that students need to be successful. Technology, such as instructional software and online progress monitoring tools, can be utilized throughout tiered interventions to increase the efficiency in which students receive supports. This article will describe the components of tiered interventions: universal screening, three tiers of instruction within RTI and SWPBS, and progress monitoring. Examples of technology utilized in RTI and SWPBS will be described.”

Bohanon, H., Fenning, P., Eber, L., & Flannery, B. (2007). Identifying a roadmap of support for secondary students in school-wide positive behavior support applications. International Journal of Special Education, 22(1), 39–52. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The need for an increased understanding of secondary and tertiary supports within a school-wide positive behavior support framework in high schools is discussed. Outcome data such as discipline referrals sent to the office seem to indicate that school-wide applications of positive behavior support can decrease the proportion of students who require more intensive supports. While limited information is available on high school level supports, connections can be made with cutting edge research on self-determination and increased student participation in buy-in to the overall process. Connecting individualized supports to the overall curriculum of the schools appears to have implications for increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of supports in secondary school settings.”

Losen, D. J. (2011). Discipline policies, successful schools, and racial justice. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved from

From abstract: “In March of 2010, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan delivered a speech that highlighted racial disparities in school suspension and expulsion and that called for more rigorous civil rights enforcement in education. He suggested that students with disabilities and Black students, especially males, were suspended far more often than their White counterparts. These students, he also noted, were often punished more severely for similar misdeeds. Just months later, in September of 2010, a report analyzing 2006 data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that more than 28% of Black male middle school students had been suspended at least once. This is nearly three times the 10% rate for white males. Further, 18% of Black females in middle school were suspended, more than four times as often as white females (4%).3 Later that same month, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary Duncan each addressed a conference of civil rights lawyers in Washington, D.C., and affirmed their departments’ commitment to ending such disparities. This policy brief reviews what researchers have learned about racial disparities in school discipline, including trends over time and how these disparities further break down along lines of gender and disability status. Further, the brief explores the impact that school suspension has on children and their families, including the possibility that frequent out-of-school suspension may have a harmful and racially disparate impact. As part of the disparate impact analysis, the brief examines whether frequent disciplinary exclusion from school is educationally justifiable and whether other discipline policies and practices might better promote a safe and orderly learning environment while generating significantly less racial disparity. Findings of this brief strongly suggest a need for reform. A review of the evidence suggests that subgroups experiencing disproportionate suspension miss important instructional time and are at greater risk of disengagement and diminished educational opportunities. Moreover, despite the fact that suspension is a predictor of students’ risk for dropping out, school personnel are not required to report or evaluate the impact of disciplinary decisions. Overall, the evidence shows the following: there is no research base to support frequent suspension or expulsion in response to non-violent and mundane forms of adolescent misbehavior; large disparities by race, gender and disability status are evident in the use of these punishments; frequent suspension and expulsion are associated with negative outcomes; and better alternatives are available.”

MacLeod, K. S., Hawken, L. S., O’Neill, R. E., & Bundock, K. (2016). Combining Tier 2 and Tier 3 supports for students with disabilities in general education settings. Journal of Educational Issues, 2(2), 331–351. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Secondary level or Tier 2 interventions such as the Check-in Check-out (CICO) intervention effectively reduce problem behaviors of students who are non-responsive to school-wide interventions. However, some students will not be successful with Tier 2 interventions. This study investigated the effects of adding individualized function-based support for four students with disabilities who were not successful in general education settings while receiving only a secondary level intervention. Results indicated that the combination of secondary and individualized function-based interventions effectively decreased problem behavior for all participants. Teachers and students rated the interventions as acceptable and effective. Research and practice implications are discussed.”

