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Instructional Practices

PBIS and SEL: Similarities and Differences

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How are SEL and PBIS different from one another, and how do they work together? These questions are top of mind for many educators, especially since both approaches foster a positive classroom climate with goals of supporting student mental health, positive relationships, and self-regulation.  

In simple terms, SEL (Social Emotional Learning) focuses more on long-term emotional gains. Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBIS) focuses on positive behavior interventions on an as-needed basis. When used together, these strategies pack a heavy punch.  Research shows that aligning PBIS and SEL can improve students’ emotional skills, academics, AND behavior.  

But how do you align PBIS and SEL for use in your classroom and school? We’ve got you covered with common questions and answers, a breakdown of their differences, and more.  

What Is PBIS? 

The Center on Positive Behavior Interventions and Support defines PBIS as “an evidence-basedthree-tiered framework for improving and integrating all of the data, systems, and practices affecting student outcomes every day.” 

Simply put, PBIS is a schoolwide preventative approach that focuses on positive behaviors. It’s a process aiming for student success, regardless of ability. In a nutshell, the foundation of PBIS is modeling, encouraging, and rewarding positive behaviors as opposed to waiting and punishing destructive student behaviors.  

The 3 PBIS tiers 

PBIS focuses on behavioral outcomes resulting from the following tiers: 

  1. Tier 1 is practiced schoolwide and focuses on proactive student support to decrease negative behaviors.   
  2. Tier 2 supports students at risk of developing severe behaviors by working on skills that will benefit them in core programs.  
  3. Tier 3 offers more individualized and intensive support to improve academic and behavioral outcomes. (To determine if a student falls in this category, schools conduct formal assessments.) 

Key PBIS elements to keep in mind 

To help you further understand PBIS, here are the four elements of PBIS’s framework.  

  • Outcomes are the goals achieved through the PBIS systems, data, and practices put in place (set by the school, students, and families). 
  • Systems focus on proactive student support to decrease negative behaviors. The PBIS systems in schools should be research-based and sustainable.  
  • Data gathered on teacher and students’ practices and outcomes isrequired. 
  • Practices are backed up by research and cater to children at all levels.  

Goals of PBIS 

The PBIS framework relies on reinforcing positive behavior and provides a system for addressing negative behaviors. The idea is that if you help children to be successful in positive ways, they will be more likely to continue exhibiting those behaviors. This creates a culture where teachers and students can work together to create success for everyone involved. 

Using PBIS can reduce the number of referrals schools make for behavior-related reasons, allowing staff members to spend more time teaching students and less time dealing with disciplinary matters. This improved focus on the core curriculum means that students will have more time on task, meaning they can engage in learning activities without being interrupted by disciplinary issues. When this happens, it results in increased student engagement and achievement while also reducing dropout rates and improving graduation rates. 

Schools using PBIS have seen a reduction in out-of-school suspensions, leading to increased time on task for students and increased student engagement in their classes. A study conducted by the U.S Department of Education found that 82% of schools that implemented PBIS saw an increase in graduation rates over three years, and some saw increases as high as 58%. Schools also saw significant drops in dropout rates (by about 50%) during this same period. 

What Is SEL? 

According to the Committee for Children, “Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the process of developing the self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work, and life success.”  

The  Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has established five SEL competencies:  

  1. Self-awareness: Learning your strengths and weaknesses and how your actions influence your behavior.  
  2. Self-management: Taking responsibility for your behavior, feelings, and thoughts while setting and working towards realistic goals.  
  3. Social awareness: Showing empathy for others from different backgrounds than your own  
  4. Relationship skills: Practicing tolerance with individuals from different cultures and upbringings, healthy communication, and resolving conflicts in a controlled, peaceful manner. 
  5. Making responsible decisions: Responding to situations in a thoughtful, safe, and ethical way. Being able to weigh the positive outcomes for others and yourself.  

Research states these skills can be modeled to positively impact students’ lives regarding attitudes, behaviors, and performance.  

Goal of SEL curriculum 

An SEL curriculum teach children how to handle their emotions, understand others’ perspectives, and work with others. The SEL skills learned in these programs are applicable across all aspects of life. For example, if a child learns how to manage their emotions while playing with friends at school, they will be able to do the same thing when playing with friends at home. 

The goal of SEL programs is not only for kids to learn how to make good decisions for themselves, but also to help them understand how their actions affect other people and themselves. For example, without a means to understand our emotional state, we can take out negative feelings on others around us without realizing it, mainly because we don’t understand how we came to feel that way.  

