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What is PBIS?

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD

At a Glance

  • Positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) is an approach schools use to promote school safety and good behavior.

  • With PBIS, schools teach kids about behavior expectations and strategies.

  • The focus of PBIS is prevention, not punishment.

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Many kids struggle with behavior in school. When schools react only with punishment, students don’t learn the skills they need to improve. That’s where positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) comes in. 

PBIS is a proactive approach schools use to improve school safety and promote positive behavior. The focus of PBIS is prevention, not punishment.

At its heart, PBIS calls on schools to teach students positive behavior strategies , just as they would teach about any other subject — like reading or math. In schools that use PBIS, all students learn about positive behavior. This includes kids with and .

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PBIS recognizes that students can only meet behavior expectations if they know what the expectations are. Everyone learns what’s considered appropriate behavior. And they use a common language to talk about it. Throughout the school day — in class, at lunch, and on the bus — students understand what’s expected of them.

According to research, PBIS leads to better student behavior. In many schools that use PBIS, students get fewer detentions and suspensions. They also earn better grades. There’s also some evidence that PBIS may lead to less bullying.

Dive deeper

Guiding principles of PBIS

PBIS has several important guiding principles: 

  • Students can learn behavior expectations for different situations.

  • Schools teach expected behaviors through explicit instruction, with opportunities for students to practice behavior and get feedback.  

  • Stepping in early can prevent more serious behavior problems.

  • Each student is different, so schools need to give many kinds of behavior support.

  • How schools teach behavior should be based on research and science.

  • Tracking a student’s behavior progress is important.

  • Schools gather and use data to make decisions about behavior interventions.

  • School staff members are consistent in how they encourage expected behavior and discourage misbehavior.

Learn more about explicit instruction .

Three tiers of PBIS support

Most PBIS programs set up three tiers of support for students and school staff.

  1. Tier 1: Universal, schoolwide system for everyone. All students at the school learn basic behavior expectations, like respect and kindness. School staff recognize and praise students  for good behavior. Sometimes, they use small rewards, like tokens or prizes, to recognize kids.

  2. Tier 2: Extra, targeted support for struggling students. Some kids have a harder time with behavior expectations. The school gives these kids evidence-based interventions and instruction. For example, some students may struggle with social interactions. A Tier 2 strategy might be providing Social Thinking® support  to help them learn how to read and react to situations.

  3. Tier 3: Intensive support for individual students. The third tier of PBIS is the most intensive. It’s for students who need individualized supports and services because of ongoing behavioral concerns.

Students with IEPs or 504 plans can be in any of the tiers. Schools that use PBIS must make sure that IEP teams are clear on how the tiers of PBIS overlap with IEPs and 504 plans.

PBIS uses increasing levels of support for students. This is similar to other tiered approaches like response to intervention (RTI). 

How PBIS differs from traditional discipline

In a school with traditional discipline, teachers often correct behavior through punishment. For example, a student who throws a spitball may be sent to detention. Afterward, the student is expected to behave.

A school using PBIS handles this differently. The school would look at the  behavior as a form of communication . Before a spitball is thrown, the teacher might notice that the student is craving attention. To address this in a positive way, the teacher might give the student the chance to share an opinion. There’s also continued instruction on how students are expected to participate in class.

If the student still acts out and throws a spitball, the school creates a strategy to prevent it from happening again. This might be break time to cool off or talk with a peer mentor. The school may even offer training for families. The school tracks the student’s behavior and may change the strategy if something’s not working.

PBIS doesn’t ignore problem behavior. Schools still use discipline, but punishment isn’t the focus. Instead, the focus is on teaching expectations, preventing problems, and using logical consequences. 

Learn more about the difference between discipline and punishment .

A concern about PBIS

Most experts feel that PBIS changes school discipline for the better. They like its focus on prevention and clear behavior expectations.

But some experts worry about the use of rewards, like tokens and prizes, for meeting behavior expectations. The concern is that rewarding kids for good behavior makes them focus on getting the reward, not on the behavior. This may increase a student’s external, not internal, motivation.

Schoolwide reward systems can also exclude students with behavior challenges. If a student who struggles never gets a reward or gets fewer than others, it can feel like punishment. This can discourage kids who are trying their best to behave, but who have unique challenges.

In response to concerns, advocates of PBIS have asked schools not to overuse rewards. They also point out that token rewards are just one tool schools can use. Kids shouldn’t be bribed to behave. Schools are also working on how to recognize students who still struggle but are improving.

Read about the importance of motivation for kids who learn and think differently.

PBIS resources for educators

The U.S. Department of Education has an information and training center for PBIS.

If you’re an educator, you can also learn more about evidence-based positive behavior strategies: 

  • Use nonverbal signals  to foster communication while limiting interruptions during instruction.

  • Create when-then sentences  with students to clearly explain what you expect — and the positive outcome that will happen.

  • Use pre-correcting and prompting to describe what’s expected of students in a way that’s obvious and easily understood.

  • Get students’ attention through respectful redirection  — without making a big deal about it — by using a calm tone, neutral body language, and clear, concise wording.

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