What Is PBIS? Everything Teachers Need to Know About This Positive Behavior Framework

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Updated | 6 min read

Are you working at a school that uses PBIS as a framework for behavior management? The concept has been around since the late 1990s and taken over American schools, so chances are pretty high that you’ll encounter at least one school using PBIS during your career. But what is it? What does it stand for, what are PBIS rewards, and does PBIS actually work when it comes to reducing negative behaviors and encouraging positive ones?

Our teacher team knows you’ve got a lot on your plate — you’re a teacher, after all! — so we did the research for you! Read on for the real deal on PBIS.

What Does PBIS Stand For?

First things first — let’s break down the acronym. PBIS stands for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. The name originated in 1997 when Congress reauthorized the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which governs access to public education for American students with disabilities. It ties back to the Effective Behavior Supports (EBS) program developed by George Sugai and Rob Horner, researchers from the University of Oregon, in the decade prior. Sugai, Horner and their colleagues had seen the need for improvement in the behavioral interventions used with students with behavior disorders, and together they began to piece together a means to look at the issue from the top down, involving the school community as a whole.

When Congress made funding available in 1997, the Oregon researchers were called on to help create the National Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, and they drew in help from researchers at universities from Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, and South Florida as well.

Despite its founding under IDEA, PBIS isn’t just used in special education classrooms, and it’s sometimes referred to as also referred to as School-wide Positive Behavior Support (SWPBS) to reflect that it’s used on a broader scale.

Keep up with all those school acronyms with a FREE “Periodic Table of Education Acronyms.”

What Is PBIS?

OK, so we’ve covered what it stands for, but what IS it? On a basic level, PBIS is a framework used in schools to promote positive behavior and prevent negative behavior. It’s considered a proactive approach in that it aims to create a positive school culture by reinforcing positive behaviors rather than responding to negative ones.

Based on principles of applied behavior analysis and the prevention approach, the overall goal is to create a consistent, predictable and safe learning environment for all students.

What Are PBIS Rewards?

In order to establish its focus on positive behavior, the framework leans heavily into rewarding good behavior, resulting in what’s commonly known as the PBIS rewards system.

PBIS rewards are, in essence, tangible or intangible incentives given to students for exhibiting positive behavior. That can mean anything from following school or classroom rules, showing respect for classmates and other peers or completing specific tasks. Rewards can be anything from stickers to small prizes to extra privileges to coupons like these or even simple recognition in front of the class or school.

Whole-class reward systems are also part of PBIS, building on the idea that incentivizing good behavior on a classroom level with pizza parties, fun Fridays and other positive reinforcement-type systems will create a more positive classroom environment and safer space for learning for all.

Teach Starter Teacher Tip: Help students visualize progress they’re making toward a whole-class reward with a digital chart. This helps students see the impact of their behaviors in a real and tangible way. This fun football-themed chart is a great example — students can watch the ball move toward the endzone!

Is PBIS Evidence-Based?

We talk a lot about evidence-based instruction and programs in education, so it only stands to reason that teachers would want to know the framework for behavior management is also evidence-based, right?

Is there empirical evidence that PBIS is good for kids and schools? Well, yes. Here’s what the research has to say about the different facets of PBIS:

Improvements in Student Behavior

This is the primary goal of PBIS, so what does the research say about how it actually affects student behavior? The news is fairly good here — research has consistently found that PBIS is associated with improvements in student behavior, including reductions in disruptive behavior, bullying and suspensions.

Take the group-randomized study of PBIS at 37 different elementary schools. Researchers in that study found that schools that implemented PBIS saw a 50 percent reduction in suspensions over a three-year period.

Increased Academic Achievement

Does better behavior from PBIS lead to academic achievement? Researchers are mixed on this. In a study published in 2017 in the Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, for example, there was little difference seen in student outcomes in PBIS schools vs. those that don’t use the framework. Then again, a study of schools that implemented PBIS in New Hampshire reported hikes in both reading and math scores in the wake of the decision.

There’s also evidence that this success — as well as that of the improved behavior — is sustained and not simply a temporary blip that comes with the initial implementation. One study conducted over a 10-year period found that schools that implemented PBIS maintained improvements in student behavior and academic achievement over time.

Key to that success, however, is the school’s commitment to ongoing training of staff to develop and sustain practices within the framework, as well as using data to evaluate and revise practices continually.

Improved School Climate for All Students

Overall, there’s evidence out there that PBIS can improve students’ feelings of safety in the school setting and add to a more positive school culture. What’s more, it works in concert with RTI (Response to Intervention) as complementary frameworks for supporting all students.

While PBIS is aimed at each child, RTI is more of a targeted approach that can be used to address the needs of individual students who may be struggling academically or behaviorally. It involves a mix of screening, progress monitoring and providing evidence-based interventions at different tiers of intensity. It’s distinct in its purpose and methodology, but PBIS and RTI can work together by using the PBIS framework to establish a positive school climate and promote positive behavior, while using RTI to identify and address individual student needs.

Let’s say a student is identified as needing additional support through RTI. PBIS strategies can be used to reinforce positive behavior and promote academic success.

What Are the PBIS Support Tiers?

PBIS is broken out into three specific tiers of support for students.

Universal Support

Universal is the first tier of support, and it includes strategies that are implemented school-wide to promote positive behavior for all students.

Universal supports can be things like clearly defined expectations for behavior within the school system, regular acknowledgments of positive behavior such as student of the week awards and a school-wide system for addressing and preventing negative behavior.

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Targeted Support

The second level of support is more targeted, and it’s provided specifically for students who require additional support to meet behavioral expectations. It might involve individualized interventions, such as a check-in/check-out system or a behavioral contract.

Intensive Support

Finally, there’s tier three — intensive support that is provided for students who require this sort of help to meet behavioral expectations. This support is individualized to the students’ personal needs and could involve a functional behavior assessment, a behavior intervention plan and even access to additional services, such as counseling or special education services.

PBIS Data Collection

While we’re talking about tiers, we can’t skip the data component of PBIS.

Data regarding student behavior can be used to determine different tier levels, ultimately playing into the amount of support a student needs at any given time. The data component can also give a more broad spectrum look at how the entire student body is doing behavior-wise.

Implementing PBIS in Your Classroom

If your building or even your entire district has implemented PBIS, you may already have an implementation plan to follow. But what if you want to do this on your own? Can it work on a classroom level if the rest of the building doesn’t buy in?

Well, yes! Although it was designed to be used on a macro, rather than a micro, level, PBIS can be used in just your classroom.

It all comes down to a focus on reinforcing positive behaviors, teaching and modeling appropriate behavior, as well as using data to monitor and adjust strategies as needed. And let’s face it — a good classroom management strategy already involves key elements of PBIS, such as setting clear expectations, providing positive feedback and using restorative practices to address behavior issues.

Get more teacher-created ideas for positive reinforcement in our behavior management section!

Banner image via Shutterstock/Anna Kraynova

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