Pearce, L. R. (2009). Helping children with emotional difficulties: A Response to Intervention investigation. Rural Educator, 30(2), 34-46. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This article describes a Response to Intervention (RTI) model of service delivery implemented within a rural elementary school for students in kindergarten through fifth grade experiencing significant emotional and behavioral difficulties. A multi-tiered model is presented that includes school wide interventions in Tier 1, as well as a six separate interventions [sic] applied within Tier 2 and Tier 3. These included applied behavioral analysis, social skills training, counseling, differentiated instruction, cognitive behavioral interventions and parent involvement designed to assist identified students with improving prosocial skills. Nine children were treated within this program model over a two year period, resulting in two students being placed in special education under the category of emotional disturbance by the project’s termination. Positive and negative aspects of the project’s implementation are reviewed, along with directions for future research.”

Saeki, E., Jimerson, S. R., Earhart, J., Hart, S. R., Renshaw, T., Singh, R. D., & Stewart, K. (2011). Response to Intervention (RtI) in the social, emotional, and behavioral domains: Current challenges and emerging possibilities. Contemporary School Psychology, 15, 43–52. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “As many schools move toward a three-tier model that incorporates a Response to Intervention (RtI) service delivery model in the social, emotional, and behavioral domains, school psychologists may provide leadership. The decision-making process for filtering students through multiple tiers of support and intervention and examining change is an area where school psychologists are encouraged to apply their expertise regarding assessment and evidence-based interventions. This paper describes an implementation of behavioral and social-emotional RtI in an elementary school setting. Issues and challenges related to measurement of change (i.e., responsiveness to intervention) and identification of students for additional supports as well as emerging possibilities of incorporating qualitative information in the process are discussed.”

Scott, J. S., White, R., Algozzine, B., & Algozzine, K. (2009). Effects of positive unified behavior support on instruction. International Journal on School Disaffection, 6(2), 41–48. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “‘Positive Unified Behavior Support’ (PUBS) is a school-wide intervention designed to establish uniform attitudes, expectations, correction procedures, and roles among faculty, staff, and administration. PUBS is grounded in the general principles of positive behavior support and represents a straightforward, practical implementation model. When implementing PUBS, administrators, teachers, and other professionals teach behavior relentlessly by promoting similar attitudes, rewarding school and class rules and expectations with high levels of praise and prompting, using a unified correction procedure to address inappropriate behavior and adopting mutually supportive roles and responsibilities. While an ultimate goal of school-wide interventions is improved learning, documenting differences in how they are implemented is an important first step in continuing research related to positive behavior support. The purpose of this study is to examine the effects of PUBS on key instructional variables: (a) frequency of teacher reinforcement, (b) frequency of teacher correction, (c) reinforcement/correction ratio, (d) degree of teacher monitoring, and (e) voice tone used during teacher correction, and (f) total rule violations…Within the broad range of systemic and individualized strategies that entail positive behavior support, there are a myriad of possible implementation approaches. This research provides evidence to support the operationally defined and replicable interventions within the PUBS model and evidence on key instructional behaviors associated with those interventions. This study illustrates the effects of using proactive strategies central to positive behavior support and highlights the differences in instruction that are evident in classrooms using instructional techniques that use and consistently enforce school-wide rules and procedures, reinforce positive behavior and teach alternatives, ensure that all staff members are ‘on the same page,’ and are relatively easy to implement and monitor.”

Smolkowski, K., Girvan, E. J., McIntosh, K., Nese, R. N. T., & Horner, R. H. (2016). Vulnerable decision points for disproportionate office discipline referrals: Comparisons of discipline for African American and white elementary school students. Behavioral Disorders, 41(4), 178–195. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Racial disparities in rates of exclusionary school discipline are well documented and seemingly intractable. However, emerging theories on implicit bias show promise in identifying effective interventions. In this study, we used school discipline data from 1,666 elementary schools and 483,686 office discipline referrals to identify specific situations in which disproportionality was more likely. Results were largely consistent with our theoretical model, indicating increased racial and gender disproportionality for subjectively defined behaviors, in classrooms, and for incidents classified as more severe. The time of day also substantially affected disproportionality. These findings can be used to pinpoint specific student-teacher interactions for intervention.”

