A systematic review of evidence-based interventions for students with challenging behaviors in school settings

Journal article citation:
Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work, 8(3), May 2011, pp.304-322.
Taylor and Francis
Place of publication:
Philadelphia, USA

A fifth of school students in the United States experience mild social and emotional difficulties. Up to nine per cent experience symptoms severe enough to disrupt normal daily functioning. In this paper, the author presents findings from a systematic review of 2,294 articles from 10 journals in the fields of education, special education, school social work, school psychology, and school counselling. Forty two articles meeting search criteria of addressing evidence-based interventions for students with challenging behaviours in school settings were found. Across the 42 articles, there were a total of 930 participants. Interventions were considered evidence-based if they were: structured to facilitate replication; evaluated with an experimental design; and demonstrated to be effective. Existing practices available to address students who require evidence-based interventions for challenging behaviours are outlined, and suggestions for the development of new interventions to address the needs of students with challenging behaviour are discussed.

Extended abstract:


A systematic review of evidence-based interventions for students with challenging behaviors in school settings.

Journal citation/publication details

Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work, 8(3), May 2011, pp.304-322.


A wide range of classroom-based interventions, grouped into twelve categories, were reported in 42 studies. The research was mostly based on single-subject designs and the subjective use of behavioural observations; there was very little use of standardised measures of behaviour. The importance of well designed studies to allow the efficacy of interventions to be measured is emphasised. 


Many school children with social and emotional difficulties experience disruption in their normal daily functioning, including their own academic progress and that of their classmates. This systematic review was prompted by the growing need for evidence-based interventions to address disruptive classroom behaviour following the requirement, laid out in the response to interventions (RTI) provisions in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) 2004, that school professionals in the USA use such interventions prior to referral to special education services.


What sources were searched?
Two databases, ERIC and PsycINFO, were searched in order to generate a list of peer reviewed journals relevant to the subject. Journals were ranked according to their impact factor rating, and a manual search was carried out on journals frequently appearing in the database search results. Eighteen peer-reviewed journals were identified; ten journals in the fields of education, school social work, school psychology, and school counselling were subjected to a manual search. The titles are listed in Table 1 with the number of articles retrieved and the impact factor for each.

What search terms/strategies were used?
A list of search terms relating to school-based interventions, classroom management, and emotional and behavioural disorders, is presented. Specific search strategies are not included.

What criteria were used to decide on which studies to include?
Evidence-based interventions set in a school context and focusing on students with behavioural difficulties were eligible for inclusion. Evidence-based interventions are defined as those which: are described in sufficient detail to allow replication; use rigorous experimental methodology, and; have been shown to have beneficial outcomes. Only studies published in peer-reviewed journals since 2004, when the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was reauthorized in the USA, were selected.

Who decided on their relevance and quality?
Study selection was presumably carried out by the single author. Study quality was not rated as such, but data on the strengths and weaknesses of each study was collected.

How many studies were included and where were they from?
Forty-two articles were identified from the manual search of the ten core journals. Although the country setting of individual trials is not explicitly mentioned it seems that all, or most, are from the USA.

How were the study findings combined?
Data was abstracted onto a standardised form as illustrated in Figure 1. Findings are grouped into twelve intervention practices presented under four category headings: instructional-based interventions, self-regulation interventions, applied behavioural interventions, and alternative interventions, and summarised in Table 2. Outcome data is presented pre- and post-intervention, along with the effect size where there was enough data to allow the calculations. The intervention methods for each category are briefly outlined.

Findings of the review

Data on a total of 930 participants was reported. Most of the 42 studies were based in elementary schools; 32% of participants were deemed to be eligible for special education, and; 72% were male. Most of the studies included fewer than 30 students. There was one randomised controlled trial; the majority of studies used a single-subject return to baseline design. Effect sizes were reported by the authors of three studies; values were calculated for a further 31 studies.

The number of studies reporting on each type of intervention was: behavioural momentum 4, response cards 2, task modification 3, tutoring 5, academic performance 4, behaviour/academic performance 3, social skills 3, cognitive behaviour therapy 2, behaviour report cards 3, functional behaviour interventions 6, mindfulness 5, and solution-focused brief therapy 2. The outcomes reported are highly variable.

Authors' conclusions

‘Research addressing interventions for students with challenging behaviours through instructional and systematic altering of environmental factors, that incorporates self-regulation to facilitate long term change, and makes use of data collection systems to facilitate problem-solving and decision-making will provide students and educators with desirable outcomes.’

Implications for policy or practice

Suggestions on how study design can be improved are included.

Subject terms:
intervention, outcomes, school children, challenging behaviour, evidence-based practice;
Content type:
systematic review
United States
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