Impact of School-Wide Positive Behaviour Interventions and Supports


The impact of poor behaviour in schools can have wide-ranging detrimental affects on learning, wellbeing and social development.

School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (SWPBIS or PBIS), originally created by Horner and Sugai (2006), is a whole-school behaviour intervention program. It has been widely implemented in more than 16,000 schools across the United States, with some studies reporting positive outcomes (Waasdorp et al, 2012; Bradshaw et al, 2010).

The SWPBIS program works on creation of a 3-tiered framework:

  1. Primary Prevention: School-wide systems and procedures involving all students, staff and settings
  2. Secondary Prevention: Specialised interventions for groups of students exhibiting at-risk behaviours
  3. Tertiary Prevention: Personalised systems for individual students with very high-risk behaviours

Schools that apply the framework agree to:

Classroom reward

Schools that applied the PBIS framework, developed systems for recognising pupils’ positive behaviours.

  • Establish a set of positively-phrased, school-wide expectations for behaviour
  • Teach the expectations to pupils and staff within all settings across the school (including lesson times, lunch times, and during after-school clubs)
  • Develop a whole-school system for recognising and celebrating appropriate behaviours (e.g. special privileges, rewards, prizes, certificates, achievement assemblies)
  • Collect various data (e.g. suspension/ exclusion rates, office referrals, certificates, rewards) for monitoring and evaluation

SWPBIS aims to:

  • Increase positive social behaviours
  • Decrease rule violations
  • Develop safer, more respectful school cultures
  • Create calmer learning environments
  • Create strategic support systems for pupils who present more problematic behaviours
  • Provide systems and routines to support adults in implementing the framework consistently and effectively

A team of researchers, led by Catherine Bradshaw and based in Maryland, USA, has recently published a 4-year long randomised controlled trial (RCT), looking at the impact of SWPBIS on a range of pupil behaviours and discipline records in primary (elementary) schools.

What they did

37 primary schools (12,334 children; 52.9% male, 45.1% African American, 46.1% Caucasian, 49% free/reduced price school meals, 12.9% children with special education needs) were included in the RCT and were randomised as follows:

  • 21 randomised to the intervention (SWPBIS)
  • 16 randomised to the control group (No SWPBIS)

Each school in the intervention group created a lead team of teachers and administrators. The following training/ support was given to these staff members:

  • An initial 2-day course, led by a developer of SWPBIS
  • Monthly, on-site support
  • Technical assistance from a trained behaviour support coach for the duration of the trial

Course leaders and coaches received identical training in order to ensure high fidelity.

Measuring Outcomes

Assessors, who were blinded to the intervention statuses of the schools, conducted annual assessments over a 4-year period, using:

  • The School-wide Evaluation Tool (SET)
  • Staff self-reports

Class Teachers completed the Teacher Observation of Classroom Adaptation- Checklist (TOCA-C) (Koth et al, 2009) for each child in their class. This is a commonly used tool that measures each child’s level of:

  • aggressive and disruptive behaviours
  • concentration problems
  • prosocial behaviours (such as empathy)
  • emotion regulation (ability to stop and calm down when angry/upset)

In addition, data was collected on the following:

  • referrals to office for disciplinary reasons
  • out-of-school suspensions

What they found

Hidden catapult

PBIS interventions have a positive effect on aggressive and disruptive behaviours.

PBIS interventions had significant, but small positive effects on:

  • aggressive and disruptive behaviours (Effect size (ES) = 0.12)
  • concentration problems (ES = 0.08)
  • prosocial behaviours (ES = -0.17)
  • emotion regulation (ES = -0.11)

Children in intervention schools were 33% less likely to receive a referral to the office for disciplinary reasons. Statistical analysis revealed that the PBIS intervention had significant positive impact on referral of girls but not of boys.

The authors examined interaction effects between intervention status and grade, cohort, gender and special education needs. From this, they found only one significant difference; children who were in nursery school when the intervention began faired better than those who were not, for prosocial behaviour and emotion regulation.

