Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports: The Importance of School Climate

February 27, 2014

By Pascael Beaudette

Schools around Georgia and the nation are implementing Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) to create a positive school environment that is conducive to learning and acknowledges appropriate behavior.  PBIS is a tiered framework that provides a proactive and preventive system for addressing undesirable behaviors. This e-bulletin explains the principles of PBIS, Georgia’s implementation of it, and early outcomes in the state and across the nation.

“Through a problem‐solving approach, the PBIS framework begins with examining and improving the entire school climate.  Teams use data to examine the reasons behaviors are occurring and then implement changes and interventions designed to address the identified needs. PBIS is a preventative and proactive system of addressing discipline problems that includes fair and consistent discipline practices unlike traditional discipline methods that have addressed discipline problems through punishment.” 

-Georgia Department of Education, The Strategic Plan: 2014-2020

The History of PBIS

PBIS has its roots in the 1980s, when researchers at the University of Oregon began to study systematically the effectiveness of discipline strategies for students with behavioral disabilities.  The federal Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) of 1997 included a grant to establish a national center to provide technical assistance to schools wishing to implement PBIS.[1]  The Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE) began working with the PBIS national center in 2008 to develop a PBIS network in Georgia.  Since that time, the Georgia PBIS (GaPBIS) team has trained and provided technical assistance educators in over 400 schools to implement PBIS.[2]

PBIS in Contrast to Traditional Discipline Approaches

In the traditional discipline model, educators respond to inappropriate behavior punitively after it has occurred and acknowledge inappropriate behavior more often than positive behavior.  Staff often administer the consequences inconsistently and do not teach the expected behavior. 

In contrast to the traditional approach, PBIS shifts the focus to appropriate behaviors.  Educators actively teach students what constitutes appropriate behavior in all aspects of school, from the bus to the classroom to the cafeteria, and reinforce these behaviors school-wide by acknowledging appropriate behavior. PBIS provides a continuum of interventions and supports based on the needs of students.  A four-tiered prevention model is used to address the continuous needs of all students.  Typically, 80% of students will respond to the structure and system provided by the PBIS framework. [3]  If students are in need of more intensive supports, then they receive interventions in the form of a group (Tier 2) or through a specific plan that addresses their unique needs (Tier 3 or 4).  The figure below shows the tiers in Georgia’s PBIS system.

Figure 1: Tiers of Georgia's PBIS System

Pyramid of four tiers of PBIS in Georgia

Source: Georgia Department of Education.  2013.  “Addressing Climate, Safety, and Discipline in Georgia Schools.”

PBIS is a process unique to each school, not a program with pre-specified criteria.  Teachers and staff at each school determine the definitions of appropriate behavior.  In fact, involving staff in all steps of the process helps to ensure the success of PBIS.  Additionally, the PBIS process continually adapts to meet the schools’ changing needs.  Collecting and analyzing data also play an important role; schools must ensure that the chosen interventions lead to the desired results. 

The table below summarizes the differences between PBIS and the traditional model of discipline.

In a school with PBIS…
In a school with traditional discipline…
  • A positive school environment is evident.
  • Staff and students are reactive and negative toward inappropriate behavior.
  • Educators teach, monitor, and acknowledge appropriate behavior before relying on punishment.
  • Parents and students are provided with the Code of Conduct and the consequences if students violate the rules.
  • Adhering to school-wide expectations and rules are taught and recognized.
  • Inappropriate behavior is more likely to be acknowledged than positive behavior.
  • A predictable, consistent, fair, and equitable disciplinary system is the norm.
  • Disciplinary practices, which are not based on data or research, are inconsistent.  Consequences often lead to ISS/OSS (loss of instruction).
  • The school has a tiered support system to meet the needs of all students.
  • A system for providing students with a continuum of support is not present.

Source: Georgia Department of Education.  2013.  “Addressing Climate, Safety, and Discipline in Georgia Schools.”

PBIS in Georgia

Districts interested in implementing PBIS complete readiness activities, such as forming a district PBIS leadership team, allocating funding to PBIS, and collecting and analyzing discipline data.  Five GaDOE employees comprise the GaPBIS team that offers training and technical assistance to the district’s PBIS leadership team members, who assist school-based staff with implementation.  Although the GaPBIS team provides training free of charge, districts must fund the additional personnel costs for PBIS.  These costs vary by district, as some districts are able to reallocate current personnel to implement PBIS, while others receive grants to cover these costs.

