Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports (PBIS) in Schools

By Kelcey Schmitz, MSEd
Center for Strong Schools
University of Washington Tacoma

We wouldn’t exclude, humiliate or send a child home for making an academic error.

However, when it comes to misbehavior, a typical response has been to punish or wait until the behavior escalates or occurs at a high rate or intensity before intervening. But this is changing. The direction of discipline is moving from reactive, punitive and exclusive measures to more positive, proactive and preventative approaches.

According to the National Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBIS) (www.pbis.org), over 21,000 schools (elementary, middle, high) across the nation are implementing PBIS. As a result of using the same methods for teaching academics to students for behavior, schools report a decrease in problem behavior, an increase in instructional time, an increase in perception of safety, more positive school and classroom environments and an increase in student achievement. Taking an instructional approach to behavior is much better than waiting for problems to occur.

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS)

PBIS offers an alternative to traditional discipline methods. Evidence shows that harsh and punitive responses do not change behavior for the long term and may even contribute to the erosion of relationships between students and adults. Creating a positive climate and culture contributes to parents, students and staff feeling happier about the school environment and strengthening the bond between teachers, students, and families

PBIS is a framework schools use to organize behavior supports for students. Much like the public health model, PBIS emphasizes prevention instead of waiting for problems to happen. The practices and programs range in intensity and duration depending on the level of behavior.

Just like many health issues and diseases are preventable, there are many ways adults can prevent student problem behaviors.  Many students will respond to Tier 1 prevention strategies.  In fact, we expect 80% of students to be successful in Tier 1. Twenty percent of students will need additional support in the form of Tier 2 and Tier 3 supports.

Tier 1

To effectively implement PBIS, schools identify a team that is representative of the staff in the building to learn the steps. This team, with frequent input from their colleagues, students and families, create a school wide (Tier 1) PBIS plan. The first step the team takes is to establish 3-5 positively stated expectations or pillars. Some common expectations are “be responsible”, “be respectful”, “be kind” and “be safe.”

Next, they identify a few “hotspots” throughout the school where misbehavior happens frequently. For example, teams may conclude that the hallways, cafeteria or playground are good places to start. They generally pick two locations to get “quick wins.” Lesson plans, or “cool tools”, are developed expected behaviors for each setting are explicitly taught to students. Students are taught what being respectful looks and sounds like in the classroom and non-classroom settings and then are provided opportunities practice.

Every adult that interacts with students (i.e. nutrition services, transportation, custodians, teachers, para-educators) are trained on the specific effective practices. This way, no matter where students are, they are getting consistent, predictable and positive messages.

Students are acknowledged with specific positive feedback for showing the appropriate behavior.  Positive feedback is an essential component of PBIS. Some schools pair feedback with a ticket and students can turn in their tickets for drawings or save them up and spend them at a school store or exchange them for things like school dances, VIP seating at an assembly or a front of the lunch line pass. It is most effective that for every corrective statement, four positive statements must be given. This is referred to as the 4:1 ratio.

Another essential element of PBIS is using data to make decisions. Instead of being driven by tradition, emotions, or convenience to staff, regularly collected data is summarized and reviewed by teams. The types of data teams review include office discipline referrals, suspensions, expulsions, attendance, grades and even school nurse referrals. Office discipline referrals can give teams more detailed information about the problem behavior happening in school. This is called looking at the “Big 5” data (how often, where, when, why and by whom). Drilling down allows precise problem identification and more effective problem solving. It is one thing to say “the sixth grade boys are unruly” – but much more actionable if we can create a statement with the specific information such as “between 2:00 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. in the west hallway the sixth grade boys are using inappropriate language 15 – 20 times a day, motivated by peer attention.” Now the team can brainstorms solutions.

Regular review of data allows teams to identify problems early, before they become chronic. It is much easier to address a low-level behavior than behaviors that have been practiced over time.

It is expected that schools will take 2-4 years to fully implement their Tier 1 PBIS plan. Once a strong foundation is in place, the school begins to work on supports for students in need of more than what Tier 1 supports have to offer. In many cases, school teams are guided through the steps of the PBIS implementation process by an expert in the field either within their district or outside the district.

Tier 2 and Tier 3

Just like with academics, some students will need more instructional support for social behavior skills. Advanced tiers (Tier 2 and Tier 3) offer students more practice and feedback. Students with mild to moderate problem behaviors such as being off task, talking out, difficulty getting along with others, or not following directions are good candidates for Tier 2 supports. Some examples are the Behavior Education Program, a modification of Check-in/Check-out, social skills instruction, and homework club. A few students will still need very intensive support, or Tier 3, for chronic challenging behavior. Tier 3 supports include a functional behavior assessment and behavior intervention plan and may involve a wraparound or person-centered plan, as well. A professional with substantial behavioral expertise often provides the Tier 3 supports and services.

Get Involved

Ask your school if they have a PBIS plan. A fully implemented plan involves family input and involvement and there are many other ways you can support PBIS.  For example, families can use the same expectations and apply them to home settings such as morning, homework and bedtime routines. The common language and an instructional approach to behavior provide the much-needed consistency, predictability and positivity kids need across all learning, living and leisure settings.

Find more information:

Office of Special Education Programs Technical Assistance Center for PBIS