Teaching kids these lessons early in life gives them better ways to handle negative emotions without acting aggressively. Providing young students with effective strategies for reacting to distress or conflict helps them develop the skills necessary to foster personal growth and healthy interpersonal relationships. 

PBIS programs can be implemented at all grade levels, including high school, middle school, or elementary school. Many schools have found that it works well to pair the two together to address the needs of struggling students who need both social-emotional and academic support.  

What Are the Similarities Between SEL and PBIS?

Social and emotional learning (SEL) and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) programs are designed to help schools meet students’ social and emotional needs. Both evidence-based programs are holistic, meaning they seek to address the whole child’s needs and not just their academic performance. The goal is to help children succeed in life by addressing their social and emotional needs in the long term. These programs can be used to address many types of issues, such as: 

  • Bullying 
  • Substance abuse 
  • Depression or anxiety 
  • Impulsivity 
  • Attention deficit 

There are several other commonalities between PBIS and SEL programs. For example, both systems focus on self-management skills in the classroom and encourage students to take responsibility for their actions. They also promote social responsibility by encouraging empathy and respect for others, even when someone else may have done something wrong. In addition to these similarities, SEL and PBIS programs do not require that every student has a special education plan. Instead, they focus on building positive relationships with everyone in the classroom. 

What Are the Differences Between SEL and PBIS? 

Here’s a breakdown of some critical differences between SEL and PBIS. 

  1. SELteaches students how to develop positive skills, attitudes, and behaviors that will positively impact their relationships, well-being, and academics.  
  2. PBIS is the process ofrecognizing, supporting, and rewarding students who demonstrate SEL characteristics. Doing this encourages positive behaviors to occur more naturally and positively impact school culture.  
  3. SEL aims to improve students’ social and emotional learning through curricula and programs. 
  4. PBIS involves modeling and encouraging specific positive behaviors and then rewarding students once they demonstrate those behaviors.  
  5. SEL focuses on long-termsocial-emotional skills and competencies. 
  6. PBIS focuses on rewarding and encouraging positive behaviors on a moment-by-moment basis.  

Although the two techniques are different, they work together, and a school that has laid the foundation for SEL can thrive by building on those positive behaviors with PBIS. 

SEL and PBIS Unite for Proactive Prevention 

As previously discussed, the SEL model is a proactive approach that is most effective when started early in a child’s education. By fostering values such as empathy, responsibility, self-respect, cooperation, and resilience, teachers can give students the tools they need to successfully navigate the challenges they’ll face in life.  

PBIS also has a focus on prevention instead of just reaction. With a PBIS plan in place, students understand the teacher’s expectations for conduct and know how to recognize the difference between positive and negative behavior. When a student does engage in negative behavior, teachers can respond in ways that prevent further bad behavior rather than simply punish it after the fact. When remediation is needed, PBIS provides a framework for addressing problematic behaviors without the need for punitive measures.  

Integrating SEL and PBIS 

Even with the PBIS and social-emotional learning breakdowns above, you may struggle to integrate these two approaches. But combining these two strategies maximizes their impact. SEL acts as PBIS’S foundation since developing social and emotional competencies makes it easier to follow PBIS behavioral expectations.  

How to Align PBIS and SEL in Your School 

  • Offer PBIS and SEL professional development 
  • Develop SEL and PBIS goals and long-term objectives 
  • Implement evidence-based programs 
  • Develop SEL and PBIS curricula 
  • Budget for SEL and PBIS programs and staff 
  • Educate the school, community, and families on SEL and PBIS 
  • Conduct a schoolwide assessment of strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for each approach 
  • Review options for SEL and PBIS integrated programming 
  • Create an SEL/PBIS action plan with goals, standards, and outline 
  • Monitor and evaluate outcomes by gathering data  

The Bottom Line 

Although similar, SEL and PBIS have considerable differences. SEL focuses more on  long-term emotional gains, while PBIS focuses on rewarding behaviors in the moment. SEL focuses on teaching competencies, while PBIS is more about implementing the actual process through systems, data, and processes.  

However, SEL sets the foundations for students to improve and build on positive behaviors through the PBIS system, so utilizing them both in your school can be beneficial. By combining elements of both SEL and PBIS in a well-designed plan that reinforces a positive and productive classroom culture, teachers can reduce the impact of inequity and give all students the tools to overcome challenges and build healthy, supportive relationships.

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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