Schools must implement PBIS with fidelity to realize improved student outcomes.  The GaPBIS team analyzes each school’s fidelity of implementation, and the team assigns schools to one of three levels of PBIS implementation.  Schools in the first level are considered “trained” schools, meaning they are in the beginning stages of implementing PBIS.  “Emergent” schools comprise the middle category whereby they have developed most of the critical elements of PBIS.  Schools implementing PBIS with a very high degree of fidelity are deemed “operational” schools.  For the 2012-13 school year, 75 schools were considered “operational” PBIS schools, and 46 additional schools landed in the “emergent” category.[4]

Active PBIS Districts with Implementing Schools

Barrow County

Ben Hill County

Burke County

Cobb County

Columbia County

Evans County

Fannin County

Floyd County

Franklin County

Fulton County

Glynn County

Griffin-Spalding County

Gwinnett County

Jackson County

Jefferson County

Jones County

Lee County

Lincoln County

Madison County

Monroe County

Murray County

Newton County

Oconee County

Tift County

Thomasville City

Source: Appendix C of the Strategic Plan and the GaDOE staff

Results of PBIS Implementation

Several Georgia districts have implemented PBIS districtwide and report significant decreases in discipline events.[5]  For example, Griffin-Spalding County Schools has implemented PBIS at the district level since 2009.  Since that time, the number of days students spend out of school as a result of disciplinary activities has decreased by 30%, and the number of bus referrals has decreased by 53%.  Similarly, the Lee County School System, which has also implemented PBIS since 2009, has experienced a 58% reduction in discipline incidents that resulted in office referrals and a 24% reduction in out-of-school suspension days.

Nationally, numerous studies have examined the link between implementing PBIS and improved student behavior, school climate, and academic achievement.[6]  Many of these studies focus on the correlation between PBIS and outcomes, especially academic achievement, rather than more in-depth analysis required to draw causal conclusions about the effects.[7]  Some in-depth studies have found that PBIS implementation improved teacher perceptions of school climate relative to teachers in similar schools not implementing PBIS.  For example, in one analysis of over 7,500 elementary schools, researchers found that staff at PBIS schools were more likely than staff at non-PBIS schools to perceive the school climate favorably.[8]  Another study of schools in Hawaii and Illinois found that staff in PBIS schools perceived their schools as safer than staff in non-PBIS schools.[9]  In another analysis of 37 elementary schools, teachers in PBIS schools reported that the children exhibited lower levels of aggressive and disruptive behaviors, higher levels of positive behaviors, and better emotional regulations.[10]  In that analysis, girls at PBIS schools were less likely to receive office referrals for discipline problems, but implementing PBIS did not have an effect on boys’ office referrals or the number of suspensions for both genders.[11]  In terms of academic achievement, most studies have established a positive relationship between PBIS implementation and student achievement, but studies seeking to establish a causal relationship have not found a statistically significant impact.[12]

In summary, as Georgia schools increasingly implement PBIS and cite evidence of improved student discipline and school climate, rigorous analyses should be conducted on the impact of PBIS implementation on these outcomes as well as student achievement.

Plans for the Future

In August 2013 and January 2014, education stakeholders from the public and private sectors met to develop a strategic plan that charts the expansion of PBIS in Georgia.[13]  The Strategic Plan lists five strategic goals for the PBIS program from 2014 through 2020:

  1. Increase awareness and visibility of PBIS
  2. Expand the infrastructure to lead and support PBIS implementation

Currently, the GaPBIS team is comprised of four program specialists and a program manager.To increase PBIS support, the Strategic Plan recommends creating new support positions within each Regional Educational Service Agency (RESA) and increasing collaboration with existing PBIS experts at Georgia colleges and universities.Governor Deal’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2015 includes funding for additional PBIS trainers within each RESA.[14]

  1. Increase training and coaching capacity at all tiers on the PBIS continuum

GaPBIS will develop standardized readiness processes and curricula as well as create a coaching and technical assistance model for district PBIS coordinators.

  1. Develop a comprehensive PBIS evaluation system

GaDOE will form an evaluation team, create a comprehensive process and reporting schedule for evaluation, and publish an annual evaluation report.

  1. Engage community stakeholders in PBIS

Child-serving state agencies and community stakeholder groups will incorporate PBIS shared beliefs and common language into their goals and objectives.GaPBIS will seek to increase the number of schools engaging with PBIS.


As an alternative to a traditional discipline system, PBIS provides a framework that uses data to guide, integrate, and implement evidence-based behavioral practices for improving school climate when implemented with fidelity.  Education stakeholders from the public and private sectors are striving to increase Georgia’s PBIS infrastructure and assistance to promote the adoption of PBIS across the state.  Preliminary results from Georgia’s PBIS districts show promising improvements, but more in-depth research is needed to establish the causal effects of PBIS on academic achievement.


[1] Sugai, George and Brandi Simonsen.  2012.  “Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports: History, Defining Features, and Misconceptions.”  http://www.pbis.org/common/pbisresources/publications/PBIS_revisited_June19r_2012.pdf

[2] Georgia Department of Education.  2014.  “Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports of Georgia: The Strategic Plan 2014-2020.”   https://www.gadoe.org/Curriculum-Instruction-and-Assessment/Special-Education-Services/Documents/PBIS/GaDOE%20PBIS%20Strategic%20Plan.pdf.

