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What are the differences between SEL and PBIS?

Sara AustinJune 7, 2022

What are the differences between SEL and PBIS?

Social and emotional learning (SEL) programs and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) programs are both 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 deficits

There are several other commonalities between SEL and PBIS 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.

The goals of SEL and PBIS seem very similar, and they do overlap in some ways, but there are some important differences. So let’s talk about how these programs are different. 

Different focuses

SEL focuses on teaching children positive behavior through modifying their thinking, while PBIS focuses on preventing the disruptive behavior of students in classrooms and schools. 

Thus, it can be said that PBIS is more like a framework, whereas SEL is oriented around a set of skills. So, while they are both focused on different aspects of student development, one aims to change the environment (e.g., implementing systems), while the other aims to change individuals (e.g., supporting students).

Using PBIS can help 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.

Emotions vs. behaviors

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is a proactive approach to teaching students how to manage their emotions. By helping them understand their emotions, how they affect others, and how to manage them effectively, students can avoid negative behaviors. This helps them be more successful in school and life overall.

Teaching students to identify, manage, and regulate their emotions helps them lead healthy lives. Without the tools to navigate feelings such as frustration, anger, or stress, students can fall into negative patterns of behavior that cause harm to themselves and others. By learning how to manage these emotions, students can avoid negative behaviors such as bullying and violence. 

The ability to regulate one’s emotions is also important for success in school and life because it allows a student to gain space between what they are feeling and what they do next (i.e., “I am feeling angry right now, but I don’t want that anger to lead me into becoming aggressive”). 

PBIS takes a different approach to SEL by teaching specific behavioral expectations for your classroom or school through positive reinforcement and providing a framework of mitigation strategies for inappropriate behaviors. PBIS focuses on the demonstration of positive behavior only and is not designed to provide any emotional training. 

Time for implementation

Helping children develop healthy relationships with their peers and adults from an early age can help them avoid negative cycles throughout their lives. Early intervention with SEL can disrupt harmful or unproductive patterns of thinking and behavior before they even begin. Younger children are more likely to respond positively to SEL programs than older students. This is because older students may already have established problematic behavioral patterns before they were able to develop better social-emotional skills in school or at home. 

SEL programs 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

While SEL is best for early learners, 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. 

Different models

Even with similar goals in mind, programs for SEL and PBIS are implemented in different ways. 

The SEL model focuses on helping students develop strategies to: 

  • Manage their emotions
  • Set goals and meet them
  • Communicate effectively with others (including teachers)
  • Accept failure as a learning opportunity and understand other people’s perspectives
  • Control impulses (like anger or boredom)
  • Relate well with others 
  • Make good decisions about how best to handle situations that occur throughout the day at school (or home)

These skills are important because they allow students to build respectful relationships and avoid unnecessary conflicts or misunderstandings with peers. Students also learn how to accept feedback and learn from mistakes. 

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.

Schools that use PBIS aim to keep as many students on track toward graduation as possible. To achieve this, schools use a three-tier system of support. The first tier is the universal level, which means that all students receive the same program regardless of whether or not they need it. The second tier is the targeted level and involves identifying students at risk of dropping out and targeting them with additional resources or interventions. Finally, the third tier is an intensive intervention that includes one-on-one tutoring and mentorship programs for those who are furthest behind in their classes, or those who struggle with behavioral problems that would hold them back from graduating if left unchecked.

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. 

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. 

Photo Credit: Google Education

PBIS - Social Emotional Learning

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