PBIS interventions did not have a significant impact on:

  • out-of-school suspensions

Limitations of the study

A 4-year group randomised controlled trial provided the data for this paper, which is clearly a big positive. Assessors were blinded to the interventions that the schools were given, which also minimises bias.

Students who left the schools were not followed up, but this is a common issue with education research, as children move from one school to another.

Only public primary schools met the criteria for inclusion.

Staff self-reports are potentially subject to bias.

The authors concluded

These findings provide support for the hypothesized reduction in behavior problems and improvements in prosocial behavior and effective emotion regulation after training in SWPBIS. The SWPBIS framework appears to be a promising approach for reducing problems and promoting adjustment among elementary school children.

The Education Elf’s View

The Education ElfI remember my school days… Just about! I attended a school where discipline was seen as an absolute must, and stepping out of line was certainly not recommended. We behaved well (most of us, most of the time!), and teachers had few reasons to reach for the sanction book. However, we pupils frequently discussed the unfairness and contradictory nature of the behaviour management systems, which we all (quietly) disrespected. Firstly, when anyone was caught mid- or post-misdemeanor, there were different sanctions applied according to your gender, age or the whim of the teacher. We felt particularly disgruntled by the rule declaring that girls should be given detentions and boys should be given a short sharp caning. Now, you must be thinking that I spent my youth in Victorian Britain, but no. This was the1980’s!

Thankfully, so much has changed since the early 80’s, and there is a general understanding (by most UK teachers) that whole-school systems, involving a combination of consistently applied sanctions and rewards, are most effective in assisting happy, calm learning environments. I certainly believe that behaviour management systems need to be fair, mainly positive, and always consistent if they are to inspire children to behave well, and provide the support that is so necessary for pupils and adults in school.

Teacher gives detention

Children from schools implementing PBIS were 33% less likely to be sent to the office for disciplinary reasons. Interestingly, this impact was  significant for girls, but not boys.

This study is an interesting one. It may highlight the need for behaviour systems and procedures to be school-wide and engage every member of the school community, if they are to be effective and consistent. However, further studies are required to precisely determine the elements that lead to improvements in office referrals and teachers’ perceptions of pupil behaviours.

The small, but promising, effect sizes seen here should be put into context. However, it’s hard to do this as the study does not tell us what the control schools did in terms of their behaviour systems, other than the fact that they did not receive the SWPBIS intervention.

Furthermore, it is interesting to note that the impact of SWPBIS is greater when children experience its procedures from nursery age upwards. I wonder if this is due to positive behaviour systems and interventions having greater impact on younger children, or whether it may simply be more effective due to the increased exposure children have to the systems. This poses interesting questions for future research, and considerations for older children beyond primary age.


Bradshaw CP, Waasdorp TE, Leaf PJ Effects of School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports on Child Behavior Problems [Abstract] PEDIATRICS Volume 130, Number 5, November 2012

Bradshaw CP, Mitchell MM, Leaf PJ Examining the Effects of School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports on Student Outcomes: Results from a randomized controlled effectiveness trial in elementary schools [Abstract] Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions (2010)

Waasdorp TE, Bradshaw CP, Leaf PJ The Impact of Schoolwide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports on Bullying and Peer Rejection A Randomized Controlled Effectiveness Trial [Abstract} Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2012;166(2):149-156. (2012)

Schoolwide Evaluation Tool (SET)

Koth CW, Bradshaw CP, Leaf PJ Teacher Observation of Classroom Adaptation−−Checklist: Development and Factor Structure (PDF) Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development 2009 42: 15

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Leah Tomlin

Leah is Assistant Head of Henleaze Junior School in Bristol. She has over 10 years teaching experience, with a further 10 year background in scientific research. She has first hand experience of the challenges faced by teachers and school leaders who have poor access to the evidence, few skills to read and appraise research and little or no time to spend keeping up to date. Here's hoping this blog can help!

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