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PBIS Review: Does PBIS Work?

5 Min Read
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If you’ve been working in the school system for a while, you’re probably familiar with Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS. PBIS is a great way to create a more positive environment at your school. Many educators can attest to it helping to boost students’ behavior and engagement at the same time. However, some are critical that the behavior-focused framework can also create extrinsically-driven students. In this post, we’ll explore how PBIS can offer new ways for students to seek rewards as well as the benefits of intrinsic motivation. We’ll also offer tips on how to use PBIS in an effective way.

What Is PBIS?

PBIS is an evidence-based, behavioral management system that has been gaining popularity among educators over the past few decades. It’s designed to create an environment of mutual respect and specific behavior in the classroom. 

PBIS Is Based on Three Fundamental Tiers. 

  • Tier 1: This tier sets the foundation for all other levels of support in your school. It includes defining behavior expectations and teaching these rules to students in the early stages of their education. This tier promotes learning in a safe environment throughout the student’s school life.
  • Tier 2: This tier is designed for students who need a little extra help by targeting behavioral needs. Schools often provide this level of support to students who may also need assistance from a behavioral specialist or counselor during or after school hours.
  • Tier 3: This PBIS tier is aimed at students who display disruptive and dangerous behaviors. Enforcing Tier 3 requires formal assessments to determine needs. Actions can be customized with a personalized plan developed by the student’s educators. 

Pros and Cons of PBIS

What are the pros of PBIS?

Schools that implement PBIS focus on both behavioral expectations and academic curriculum. There are may advantages that come with doing this: 

  • According to the Family-School-Community Alliance, PBIS teaches children desired behaviors as well as how  to minimize bad behaviors.
  • PBIS focuses on creating environments that promote student success.
  • PBIS progresses with each individual child, and continues to evolve as a child grows. 

What are the cons of PBIS?

Like every instructional method, there are also PBIS criticisms, too. For starters, you may find that the time you spend planning, teaching, and evaluating leaves fewer hours for other instructional strategies. You also have to recognize that students who don’t have a clear stake in the appraisal process may feel scrutinized and frustrated when they don’t earn privileges.

What counts as good behavior is contextual, too. A study by the Association for Behavioral Analysis International has shown that school administrators are more likely to select behaviors associated with their own backgrounds and experiences.

Some educators say that since PBIS often focuses on surface behavior, it doesn’t consider stress responses as an appropriate way for people—especially children—to deal with challenging circumstances. Therefore, PBIS may contribute to overly escalated emotions, which can lead you further away from solving behavioral problems in your classroom. 

And let’s not forget the disadvantage stated in the introduction. Many educators believe that PBIS encourages extrinsic motivation to decrease problematic behaviors. As a result, there are concerns that PBIS may reduce intrinsic motivation. 

Researchers involved in one study on intrinsic motivation conducted in 2013 had this to say: “It is not obvious that extrinsic rewards interfere with intrinsic motivation. Indeed, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation may be separate, unrelated and additive, as many researchers and theorists have argued.” 

How Can PBIS Be Used in a More Effective Way?

So, how can you be sure that PBIS isn’t just creating extrinsically-driven students in your classroom? Here’s the solution. Teachers can easily integrate and promote internal motivation within a PBIS-based curriculum:

  • By encouraging and practicing positive attention and self-talk. These are powerful ways to internally motivate children to change their own behavior. 
  • By nurturing abilities and interests that the children currently have. This makes tasks more enjoyable and the resulting success more meaningful for your students.
  • By encouraging children to take responsibility for their success. Teaching children to be accountable for the results of their good consequences puts ownership in the children’s hands. In turn, this increases their sense of control and mastery while lowering stress levels and reducing negative emotions, such as guilt or worry.

Combining PBIS with SEL to Solve the Problem 

SEL, or social and emotional learning, provides a road map for educators to help and support students achieve their full potential.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, defines SEL this way: “The process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”

Social and emotional learning can provide support that PBIS doesn’t. SEL helps students develop other skills so their motivation to succeed doesn’t come from external factors. This includes teaching students how to better interact with those around them.

Combining PBIS and SEL leads to even greater benefits. In one 2015 study, the combination of the two approaches “produced significantly greater improvements in overall mental health and reductions in externalizing behaviors when compared to all other conditions,” which include both PBIS and SEL separately.

How to Implement an Extrinsically-Driven PBIS Rewards System That Works 

After working at an alternative high school, I’ve found that implementing a sticker or point system and a PBIS school store are good examples of a PBIS rewards system. The premise is simple: students earn stickers or points for appropriate behaviors to cash in at the PBIS store.

In my classroom, we valued earning privileges instead of taking them away. However, it’s important to remember that when you start using this method with your students, it may take some time before the conduct improves. So be patient with your students.

This article was adapted from a blog post initially developed by the education technology company Classcraft, which was acquired by HMH in 2023. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


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