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What Is PBIS in Schools?

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Managing student behavior is one of the most important aspects of education. Every student comes to school with varying levels of learning readiness, and with a variety of different circumstances affecting their minds, bodies, and lives. In order to ensure the best outcomes possible, it’s essential to develop a deeper understanding of how these factors influence student behavior and learning. It’s this clarity that informs empathetic and supportive approaches to education. 

This is what PBIS in schools is all about. PBIS is a data-driven solution to positively encourage students and give schools the tools they need in order to succeed.  Let’s take a close look at what it means, how it works, and why it’s so powerful for creating more positive and successful learning environments. 

What Does PBIS Stand for in Schools?

PBIS stands for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. PBIS is an evidence-based system that schools can use to promote positive behavior and a healthy school climate. PBIS is backed by data and evidence. This three-tiered framework strives to integrate data, systems, and practices within a school. PBIS creates a positive school climate by making positive behavior a classroom and schoolwide norm. The focus is on preventing negative or harmful behavior with effective strategies rather than simply punishing students.  

Educators might begin using PBIS for various reasons, and it’s not always implemented in precisely the same way. There are, however, best practices that lead to optimal results. It’s best implemented schoolwide, and the process should be organized, coordinated, and monitored by a PBIS leadership team. That team could be built from scratch by the administrators who are spearheading the PBIS initiative, or it could be a team that already exists at the school.  

While the framework itself works best in schoolwide implementation, it’s not uncommon for PBIS practices to be applied at the classroom level without a larger initiative. This can be a great way for teachers to generate evidence of its benefits while advocating for a full-scale implementation. 

How Is PBIS Used in Schools?

The focus of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports is prevention instead of punishment. Managing student behavior has traditionally been focused on punishment. For many educators, punishments like referrals might seem like the most natural and obvious way to respond to disruptive or harmful behavior, but punitive discipline has not been found to improve student outcomes and can even be detrimental to student success. PBIS breaks away from the traditional mold of discipline, instead focusing on preventing unwanted behavior in the first place. 

Instead of simply reacting to a student’s negative behavior. PBIS aims to better understand why a student behaves the way they do and how their negative behavior can be prevented with logical consequences and supportive strategies. PBIS encourages educators to ask a very important question: “What can I learn about this student from their behavior, and how can I use that knowledge to reduce incidents and help them do better?” 

With PBIS, schools focus on preventing problem behavior through positive motivation. PBIS creates a school climate where the norm is for students to strive to be their best. This eliminates many unwanted behaviors so teachers can focus on teaching and students can focus on learning. 

What Are the Benefits of PBIS in Schools? 

There are many benefits of PBIS in schools. Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports works to set students, teachers, and administrators up to succeed. If students understand what’s expected of them and feel supported and understood, they’re far more likely to be motivated and engaged. It encourages student responsibility and rewards great choices made by students.  

Students are more likely to succeed when clear expectations are laid out for them. PBIS gives school staff and teachers the tools to make behavior expectations clear. When students are aware of expectations, they know how to behave and how not to behave. This creates an environment where students are supported and feel encouraged to make great choices. When PBIS is implemented consistently, unwanted behavior decreases, which creates a school climate where students and teachers can focus on academics.  

The benefits of this mission go beyond simply making student behavior more manageable. Significant disparities in the rates of student punishment—particularly based on factors such as race and disability—have highlighted the fact that not all students experience discipline equally under a traditional framework. Research has shown that PBIS is effective at improving equity in school discipline, especially when initiatives are built with an explicit focus on equity

What Does PBIS Look Like in Schools? Three Main Elements  

There are three main elements of PBIS: practices, systems, and data.  

School PBIS practices 

PBIS practices are the nuts and bolts of PBIS. They are evidenced-based and preventative. These practices assist teachers in classroom implementation and should include:  

  • Clear classroom expectations  
  • A consistent classroom schedule with routines  
  • Student supervision 
  • Recognition of positive behavior  

School PBIS systems 

PBIS systems are put in place in order to support practices and implementation. For PBIS to be carried out effectively and with fidelity, school staff and administration need to put systems in place to support practices in the classroom. 

School PBIS systems include:  

  • Schoolwide classroom implementation  
  • Resources to support classroom teachers 
  • Training for teachers and school staff 
  • Ongoing access to professional development  
  • Clear expectations for school communities  
  • Continuous support and coaching 

School PBIS data 

PBIS data helps to support implementation and decision-making in classrooms. In order for PBIS to reach its full potential in schools, it needs to be examined regularly. Data is a key component of this examination. Data should inform decisions and be observable and measurable. All data should be objective, accurate, and give key information on students, teachers, and the school.  

School PBIS data includes:  

  • Assessment of implementation 
  • Working through areas of growth  
  • Creating plans for areas that need improvement 
  • Working to support all school personnel  

The Three Tiers of PBIS 

In addition to the three main elements of PBIS in schools, there are three PBIS tiers. These tiers set a framework so that the needs of all students can be met and school personnel feel supported.  

Tier 1—Universal  

Tier 1 works to meet the needs of most students within school communities, including students who may need extra support. At this tier, students are set up for success by learning all expectations. These expectations can include being considerate of fellow students and treating others with kindness. The entire school staff works toward recognition of desired behavior and students can be rewarded for choosing to make excellent choices.  

In this tier, classroom teachers can work toward creating a positive classroom environment. The routines and practices within a classroom should be predictable and clear. This can include having a daily schedule for students to follow and a poster in the classroom that indicates clear expectations. This also includes looking at expectations and guidelines regularly, not just during the first week of school.  

Teachers can also deliver powerful instruction, provide engaging lessons, and ensure students are always being supervised. Students should consistently be praised for their great choices. When students make a mistake, problems should be acknowledged and corrected. Tier 1 generally meets the needs of 80% of the school population.  

