Discipline in my school runs pretty smoothly— for the most part. However, like most school leaders, I want to do more to increase good behavior, decrease poor behavior, and build student character while I’m at it. That is where Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) enters the picture.

What is PBIS?

PBIS is a multi-tiered, data-based system used to improve behavioral and academic outcomes. It is important to note that it is not a specific program, nor is it merely a token system for rewarding students.

Tier 1 of PBIS is aimed at all students and is designed to prevent unwanted behaviors. Tier 1 practices include defining what behaviors are expected and proactively teaching them to all students. Then, positive behaviors are encouraged through specific praise, as well as a token system. When problem behaviors occurs, there is a clear process for addressing those behaviors. Family and community input is considered when establishing Tier 1 practices.

Tier 2 is the next level of PBIS, offering targeted support for students for whom Tier 1 supports alone are not successful. Students in this tier are given increased instruction with self-regulation and social skills. Adults supervise these student more intensely and provide positive reinforcement for expected behaviors more often. Teachers issue reminders about expectations in situations where a student is likely to act out. Staff considers why students act out and tries to give them alternate behaviors to help them meet their needs. Sometimes, additional academic support is needed if the student is using the misbehavior as an avoidance technique.

Tier 3 supports are typically implemented for about 1%-5% of the student population. These supports are usually determined by functional behavior assessments (FBAs) to determine why a student is misbehaving. From that point, wraparound supports are implemented that consider the individual student’s culture and context.

Federal law encourages PBIS programs, and state law often requires it. “Positive behavioral interventions and supports” is recognized as an effective educational method in the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) of 1997 and 2004. States have also enacted laws to require implementation of PBIS. In the state of Ohio, for instance, schools must report annually to the Ohio Department of Education on their levels of PBIS implementation.

PBIS Compared to Traditional Discipline in Schools

Traditional discipline often focuses on a classical conditioning model, wherein a reward is given to motivate students to comply. In PBIS, positive behavior is rewarded. However, the larger focus is on providing interventions to students who need extra help self-regulating. The focus is on teaching the student the correct behavior, versus punishing them for the wrong behavior. While consequences are often necessary, they should be implemented in a way that has a positive outcome (i.e. changed behavior) for the student.

While traditional discipline does not often focus on data-based decision-making, PBIS demands it. If a behavioral support isn’t working, PBIS asks us to analyze the data, look at the research, know our students, and come to a better solution.

Best Practices for Setting up PBIS in Schools

Before a school can begin to make the transition from traditional discipline to PBIS, a solid foundation must be established.

Teams should set measurable goals that are centered around student behavioral and academic outcomes. Staff must have access to sound data to help them make decisions to reach their goals. Tracking software that is consistently used can help with this component.

Evidence-based practices that are defined and documented systematically are essential. Schools should have 3-5 school wide behavioral expectations that are explicitly taught and retaught at appropriate times. Students should be recognized for demonstrating positive behavior, and negative behavior should be responded to with a consistent continuum of consequences and interventions that result in positive outcomes for students.

The school must have systems in place to support full implementation of PBIS. Staff members must be given the resources needed to effectively collaborate and analyze date to come up with solutions for students. Getting an enthusiastic staff on board with PBIS and giving them the professional development they need is essential.

In our middle school, we are building a PBIS program from scratch. While it is tempting to try to implement all three tiers of PBIS simultaneously, it is more practical to focus on Tier 1 only for the first year. Two years ago, we established our expectations in a matrix, outlining expected behaviors in each area of the building. Last year, we piloted the Positivity Project (P2), a character-building program that functions as a Tier 1 Support. This year, we are fully implementing P2 and working to build more Tier 1 supports. We have formed our first PBIS team and are conducting a Tiered Fidelity Inventory (TFI) with the help of our curriculum director. From there, we will implement an action plan.

While fully implementing PBIS is a lengthy process, we hope to be proactive, not only for the sake of complying with state law, but for the improvement of student outcomes.