Tobin, T. J., & Sugai, G. (2005). Preventing problem behaviors: Primary, secondary, and tertiary level prevention interventions for young children. Journal of Early and Intensive Behavior Intervention, 2(3), 125–144. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The purpose of this report is to compare changes in social skills, problem behaviors, and academic competence for kindergarten or first grade students identified as being at risk for serious behavior problems who received primary, secondary, or tertiary level preventive interventions. Of the 93 participants in this study, 73% were male; 86% were Caucasian, and 65% were characterized as having externalizing behavior problems. A repeated measures analysis of variance indicated statistically significant differences (p less than 0.01) between the groups based on type of intervention received the Self-Control subscale (e.g., controlling temper, responding appropriately to teasing) of the ‘Social Skills Rating System’ (Gresham & Elliott, 1990). School-wide Positive Behavior Support is an effective primary prevention intervention, even for young children with serious internalizing or externalizing behavior problems.”

U.S. Department of Education. (2014). Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline, Washington, D.C.: Author. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Developing positive school climates and improving school discipline policies and practices are critical steps to raising academic achievement and supporting student success. However, there is no single formula for doing so. Rather, the growing body of research and best practices in the field should inform locally developed approaches to improving school climate and discipline policies and practices. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) is issuing this resource guide to assist states, school districts, charter school operators, school staff, parents, students, and other stakeholders who are seeking to develop school climate and school discipline policies and practices that are both locally tailored and grounded in recognized promising practices and research. ED’s work with a wide range of safe and successful schools, review of research and evaluation, and consultation with the field and federal partners have revealed that a broad range of high-achieving schools typically share a number of common approaches to creating safe and supportive conditions for learning. These schools take deliberate steps to create positive school climates and prevent student misbehavior; ensure that clear, appropriate, and consistent expectations and consequences are in place to prevent and address misbehavior; and cultivate an expectation of continuous improvement driven by data and analysis to ensure fairness and equity for all students. Drawing from these common approaches, ED has identified three guiding principles for policymakers, district officials, school leaders, and stakeholders to consider as they work to improve school climate and discipline: (1) Create positive climates and focus on prevention; (2) Develop clear, appropriate, and consistent expectations and consequences to address disruptive student behaviors; and (3) Ensure fairness, equity, and continuous improvement. We also identify applicable action steps and relevant research and resources for each guiding principle.”

Additional Organizations to Consult

Center on Response to Intervention –

From the website: “The Center on RTI is a national leader in supporting the successful implementation and scale-up of RTI and its components… Response to Intervention integrates assessment and intervention within a multi-level prevention system to maximize student achievement and reduce behavior problems.”

Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports OSEP Technical Assistance Center –

From the website: “The Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports is established by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) to define, develop, implement, and evaluate a multi-tiered approach to Technical Assistance that improves the capacity of states, districts and schools to establish, scale-up and sustain the PBIS framework. Emphasis is given to the impact of implementing PBIS on the social, emotional and academic outcomes for students with disabilities.”

Safe & Civil Schools –

From the website: “With practical programs and inspiring staff development services, Safe & Civil Schools can help K-12 educators: Develop better behavior management strategies in schools. Learn effective classroom management procedures. Implement schoolwide Positive Behavior Support and Response-to-Intervention for Behavior. Design and implement a better school improvement plan.”

Department of Education: School Climate and Discipline, Rethinking Discipline –

From the website: “Teachers and students deserve school environments that are safe, supportive, and conducive to teaching and learning. Creating a supportive school climate—and decreasing suspensions and expulsions—requires close attention to the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of all students. Administrators, educators, students, parents and community members can find on this site tools, data and resources to:

  • Increase their awareness of the prevalence, impact, and legal implications of suspension and expulsion;
  • Find basic information and resources on effective alternatives; and
  • Join a national conversation on how to effectively create positive school climates.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • differentiated behavior intervention discipline

  • behavior support

  • behavior intervention differentiation

  • behavior intervention

  • discipline differentiation

  • discipline tier

  • "classroom management" behavior

  • RTI behavior

  • consequences AND (variation varying different)

  • flexible discipline

  • discipline fidelity

  • disproportionate discipline

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2002 to present, were include in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi–experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Region) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED–IES–17–C–0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.