As any educator will know, many students struggle with behavior in school, and traditional punishment-based approaches do not always effectively teach them the skills they need to improve.

The solution? PBIS, or positive behavioral interventions and supports.

PBIS is a proactive approach used by schools to improve school safety and encourage positive behavior. Instead of focusing on punishment, PBIS emphasizes prevention and teaches students positive behavior strategies in the same way that other subjects are taught.

This approach is applied to all students, including those with individualized education plans (IEPs) and 504 plans, and involves clearly communicating and consistently enforcing expectations for appropriate behavior. Research has shown that PBIS leads to improved student behavior, including fewer detentions and suspensions, better grades, and potentially even reduce instances of bullying.

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What are the guiding principles of PBIS?

Several key principles guide PBIS:

  • Students should learn and demonstrate appropriate behavior in various situations through explicit instruction and practice.
  • Early intervention can prevent more serious behavior issues from occurring.
  • Each student is unique and may require different types of behavior support.
  • The approach to teaching behavior should be based on research and scientific evidence.
  • Tracking a student’s behavior progress is important and can be done through data collection and analysis.
  • School staff should be consistent in their efforts to promote positive behavior and discourage bad behavior.

What is the goal of PBIS?

PBIS aims to establish a positive and supportive school environment where students can learn and thrive. However, the culture and atmosphere of a school can vary greatly depending on various demographic factors. Location, instructional methods, student diversity, neighborhood, and administration can all impact the school climate.

Transforming the school climate can seem daunting at first, but the PBIS framework is designed to make it more manageable. A key factor in implementing PBIS is the full commitment of teachers and administrators. In other words: to be effective, PBIS must be consistently applied throughout the school.

The positive climate of a school has been shown to impact things like attendance, academic achievement, and graduation rates. Schools with a positive climate tend to have higher test scores and overall academic success, regardless of socio-economic status. In addition, a positive school climate helps students develop social and emotional skills essential for future success. A positive school climate should include the following:

  • A sense of safety.
  • A sense of respect.
  • Engagement in learning.
  • Participation in school life.
  • Shared vision.
  • Involvement of teachers, students, and families.

The three tiers of PBIS support

Many PBIS programs utilize three levels of support for students and school staff. While programs can differ, these tiers are typically broken down as follows:

Tier 1

A universal, school-wide system for all students. At this level, all students learn basic behavior expectations such as respect and kindness, and school staff recognize and praise good behavior. Rewards such as prizes or tokens may encourage positive behavior and reinforce learned behaviors.

Tier 2

Targeted support for struggling students. Some students may struggle with behavior expectations and require additional evidence-based interventions and instruction. For example, students who struggle with social interactions may receive social thinking support to help them understand and respond healthily to different situations. This can be helpful for those falling behind due to impairments or conditions like ADHD or ASP (Autism Spectrum Disorder).

Tier 3

Intensive support for individual students. The most intensive level of support is reserved for students who require individualized support and services due to ongoing behavioral issues.

Students with IEPs or 504 plans can be placed in any of the tiers, and PBIS schools need to ensure that IEP teams are aware of how the PBIS tiers overlap with these individualized plans. PBIS ultimately utilizes increasing levels of support similar to other tiered approaches, such as response to intervention (RTI).

The difference between PBIS and traditional discipline

Teachers often correct problematic behavior through punishment in a school using traditional discipline methods. For example, a student throwing a rolled-up paper might be sent to detention.

On the other hand, PBIS approaches this situation differently by considering the behavior as a form of communication. Before the paper is thrown, a teacher might observe that the student is seeking attention and responding positively (such as allowing the student to share their opinion, for example).

Under PBIS, the school should provide ongoing instructions on expected classroom behavior. If a student continues to engage in problematic behavior, the school should develop a strategy to prevent it from occurring again, such as providing peer mentorship. In some instances, schools will expand the PBIS program to offer training for families.

PBIS schools track student behavior and will adjust the behavior management strategy only if it is ineffective. While PBIS does not ignore problem behavior, it prioritizes teaching expectations instead. This helps prevent problems and uses logical consequences instead of outright punitive measures.

Criticism of PBIS

Many educators believe that PBIS leads to positive changes in school discipline due to its focus on prevention and clear behavior expectations. However, some experts have concerns about using rewards to encourage good behavior, as this may lead students to focus on the reward rather than the desired behavior and therefore increase external rather than internal motivation.

School-wide reward systems can also exclude students with behavioral challenges who may feel punished if they do not receive the same rewards as their peers. To address these concerns, advocates of PBIS recommend using rewards sparingly and finding ways to recognize students who are improving, even if they continue to struggle. PBIS tools such as rewards should be combined with other strategies instead of simply “bribing” students to behave.

Common misconceptions of what PBIS is and what it can achieve

Implementing a PBIS program in a school can be a significant change for all involved, and there are often teething issues. For example, teachers and administrators may be accustomed to traditional disciplinary methods, and neurodivergent students may be hesitant to adapt to a new approach to behavior. Parents may also have concerns about the school’s approach to discipline. It’s important to be clear about what PBIS is not, including:

  • A short-term solution.
  • A bribe for good behavior.
  • A way to ignore inappropriate behavior.

PBIS is not a one-size-fits-all program and may require adjustments to be successful across different schools. To effectively implement PBIS, a school must be ready to commit to a change in mindset and approach to discipline. This includes ongoing training and adapting the framework to meet the needs of the specific school community. Additionally, it is important to incorporate existing successful initiatives and involve staff in developing and defining the PBIS framework to ensure sustainability and smooth sailing during any transitional crossover period.

Why do schools choose to implement PBIS?

PBIS provides a framework for creating a positive and supportive school culture that benefits students and teachers. By teaching and recognizing positive behaviors, schools can foster the development of important social and emotional skills in their students.

This approach is considered by some to be more effective than traditional punitive measures and can lead to decreased office discipline referrals, increased instructional time, and improved student achievement. PBIS also promotes positive teacher-student relationships and helps students build the foundations for success in life.

Additionally, implementing a PBIS framework can significantly impact the school climate, leading to increased productivity, happiness among teachers, and benefits for the wider community. At its core, PBIS allows educators to focus on what they love most: teaching.

PBIS tips for educational professionals

If you are an educator, the following evidence-based PBIS strategies may be useful to you in your daily life in the classroom. Why not try implementing some of these into your teaching schedule?

  • To enhance communication and minimize interruptions during instruction, utilize non-verbal signals.
  • Utilize “when-then” sentences to clearly outline expectations and the positive outcomes that will result.
  • Implement pre-correcting and prompting techniques to clearly describe what is expected in a straightforward manner.
  • Gently redirect students’ attention using respectful methods, such as a calm tone, neutral body language, and concise language, without making too much fuss.

What are the benefits of implementing PBIS in schools?

PBIS can be a new concept for those accustomed to traditional discipline methods that rely on punishment. However, implementing PBIS schoolwide can bring numerous benefits, including the following:

  • Enhancing the overall school culture.
  • Developing students’ social skills.
  • Reducing the number of discipline referrals to the office.
  • Decreasing suspensions.
  • Increasing instructional time.
  • Promoting social and emotional development.
  • Enhancing school safety.
  • Boosting student engagement.
  • Improving academic performance.
  • Involving families more in the education process.
  • Retaining faculty members longer.
  • Enhancing classroom management.


PBIS frameworks offer the potential to improve the climate of struggling schools significantly. For teachers looking to effectively and inclusively educate all of their students, PBIS provides a valuable solution. It helps to foster relationships, and as an evidence-based process, its success can be tangibly measured, which is why so many educational establishments have adopted the system across the US.