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

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

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.

When I tell my kids how to

When I tell my kids how to behave, they do what I want because I'm their authority and chief.
That's why I don't read any modern instructions for parents. They are no doubt useful, I just don't need them :)

PBIS:nothing but fiction. To

PBIS:nothing but fiction.
To simply say that if you have prevention procedures in place, then all students will conform because they want to is setting us up to fail. This has been put into our school with nothing but disaster. Our old administration took away all power from teachers by removing any discipline. We spend too much time dealing with our behavior students, that our good kids have started to act out because "it doesn't matter". Our old administrator would have students "earn" activities as part of positive reward, yet he would set the bar so low that it was impossible to not meet the "goal". One example is an activity based on students being to class on time. The goal was 85%. Unfortunately since our administrator could not figure our 3rd grade math, it meant that we could have 90 students late to class per period. That translates into 630 students total per day, which was more than our entire student body. This was supposed to be the PBIS model. To stress how our "good" kids felt about this, they went to our administrator and convinced him to cancel the activity. He protested, but he did cancel it. I have heard that PBIS does not believe in "punishing" students for bad behavior, but tell that to the parent who just had their son beaten by a student that always acts out but was never held accountable. Our school is still dealing with consequences of implementing PBIS. Students show very little respect to any adult staff.

PBIS implemented with

PBIS implemented with fidelity, all staff and students trained, can be extremely successful. Behavioral data must be collected and analyzed by a behavior team. The use of PBIS Apps and the assessment tools help student and staff stay focused on the framework, the "expectations" the matrix for teaching the expectations in multiple settings in the school and the constant reteaching of those expectations as needed.
PBIS has lots of research to show its success and sustainability. Adults need coached and all staff and students need reteaching of appropriate behaviors.

I work for a school with

I work for a school with this. It babies the bad students and encourages students to do nothing. Just sit there and you are rewarded for being "good". We have so many behavior problem kids and our administration is afraid and weak. They won't punish those that touch others. Kids are absurd enough at home. They do not need to be advised at school and have nothing done for it. A bully is a bully and needs to be addressed as such. Zero tolerance means nothing in the system.

I agree and I am in the same

I agree and I am in the same situation. I work for an elementary school that spends so many resources on the "bad" kids that there is nothing left for the majority that are doing the right thing. For example, I have a co-worker that routinely hands out "vouchers" if the students are standing in line to go back in the building after recess. She is so focused on handing out these vouchers that she often doesn't see a student who has decided to not line up (thereby breaking the rule of lining up quickly and efficiently when the bell rings) and then goes to give him a voucher as well. I stopped her last time because quite honestly, this particular student does this a lot and the cycle needs to stop. Couple that with the fact that the administration refuses to deal with it--though a minor infraction, what message is this sending the children that are following the rules?

we have this in my school and

we have this in my school and it doesn't work worth anything!

We started it this year.

We started it this year. Waste of time. Does nothing for the students who are a wreck behavior wise. These liberals who came up with this must deal with one student at a time. Epic fail

PBIS works! In settings where

PBIS works! In settings where implemented by faculty & staff with fidelity and have administrator support; behavior changes. I could share numerous examples of success from our district, as well as examples of failure too. For teachers who lack understanding and are not invested in the process- - nothing will work. Over 5 years of behavior data indicate that the tiered tools in the PBIS framework have helped reduce behavior infractions in our district.

Dr. Scott LeJeune

I don't understand this

I don't understand this program. In my sons elementary, it amounts to bribery. Kids are awarded play money for things like not talking in the hall, which they are then allowed to spend on parent donated items in their "store" once per month. So the kids are learning to behave only when there's an incentive, not because it's the right thing to do, and then get to bring home some dollar store junk. Waste of time and resources.

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