Why It Works: You Can’t Just “PBIS” Someone

By Tarsi Dunlop

You cannot just “PBIS” a child who happens to be misbehaving or acting out. That simple reality is probably one of the most important facts about Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), also known as school wide positive behavioral supports (SWPBS). It’s defined as a framework for enhancing adoption and implementation of a continuum of evidence-based interventions to achieve academically and behaviorally important outcomes for all students. Through this framework, PBIS seeks to improve school climate, reduce discipline issues and support academic achievement. In mid-July, George Sugai from the Neag School of Education (also Director, Center for Behavioral Education & Research and Co-Director, Center of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) joined out-going Principal Rodney Moore from Stone Hill Middle School in Ashburn (VA) – a school that implemented PBIS – at a U.S Department of Education briefing in Washington D.C. The presentation touched on the nuances and complexities of PBIS, which is now supported on a wider scale by the Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) Technical Assistance Center.

What is PBIS?

The framework for adoption and implementation of the continuum of interventions can be visualized as a triangle. It has three tiers: primary prevention, with resources and supports available to all children in a school; secondary prevention for a more tailored group of students displaying at-risk behavior; and tertiary prevention, specialized individualized systems of support for those who display high-risk behavior. Dr. Sugai noted the importance of not assigning labels to children. For example, a child is not a ‘tier 3’ child, he is a child receiving tier 3 supports, and potentially only for a few subjects or behavioral challenges. While all children have access to tier one supports, individual student profiles vary when it comes to tiers two and three, depending on where they are struggling – behaviorally or academically.

PBIS is based on prevention logic for all; that is to say, to reduce the number of new problem behaviors, while preventing a worsening and reducing the intensity of existing ones. The three accompanying actions are: eliminating any triggers that maintain the problem behavior, adding in triggers and maintainers that support prosocial behavior and teaching, monitoring and acknowledging prosocial behavior.

PBIS tries to do a variety of things for students and for schools, such as, but not limited to: offering formal social skills instruction; establishing positive adult role models; fostering positive active supervision and reinforcement, as well as high rates of academic and social success; and building a multi-component, multi-year school family-community effort. The PBIS framework is a counter-agent, helping schools move away from reactive management, addressing concerns around bullying behavior, establishing appropriate consequences for behavioral problems and offering options of using punishment as a teaching tool.


For it to be successful, the entire school must be supportive of implementing the PBIS framework. It is designed to enhance outcomes, behaviorally and academically, for all students. The framework relies on the use of the data to inform initial decisions about the selection, implementation and ongoing progress monitoring of the evidence-based practices. Secondly, the framework organizes resources and systems to improve long-term implementation fidelity.

PBIS implementation starts with a team that includes teachers, counselors, administrators, bus drivers, lunch workers and other staff actively engaging with students. An initial look at data is combined with identifying desired outcomes and determining staff capacity. This information supports the decisions around which evidence-based practices will be part of the tiers in the continuums. After the team reaches agreement, they create an action plan and move towards implementation. The practices produce the systems, supporting staff behavior and building a stable framework to sustain PBIS. Evaluation allows the team to make adjustments to the action plan and continually improve the practices and student outcomes based on efficacy.

Evidence-based intervention practices vary broadly and can focus on the school, the classroom , individual students, forces outside the classroom, and family engagement. Targeted evidence-based practices can help students develop anger management skills or reinforce positive behavior through praise and acknowledgment.  Dr. Sugai gave one general example for a school-wide PBS (tier 1): leadership team, behavior purpose statement, a set of positive expectations and behaviors, procedures for teaching school-wide & classroom-wide expected behavior, a continuum of procedures for encouraging expected behavior, a continuum of procedures for discouraging rule violations and procedures for on-going data-based monitoring and evaluations.

PBIS is spreading across states, districts and schools. The framework is not a one-step intervention, but a shift in school environment. It is designed both to support all children and to help reach the smaller percentage of students who account for a majority of the behavioral actions reported in schools. No one gets left out or left behind in the PBIS framework; the focus rests on improving student outcomes along a behavioral and academic continuum. It offers school leaders and staff the opportunity to proactively reduce disciplinary infractions and out-of-school suspensions and, more importantly, to build an overall positive school environment where students feel supported and prepared to learn, no matter what their background or circumstances.

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