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 is all about. 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.
The basics of PBIS
PBIS stands for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. It’s a set of practices for improving student behavior and school culture by setting clear behavioral expectations, teaching students how to meet those expectations, and supporting them in this process based on their needs. The focus is on preventing negative or harmful behavior with effective strategies rather than simply punishing students when it happens.
Educators might begin using PBIS for various different 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. The important thing is that this team represents all the necessary expertise and interested parties.
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.
Want to learn more about how PBIS is put into practice? Our guide to PBIS implementation offers a closer look at best practices for crafting successful initiatives, and it even includes an implementation checklist.
A few key PBIS concepts
There are a few things to know about what defines PBIS as a system:
It’s a tiered framework — This is an important keyphrase that you’ll see and hear a lot when learning about and implementing PBIS. In a nutshell, it refers to the three-tier structure that PBIS uses to support students. We’ll talk about those tiers in detail further on.
It’s 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.
It’s guided by data — When working towards 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.
It plays well with other 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.
It’s meant to work 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 know what PBIS is not:
It’s 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.
It’s not 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.
It’s not 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.
It doesn’t ignore 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.
The three tiers of PBIS
So, what about the three-tiered structure we mentioned earlier? This refers to the continuum of support that PBIS provides to students, with each student being placed within a tier depending on their individual needs.
Tier 1 is the primary set of preventative support practices that serve as the baseline for an entire district or school. These practices will usually be successful for most students (80% or more). They include setting clear behavioral expectations, explicitly teaching students how to meet those expectations, reinforcing positive behavior, preventing and appropriately responding to negative behavior, fostering partnerships with family members, and more.
Tier 2 represents a set of practices for those who need further support. This will typically include about 10-15% of students. Broadly speaking, it takes everything included in the first tier and provides an additional degree of focus and attention to ensure that the baseline practices are adequately meeting the student’s needs. This might involve increasing the level of student supervision, their access to academic support, the frequency of school-family communication, and other adjustments.
Tier 3 will encompass the smallest percentage of a student population (about 1-5%), and it’s designed to provide more intensive and individualized support than those in the first or second tiers. This might include increased engagement from educators and family members, behavioral assessments, detailed intervention planning, and others. Some students under this tier receive or are already receiving special education services, but not all of them. As with any of the three tiers, the goal is to ensure that these students are being given what they need to reach better outcomes.
Both the second and third tiers are best seen as temporary placements rather than ways of permanently defining a student and their abilities. Consistent evaluation and strong data are essential for placing each student in the tier that is most appropriate for them, and no student should be in the second or third tier for any longer than is necessary.
Going beyond traditional discipline
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.
Being punished might only lead a student to feel resentful, confused, or discouraged about their educational environment and the adults in their lives. If, on the other hand, they understand what’s expected of them and feel supported and understood, they’re far more likely to be motivated and engaged. The mission of PBIS is to move toward this better outcome by following the research and breaking away from dependence on punishment.
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.
The importance of motivation and relationships
Instead of simply reacting to a student’s negative behavior with traditional punishments, 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?”
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.