Schools with strong Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) systems have a school-wide approach to teach what positive behavior looks like and to recognize children for the good that they do—practices abundantly supported in research and effective for most students most of the time. PBIS, however, is also about transforming our practice to be purposeful and frequent in how we as educators communicate to our students that we care for them and that we see the good they bring to the school community each and every day.
For the majority of students who trust that the adults at school care more about them than their grades, a kind word or a high-five may be enough. But, when as many as a quarter of the children in our care have experienced a traumatic event before they turn four, it is essential that schools implementing PBIS ensure that their systems, data, and practices are ready to help children heal and to build healthy supportive relationships with students.
Complete PBIS systems operate at three levels: Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3. Each tier focuses on a different subgroup of students in a school and has its own systems, data, and practices that the PBIS team will want to build as their PBIS program grows. Really, supporting our kids through PBIS is like keeping our bodies happy through good health habits—we have different strategies for different needs.
Tier 1 PBIS: Get a flu shot and wash your hands.
According to the CDC, “The single best way to prevent season flu is to get vaccinated each year” and to wash your hands. Remarkably, a flu shot can reduce your chances of getting sick by 60%. PBIS applies the same approach to preventing unexpected behavior in the classroom, and with even greater success. Schools with strong Tier 1 programs often discover that simple and inexpensive Tier 1 interventions are effective for 80-90% of every student in the school.
The audience for Tier 1 interventions is typically the entire school and each classroom within the school. It is evident when a school has strong Tier 1 PBIS: posters communicating school-wide expectations and skills are visible in hallways and classrooms; staff can be overheard recognizing positive behavior with students, giving specific feedback that is familiar to students; unexpected behaviors are effectively managed in the classroom, with teachers recruiting administrative help only when necessary.
Because Tier 1 PBIS is inexpensive, easy to implement, and effective for 80-90% of students, the most important place to start building a PBIS system is at the Tier 1 level.
Tier 2 PBIS: Get some rest and stay hydrated.
But what happens if you got a flu shot, were diligent about washing your hands, and caught the flu anyway? Your doctor is likely to recommend that you get rest and do your best to stay hydrated. Similarly, schools with strong PBIS systems use data, learn new practices, and build systems tailored to the 10-15% of their student population that need a small level of additional support.
And, since they anticipate a small group students needing additional support, they can plan ahead. Most schools use Check-in / Check-out (CICO) as their first-line Tier 2 intervention because CICO is easy to implement and tends to work quickly. Some schools may recruit counselors, deans, and administration to mentor 2-3 students.
When Tier 2 PBIS is in place, teachers begin each year knowing what they can do to support students who need a little bit extra love to be their best, and students who need extra support know that the adults in charge expect them to succeed and are ready to help.
Tier 3 PBIS: Seek emergency treatment.
But what if you tried to rest and fluids, and your flu gets worse? Some people’s flu may be severe enough to require an intense level of treatment and care. Similarly, Tier 3 PBIS is about being ready to help the small group of students who need a more intensive plan designed specifically for them. At this level, teams learn how to analyze what triggers an individual student’s challenging behavior and why the behavior seems to persist. Then, the team creates a feasible support plan and sets goals for the student.
Students needing Tier 3 support usually require an intense level of intervention that involves more than what a classroom teacher could provide alone. This rarely means changing where a student learns. In fact, the presumption throughout PBIS is that with the right data informing our decisions, strong systems in place that allow us to respond quickly, and effective practices that match the student’s needs, all students can be successful in the classroom setting alongside peers.
The right treatment for the right reason
The core philosophy of PBIS is that our students will succeed academically and emotionally when 1) we are proactive about teaching positive expectations and skills and, 2) we provide children and youth abundant positive feedback for demonstrating the expectations and skills we have taught them. This means starting with a strong initial Tier 1 implementation; planning ahead for how to develop strong systems, data, and practices at Tier 2; and then at Tier 3 to support the high levels of academic and social emotional learning that we know our students can achieve.