[3] In other words, 80% of students will have one or fewer office discipline referrals per month.  Source: http://www.pbis.org/school/primary_level/default.aspx

[6] For example:

Bradshaw, Catherine P., Mary M. Mitchell, and Philip J. Leaf.  2010.  “Examining the Effects of Schoolwide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports on Student Outcomes: Results from a Randomized Controlled Effectiveness Trial in Elementary Schools.”  Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions 12(3): 133-148.  

Lassen, Stephen R., Michael M. Steele, and Wayne Sailor.  2006.  “The Relationship of School-Wide Positive Behavior Support to Academic Achievement in an   Urban Middle School.”  Psychology in the Schools 43(6): 701-712.

Luiselli , James K., Robert F. Putnam, Marcie W. Handler, and Adam B. Feinberg.  2005.  “Whole-School Positive Behaviour Support: Effects on Student Discipline Problems and Academic Performance.” Educational Psychology 25(2-3): 183-198.

Muscott, Howard S., Eric L. Mann, and Marcel R. LeBrun.  2008.  “Effects of Large-Scale Implementation of Schoolwide Positive Support on Student Discipline and Academic Achievement.”  Journal of Positive Behavior Intervention 10(3): 190-205.

Sherrod, Maria Dunn, Yvette Q. Getch, and Jolie Ziomek.  2009.  “The Impact of Positive Behavior Support to Decrease Discipline Referrals with Elementary Students.”  Professional School Counseling 12(6).

[7] Other reviews of the literature on the relationship of PBIS and student achievement arrive at similar conclusions regarding the lack of causal analyses.  For example:

Putnam, Robert F., Robert H. Horner, and Robert Algozzine.  “Academic Achievement and the Implementation of School-Wide Behavior Support.” PBIS Newsletter 3(1).  Available at: http://www.pbis.org/pbis_newsletter/volume_3/issue1.aspx.

Middleberg, Laura, Natasha Williams, and Stacy White.  “PBIS’s Impact on Academics, Family Involvement, Dropout Rates, and Least Restrictive Environment.” Available from the Indiana Department of Education: http://media.doe.in.gov/sservices/docs/2010-11-23-middleberg.pdf.

For the purposes of this analysis, in-depth studies use regression analysis, compare randomized control groups, or develop comparison groups using quasi-experimental methods to determine causation.

[8] Specifically, PBIS increases perceptions of resource influence (“principal’s ability to lobby for resources for the school and positively influence the allocation of district resources), staff affiliation (“warm and friendly interactions, positive feelings about colleagues, commitment to students, trust and confidence among the staff, and sense of accomplishment”).  At the p<0.1 level, PBIS increases perceptions of academic emphasis, described as “students are cooperative in the classroom, respectful of other students who get good grades, and are drive to improve their skills” (p=0.7).

Bradshaw, Catherine P., Christine W. Koth, Katherine B. Bevans, Nicholas Ialongo, and Philip J. Leaf.  2008.  “The Impact of School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) on the Organizational Health of Elementary Schools.”  School Psychology Quarterly 23:4: 462-473.

[9] Horner, Robert H., George Sugai, Keith Smolkowski, Lucille Eber, Jean Nakasato, Anne W. Todd, and Jody Esperanza.  2009.  “A Randomized, Wait-List Controlled Effectiveness Trial Assessing School-Wide Positive Behavior Support in Elementary Schools.” Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions 11(3): 133-144.

[10] Bradshaw, Catherine P., Tracy E. Wassdorp, and Philip J. Leaf.  2012.  “Effects of School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports on Child Behavior Problems.” Pediatrics.

[11] Ibid. Specifically, the study assessed the effect of PBIS on the proportion of third graders who met or exceeded expectations on the state reading exam.

[12] For example:

Bradshaw, Catherine P., Mary M. Mitchell, and Philip J. Leaf.  2010.  “Examining the Effects of Schoolwide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports on Student Outcomes: Results from a Randomized Controlled Effectiveness Trial in Elementary Schools.”  Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions 12(3): 133-148.

Wasilewski. Yvonne, Beth Gifford, and Kara Bonneau. 2008. “Evaluation of the School-wide Positive Behavioral Support Program in Eight North Carolina Elementary Schools.” Center for Child and Family Policy, Duke University.

Ward, Bryce and Russell Gersten. 2013. “A Randomized Evaluation of the Safe and Civil Schools Model for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports at Elementary Schools in a Large Urban School District.” School Psychology Review, 12(3): 317-333.

[13] The Strategic Plan contains a list of the stakeholders in appendices A and B.

[14] Page 190 of “The Governor’s Budget Report: Fiscal Year 2015.” http://opb.georgia.gov/sites/opb.georgia.gov/files/related_files/site_page/FY2015GovernorsReport.pdf.