A first-of-its-kind study looking at a widely-used program designed to improve behavior finds that the strategy is proving effective for students with and without disabilities.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins compared the experiences of students at 21 schools using the program known as School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or SWPBIS, to kids at 16 schools that did not use the program over four years.

They found that there were significant improvements in behavior, concentration, social-emotional functioning and pro-social behaviors at schools using the method. What’s more, implementing SWPBIS led to a dramatic reduction in the number of disciplinary referrals to the school office, according to the study published online this week in the journal Pediatrics.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

“These results are among the first to document significant impacts of the program on children’s problem behaviors, as well as positive behaviors, across multiple years as a result of SWPBIS,” said Catherine Bradshaw of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who led the study.

More than 16,000 schools across the country currently use SWPBIS, researchers said. The program focuses on improving student behavior by establishing positive expectations for the entire school that are based on data analysis.

The current study is the first to examine the impact of the behavior program over the course of several school years. The research involved data on more than 12,000 elementary school students, about 13 percent of whom received special education services.

For years, SWPBIS has been touted in special education circles as a means to reduce behavior problems among children with disabilities. More recently, as concerns have been raised about the use of restraint and seclusion in schools, everyone from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to disability advocates have cited SWPBIS as a preventive measure that schools can implement.