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What are PBIS tiers?

Mary DeanApril 9, 2020

Educator working with a student on a tablet around a table

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Schools that implement a PBIS system are committed to encouraging positive behaviors among their students. The PBIS way of directing students involves recognizing and rewarding those who follow the rules rather than focusing on punishing those who don’t. The PBIS model includes three tiers of support, each targeted at a specific group of your student body. This article reviews the three tiers of PBIS, who they are designed for, and how you can ensure the system works for your school.

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Tier 1: Generalized support

Tier 1 of PBIS is arguably the most important of the three because it sets the foundation for all other levels of support. Tier 1 is aimed at the student body as a whole. Here’s what you need to ensure the success of Tier 1:

PBIS team

The first thing you need to do is implement a robust schoolwide positive behavioral interventions and supports (SWPBIS) system that is dedicated to its development. This usually consists of a group of teachers and administrators who work together to establish the core behaviors and values to focus on.

Consistent expectations

Once your PBIS team has decided which behaviors and values to reward, you must remain consistent in your expectations:

  • Pay close attention to each student
  • Be sure to recognize model behaviors 
  • Reward them accordingly each time they occur


It is essential to continue to evaluate your expectations over time. You may find that student behavior has shifted negatively or that your approach isn’t working. This is the perfect time to test changes, but you can only know where you stand if you consistently evaluate your PBIS program.

PBIS Tier 1 best practices

Tier 1 of PBIS focuses on creating a solid foundation that supports Tiers 2 and 3. Here are some best practices you should follow to successfully implement PBIS at your school: 

When setting expectations

Your Tier 1 team should identify which core behaviors to encourage within your student body. Once that’s settled, you need to communicate these behavioral goals with your students and make sure they understand them. You can make this process easier for students and teachers by focusing on a small group of behavioral adjustments. Generally speaking, three to five is a good number to start with.

When teaching students

Simply stating behavioral goals isn’t enough to bring about real change in your school environment. You must ensure these behaviors are taught or demonstrated if you expect students to model after them. This means your teachers need to be heavily engaged with your PBIS system and invested in helping children understand what they need to do to meet the expectations set. You should also have unanimous teacher buy-in — even if one teacher decides to forego your PBIS system within their own classroom, this will undermine your schoolwide efforts once students notice the inconsistency.

Tier 1 is the most comprehensive of the three PBIS tiers. Since the majority of your student body will belong in this category, you should make sure your teachers, staff, and parents are supporting it to its fullest extent.

Tier 2: More targeted support

No matter how detailed and well executed your Tier 1 PBIS plan may be, you will still have students who need some extra support. This doesn’t mean your system has failed; it just means that you need to have a plan in place for students who are at higher risk of falling short of expectations. This is where PBIS Tier 2 comes in.

Identifying students who need Tier 2 support

Perhaps the most important part of PBIS Tier 2 is identifying the students who actually need support at this level. Most successful schools have a clearly organized referral process that hand picks students who will get the most out of Tier 2 support. 

Some tools you can use to identify students who fall into this group are:

  • Office referrals
  • Parent-teacher conferences
  • Teacher recommendations
  • Screening scores
  • Formal tests or assessments

All other avenues must be explored before a student is moved into a more targeted PBIS group. This reduces the chances of  incorrectly categorizing a student, which in turn gives these students the extra time and attention they need. The end game is a more well-behaved and successful student population as a whole.

PBIS Tier 2 best practices

Tier 2 success rates are greatly influenced by the foundations set in Tier 1 support groups. Your first step should be to make sure you are doing everything you can to establish that solid ground in Tier 1. There are several things you can do to help students who are moving into this more advanced tier.

More adult attention

Tier 2 students often need more adult care to model after positive behaviors in school. Teachers and administrators must pay close attention and provide more supervision and support students who need it.

More positive reinforcement

PBIS revolves around positive reinforcement to get the behaviors you want out of children in your school. When you are dealing with a student who needs a little more attention or support, you should turn up the dial a little. Offering more frequent positive reinforcement to children at this level can improve their behavior.

Setting up kids for success

Another essential part of behavior management is anticipating the needs of children who act out. If teachers and administrators can anticipate when a student might act out, they can get ahead of the issue and remind the student, group, or entire class how to behave well.

Better understanding from teachers

To offer the support needed, teachers must be committed to understanding the reasoning behind specific PBIS actions at school. You could, for example, create a specialized PBIS training course for all teachers to make sure they are well equipped in the classroom.

Academic interventions

Many students who act out in class do so as a way of avoiding class instruction that is difficult for them to understand. Offering additional academic support like tutoring and one-on-one instruction can help these struggling students.

All school staff must remain heavily engaged in learning more about your school’s PBIS system. Your goals and target behaviors may change, but the basis of the system should always remain the same. Remember to stay consistent and have a process for everything — this is the best way you can ensure your school thrives when using PBIS.

Tier 3: Intensive support

Tier 3 support systems are designed for students who engage in highly disruptive, or dangerous behaviors. This level of the PBIS system is reserved only for a small percentage of students in most cases and is extremely intensive.

PBIS Tier 3 best practices

In addition to continuing the practices of Tiers 1 and 2, you will need to take a more targeted approach for any students who fall in Tier 3 of your PBIS program. 

Functional behavioral assessments (FBAs)

The goal of a functional behavioral assessment is to understand why students behave the way they do. Once that’s determined, a plan can be set in place to address specific triggers for misbehavior and resolve or alleviate behavioral problems.

Focusing on behavior

Once triggers and other factors are understood, you should focus on changing social and academic factors that could be contributing to misbehavior. This involves preventing unwanted behavior by refusing rewards, teaching and positively reinforcing positive behaviors, and ensuring that each student is safe and secure.

Consider cultural factors

Several factors may influence a student’s behavior in school. For Tier 3 behavioral intervention, it is vital to consider cultural aspects to make instruction more valuable to students, teachers, and administrators. Some of these factors include race, ethnicity, location, family history and routines, and language barriers.

Understanding each of these factors will play a big part in the success of the Tier 3 interventions at your school. Take some time to ensure that all teachers, administrators, and other support staff understand the goals and the infrastructure behind each tier, as well. A well educated team is your best line of defense against the failure of PBIS.

The bottom line

If your disciplinary model needs a change, PBIS can make a huge difference in your school. Focusing on positive reinforcement to encourage model behaviors rather than punishing undesirable ones is a wonderful way to improve behavioral problems among your students. PBIS can also lead to less animosity between students, teachers, and administrators since it creates an environment of teamwork rather than a network of adults who are known for punishing kids.

Photo: Google for Education

Bring good behavior to life, in any setting.

Virtual PBIS. What is it and how does it work? Get the answers and more in our Playbook.

Learn more
Virtual PBIS Guide on a tablet

MTSS - PBIS - Virtual PBIS

Bring good behavior to life, in any setting.

Virtual PBIS. What is it and how does it work? Get the answers and more in our Playbook.

Learn more
Virtual PBIS Guide on a tablet