Positive supports are approaches that offer respectful, supportive, and effective ways to help people make positive changes in their lives. Positive supports are used to build on a person’s successes, strengths, and desires, and do not include the use of punishment or seclusion.

Positive supports are about respecting the dignity and rights of every person, while offering individualized and effective services.

Whether someone is receiving mental health, housing, educational, disability, or any other services meant to improve a person’s life, positive supports:

  • Build on the person’s unique strengths, assets, interests, expectations, cultures, and goals,
  • Respect the rights and individuality of each person, and
  • Offer solutions that are effective.


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What is positive support

Positive support practices are person-centered and sensitive to a person’s unique cultural background. The purpose of implementing a positive support practice is to improve quality of life and decrease the likelihood a person will experience mental health, social, or health related problems. Positive supports are based on evidence-based research or are referred to as a promising practice when studies are still needed to demonstrate the effectiveness of the practice across a wide array of people and situations. Positive supports must be assessed on a regular basis with improvements made over time to ensure a practice is meeting the needs of people served. Different types of positive supports are often used in combination to meet the needs of different people.

What is positive behavior support

Positive Behavior Support refers to research-based strategies and tools that are used to increase quality of life and decrease problem behavior by changing social interactions and settings that tend to be associated with problematic behavior. Positive behavior support evolved from the field of applied behavior analysis (ABA) and shares foundational principles based on the science of behavior.

Four key elements of positive behavior include:

  • Valued Outcomes – interventions considered must be person-centered in spirit and culturally competent;
  • Behavioral, Biomedical, and Mental Health Research – Psychological and medical fields inform all intervention efforts;
  • Validated Procedures – Evidence based and promising practices are evaluated to demonstrate effectiveness;
  • Systems Change – The larger contexts in which a person lives is assessed and changes made to ensure that evidence-based practices are effective and sustainable.

Positive behavior support includes tools and strategies that are used to support a person by creating an individualized plan that will promote positive social skills and communication and by making changes in the environment in ways that will prevent problems from occurring. Positive behavior support can be used to support a wide range of people from the very young to the elderly. The types of interventions used in positive behavior support vary based on each unique person: developmental stages of life experienced, types of disabilities, social and communication strengths, educational and sociocultural factors. Larger systems change efforts are used to ensure that individual positive behavior support plans will be effective and sustainable over time.

A key feature of positive behavior support is its emphasis on systems change. Considering larger organizational issues can be a helpful way to create a positive climate and prevent problem behavior. One way to think about positive behavior support and systems change is to consider three-tiered systems of support, which refers to a conceptual model from the field of public health, where it describes a strategy designed to prevent the spread of disease by outlining three levels of prevention (Gorden, 1983). The model has been adapted for education and human service settings as a way to encourage success and prevent failure in achieving positive academic, social, and/or quality of life outcomes for children and adults across a number of different settings including schools, mental health services, juvenile justice, and residential supports.

The terms primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention are used to describe each of the three levels. 

Primary Prevention includes universal strategies for supporting all of the people living or working in a home, organization, or community setting. The goal of primary prevention is to implement strategies that will naturally prevent problem behavior from occurring. These strategies are used to establish positive interactions within a setting by identifying, practicing, and reinforcing important social expectations and life values that are culturally relevant to the home, organization, or community setting.

Secondary Prevention strategies include early identification and intervention for minor problems that are occurring in a setting. The goal at the secondary prevention level is to establish simple interventions that address the reason why minor problem behavior is occurring. Simple problem-solving strategies are used to encourage communication, address mental health-related concerns, and change events or situations to decrease the likelihood of problem behavior.

Tertiary Prevention strategies are used to address chronic and severe social problems or mental illness. Positive behavior support planning can be used as a helpful process to support people who are experiencing greater challenges in their lives. Tertiary Prevention includes person-centered planning, functional behavioral assessment, and function-based interventions.

What is applied behavior analysis

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a positive support. ABA focuses on how an individual interacts with and is affected by his or her environment. People use this type of support to change social behavior and improve lives. Parents learn to use ABA to help their children learn new skills. Teachers use ABA in classrooms with groups of students or with one child who needs more help to succeed. ABA can help adults with disabilities live on their own in the community. Businesses organize work settings so that employees can get more work done using ABA. ABA can be used by people of all ages who want to increase certain types of behavior.

ABA is widely recognized as a safe and effective treatment for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). ABA is based on the fact that an individual’s behavior is determined by past and current environmental events in conjunction with organic variables such as his or her genetics and physiological variables. Thus, when applied to ASD, ABA focuses on treating the problems of the disorder by altering the individual’s social and learning environments (Behavior Analysts Certification Board, Inc, 2014).

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) along with person-centered planning serve as foundations to positive behavior supports (PBS). ABA offers a framework to help us understand how behavior functions for an individual. To do this, we implement data-based assessment. Subsequently we link the outcome of the assessment to support strategies. Without the evolution of ABA, PBS would not exist.

Positive support resources

Positive Supports Minnesota

Minnesota Gathering