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SEL and PBIS: How do they work together?

Amanda ClarkJune 14, 2021

Teacher talking to a student at his desk with a laptop

How are SEL and PBIS different from one another, and how do they work together? Those questions are top of mind for many administrators, especially since both approaches foster a positive classroom climate with goals of supporting student mental health, positive relationships, and self-regulation. And all schools want more of that, right?

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 these common PBIS and SEL questions and answers, a breakdown of their differences, and more. 

Table of Contents

What is PBIS?

The Center of Positive Behavior Interventions and Support defines PBIS as “an evidence-based three-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 words 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, accurate, and sustainable. 
  • Data gathered on teacher and students’ practices and outcomes is required.
  • Practices are backed up by research and cater to children at all levels. 

Download our free PBIS handbook

What is SEL?

According to the Committee for Chidren, “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) breaks down SEL into five core 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 and demonstrating 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 thought-out, safe and ethical way. Being able to weigh the positive outcomes for others and yourself. 

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

What’s the difference between PBIS and Social Emotional Learning?

Here’s a breakdown to help you remember these six critical differences between SEL and PBIS.

  1. SEL teaches students how to develop positive skills, attitudes, and behaviors that will positively impact their relationships, well-being, and academics. 
  2. PBIS is the process of recognizing, supporting, and rewarding students who demonstrate SEL characteristics. Doing this encourages positive behaviors to occur more naturally and positively impacts 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-term social-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 in tandem, and a school that has laid the foundation for SEL can then thrive by building on those positive behaviors with PBIS.

Integrating SEL and PBIS

Even with the PBIS and SEL 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 curriculum
  • Budget for SEL and PBIS programs and staff
  • Integrate and educate SEL and PBIS with the school, community, and families
  • 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. For starters, 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 equals a win-win. 

To learn more, check out our recommended resources for further reading:

  1. Explore SEL (
  2. SEL and PBIS – Supporting The Achievement of Academic Outcomes (Department of Psychology University of Illinois at Chicago)
  3. Embedding Social Emotional Learning (SEL) into School-wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) (Michigan’s Integrated Behavior and Learning Support Initiative (MIBLSI))
  4. Create an online school store for your PBIS program (Classcraft)

Photo credit: Google for Education

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