Tier 2—Additional targeted support  

Tier 2 aims to provide extra targeted support for students in need. Any classroom is going to have a group of students in need of additional support in order to meet expectations, regardless of how hard a teacher works to set students up for success. Tier 2 supports these students by providing interventions and additional instruction. For example, if a student gets into an argument during recess and is struggling with socialization, this tier can provide additional instruction and guidance on socializing with others. Teachers and school staff can provide this instruction and guidance so students can grow and learn from their experiences.  

For this tier, it is important that the school administration provide tools for teachers so that they can provide this additional support. This tier is meant to serve the needs of 10–15% of the school population.  

Tier 3—Individualized support 

Tier 3 is the most intensive. The support is targeted to individual students. This can look like a behavior support plan, redirection plan, or specific strategies. Around 5% of students will have their needs met in this tier.  

What about students with 504 plans and IEPs?  

Students with 504 plans and IEPs can fall into any of the above tiers. Many of these students will have their needs met in the first tier. If they need additional support, they can receive it with tier 2 or 3. School staff can look at the three tiers and discuss a plan for individual students during IEP and 504 meetings.  

Does PBIS Really Work in Schools? PBIS Key Concepts and Myths 

There are a few things to know about what defines pbis systems in schools. PBIS is: 

  • Evidence-based: You’ll also see this term used often to describe PBIS, and it’s important to know that it isn’t used lightly. PBIS has an established track record in the scientific world, with peer-reviewed randomized controlled trial studies assessing its effectiveness. 
  • Guided by data: When working toward better student outcomes, objective data is crucial for measuring the effectiveness of your approach, continuously improving it, and gaining a better understanding of student needs. PBIS is fundamentally built around making data-driven decisions. 
  • Integrates well with other frameworks and initiatives: PBIS doesn’t replace or interfere with other frameworks like SEL, and it doesn’t conflict with IEPs or 504 plans. In fact, it’s encouraged to use PBIS and SEL together, and the goals of an IEP or 504 plan can overlap or be integrated with those of PBIS. 
  • Meant to be implemented schoolwide: Students all have individual needs and goals, but PBIS isn’t just applied on an as-needed, individual basis. It’s most effective when implemented consistently schoolwide, with full engagement and buy-in of all staff and students being vital to its success. 

And, of course, it’s important to consider PBIS criticisms and to know what PBIS is not

  • A pre-packaged curriculum: Schools and districts don’t purchase PBIS, and it’s not a scripted curriculum. Instead, it’s a framework that provides a set of best practices to follow and an underlying structure that can be fine-tuned to the needs of the students and educators using it. 
  • A system for bribing students: One common misconception about PBIS is that it advocates simply buying students’ good behavior with tokens. In reality, effective PBIS uses positive reinforcement as a tool for motivating students to genuinely care about their behavior. 
  • Expensive or time-consuming: Many educators may expect PBIS to require money, time, and resources that they don’t have. On the contrary, PBIS can be tailored to budgetary limitations and is also effective at preventing disruptive behaviors that lead to lost instructional time. 
  • Ignores negative behavior: While the main focus of PBIS is on prevention, this doesn’t mean it requires educators to ignore behavioral incidents when they happen. Teaching consequences is an important part of reinforcing positive behavior through supportive processes. 

How to Implement PBIS in Schools: Getting Started

PBIS has countless benefits for classroom teachers, students, and school staff. So how do you get started?  

Begin by developing a schoolwide PBIS implementation plan. PBIS will work best when it is implemented throughout the school. Expectations should be similar in all classrooms so students have consistency year to year. This also creates consistency for the school day. If classroom teachers have the same expectations as specialty teachers like PE or art, students will have a better experience, since they know that behavior expectations are the same regardless of what room they are in.  

How to strengthen the school-family PBIS partnership  

Educating the whole child is all about teamwork and is best done with schools and families. When it comes to PBIS, many parents and caregivers may not have heard of it or experienced it before. A great way to get families in the loop is to have a PBIS information night at the beginning of the school year. Explain the tiers and plan for meeting the needs of all learners. Communication is also key! Students need to know what is expected of them, but so do families. Let them know what is expected of students so that they can reinforce PBIS at home. When students are rewarded, let families know so they can celebrate their success.  

What do rewards look like?  

Rewards are an integral part of PBIS. When students have extrinsic motivation like rewards, they try their best to meet expectations. After a while, the motivation becomes intrinsic and awesome behavior becomes the norm. Rewards do not need to be something teachers spend a lot of money on and can be totally free. Here are a few examples.  

  • Lunch with a teacher 
  • Permission to sit next to a friend for the day 
  • Classwide activities  
  • Extra recess 
  • Pajama day 

Final Thoughts on PBIS 

There are so many benefits to effectively implementing PBIS in schools. Using PBIS with fidelity is an evidence-based approach that will improve student behavior and school climate. The three tiers will help to meet the needs of all students and setting clear expectations sets students up for success. When implemented well, PBIS cuts down on unwanted behavior so that academics can be the focus and both students and teachers can make the most of their school day.  

However, PBIS isn’t an instant solution that can remedy any behavioral or cultural issue at a school overnight. It’s a process defined by empathetic, data-driven decisions and ongoing refinement. Educators can get the best results from this system when they tap into the right kinds of motivation for their students, connecting with them in relevant ways so that they feel a genuine drive to care about their behavior and their learning. Combine this with strong relationships and you’ll craft a learning environment where everyone can truly connect, have fun, and succeed.  

There are a number of resources available for teachers and schools when getting started with PBIS. For an overview of PBIS and implementation, check out the Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.  

 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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