It’s not unusual for students to struggle with behavior in school, especially when they’re not sure what’s expected of them. If a school reacts only with punishment, students don’t learn the skills they need to make positive changes in the future. That’s where positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) comes in.
What Is PBIS?
PBIS is a proactive approach that 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 these schools, all students learn about behavior, including those with IEPs and 504 plans.
PBIS recognizes that students can only meet behavioral expectations if they know what the expectations are. Everyone learns what’s considered to be appropriate behavior and uses 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.
PBIS has a few important guiding principles:
Students can learn behavioral expectations for different situations.
Students learn expected behaviors for each school setting through explicit instruction and opportunities to practice and receive 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 behavioral 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 infractions.
According to several studies, PBIS leads to better student behavior. In many schools that use PBIS, students receive fewer detentions and suspensions, and earn better grades. There’s also some evidence that PBIS may lead to less bullying.
How PBIS Works
Most PBIS programs set up three tiers of support for students and staff.
Tier 1 is a schoolwide, universal system for everyone in a school. Students learn basic behavioral expectations, like how to be respectful and kind. School staff members regularly recognize and praise students for good behavior. They may also use small rewards, like tokens or prizes, to recognize when students meet the expectations.
Tier 2 provides an extra layer of support for students who continue to struggle with behavior. The school gives those students evidence-based interventions and instruction. For example, some students struggle with social interactions. A Tier 2 strategy might be providing Social Thinking® support to help students better understand how to read and react to situations.
Tier 3 is the most intensive level. 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. If you have a student with an IEP or a 504 plan and your school uses PBIS, be sure to ask the IEP team how the two overlap.
PBIS vs. Traditional Discipline
In a school that uses traditional discipline, teachers may try to correct behavior through punishment. Here’s an example.
During a class discussion, a student sitting in the back throws a spitball. With a more traditional approach, the teacher sends the student to the principal’s office to be punished. The student then returns to class and is expected to behave. But there’s no instruction that tells the student what a more appropriate behavior would have been.
A school using PBIS handles this differently. With PBIS, the school looks at behavior as a form of communication.
So before the student throws the spitball, a teacher might notice that the student is craving attention. The teacher might address that need in a positive way, like by giving the student a chance to share an opinion in a class discussion and recognizing the contribution.
If the student still acts out and throws the spitball, a team at the school would create a strategy to prevent the behavior from happening again. The strategy might include break time to cool off or time to talk with a peer mentor. The school may even provide training for families. The school tracks the student’s progress in managing behavior issues and may change the strategy if something’s not working.
As this example shows, 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. Schools that use PBIS look for appropriate consequences that are effective in changing the student’s behavior, not just in the moment, but in the future as well.
PBIS and Token Rewards
Most experts feel that PBIS changes school discipline for the better. They like its focus on prevention and clearly teaching behavior expectations.
But a few experts worry that PBIS allows schools to use token rewards for meeting behavior expectations. These experts are concerned that rewarding students for good behavior makes them focus more on getting the reward, and less on the behavior. In other words, they worry that rewards increase students’ external, not internal, motivation.
Another concern is that schoolwide reward systems may exclude students with behavioral issues. If a student who struggles never gets a reward or is rewarded less than others, it can feel like punishment. This can be discouraging to students who are trying their best to behave but struggle more than their peers.
In response to these concerns, advocates of PBIS have worked hard to make sure schools don’t overuse rewards. They point out that token rewards are just one tool schools can use. And they encourage schools to apply rewards equitably to recognize students who are struggling but improving.
It’s also important to know that using an acknowledgment system like rewards is not the same as bribing a student. An example of a bribe is offering students a homework pass to influence them to act a certain way before a lesson. PBIS does not use bribes. It acknowledges acceptable behavior after it occurs. Rewards are earned, not offered as a “payoff” in exchange for good behavior.
The U.S. Department of Education has created an assistance center that offers information and training on PBIS.
You can also learn more from Understood about the following evidence-based positive behavior strategies:
Using nonverbal signals to foster communication while limiting interruptions during instruction
Creating when-then sentences with students to clearly explain what you expect—and the positive outcome that will happen
Describing what’s expected of students in a way that is obvious and easily understood by using pre-correcting and prompting
Getting students’ attention through respectful redirection—without making a big deal about it—by using a calm tone, neutral body language, and clear, concise wording