Promises and pitfalls of PBIS Part 1: Importance of an equity-centered approach

Part 1 of Equity and PBIS: This is the introductory post of our series “An Equity-Centered Approach of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS)”.

Children playing together

Students who are Black, Latinx, and Native American are more likely than White students to be suspended or expelled – even when comparing consequences for the same infractions1. This racial and ethnic disproportionality in school discipline can be a significant barrier to equitable educational achievement and lifelong wellbeing for students of color. Many researchers and educators are invested in examining current systems that may contribute to exclusionary discipline and implementing school-based solutions to support students of color more effectively. Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS for short, is one widely adopted framework that is intended to provide supports at different intensities to address a variety of students’ needs and strengths. An equity-centered PBIS framework that is implemented with fidelity can serve as a critical component of a school system’s broader efforts to address discipline disproportionality.

Researchers have found that when PBIS is implemented as intended with fidelity, it can reduce exclusionary discipline practices that disproportionately target Black, Latinx, and Native American students.2 However, centering equity is critical to achieving these kinds of results. As with any program or practice, PBIS is not immune from a legacy of racism. Some researchers have further argued that because school administrators select appropriate behaviors and expectations, these targets will nearly always represent Eurocentric points of view, creating disconnects with many students’ cultures3. Moreover, without careful attention to issues such as implicit bias and cultural responsiveness, school administrators and teachers may unintentionally reinforce racist and exclusionary practices.4

PBIS will not be an effective strategy that supports all students equitably without strong systems-wide supports. Some of the PBIS approaches centering equity will require fundamental re-thinking and re-organizing standard approaches to school discipline. Teachers and school leaders will need professional development and coaching to support them as they incorporate these practices; school-wide and instructional changes may take time to successfully implement. But the harm to students caused by disproportionate exclusionary discipline is an urgent problem in need of school-wide change. PBIS approaches with careful attention to equity is one tool that schools can use to address it.

To learn more about how to implement PBIS in ways that will help ensure equitable outcomes for all students, we spoke to Dr. Kent McIntosh – a professor at the University of Oregon and Co-Director of the Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports and lead of the Center’s Equity Workgroup. When it comes to deciding when to start implementing an equity-focused PBIS approach, Dr. McIntosh shared, “The best time was right when you started, and the second best time is tomorrow.” To counteract potential pitfalls in PBIS implementation, Dr. McIntosh highlighted five key components to reduce disproportionality in school discipline when implementing a PBIS approach5:

  1. Collect, use, and report disaggregated discipline data
  2. Implement a behavior framework that is preventive, multi-tiered, and culturally responsive
  3. Use engaging instruction to reduce the opportunity (achievement) gap
  4. Develop policies with accountability for disciplinary equity
  5. Teach strategies for neutralizing implicit bias in discipline decisions

We will take a deeper dive into a few of these key components in two upcoming blog posts: a post on approaches to engage students and families in equity-focused PBIS and a post on strategies educators can use to neutralize implicit bias.

Resources for Ongoing Learning

We compiled the information for this post from the following available resources created by the Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.

  • The research report Do Schools Implementing SWPBIS Have Decreased Racial and Ethnic Disproportionality in School Discipline? examines discipline disproportionality among schools implementing school-wide PBIS with fidelity compared to the entire population of schools in the U.S.
  • The 5-point intervention approach for enhancing equity in school discipline memo details a multicomponent approach to reduce discipline disproportionality in schools.
  • The PBIS Cultural Responsiveness Field Guide: Resources for Trainers and Coaches includes resources that can be used to build a comprehensive school-wide action plan to enhance cultural responsiveness of PBIS frameworks.

Read Part 2 of our Promises and Pitfalls of PBIS Series: Engaging Students and Families in Equity-Focused PBIS


1 Skiba, R. J., Horner, R. H., Chung, C., Rausch, M. K., May, S. L., & Tobin, T. (2011). Race is not neutral: A national investigation of African American and Latino disproportionality in school discipline. School Psychology Review, 40(1), 85–107.
2 McIntosh, K., Gion, C., & Bastable, E. (2018a) Do schools implementing SWPBIS have decreased racial and ethnic disproportionality in school discipline? Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs and Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.
3 Wilson, A. N. (2015). A critique of sociocultural values in PBIS. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 8(1), 92–94.
4 Leverson, M., Smith, K., Mcintosh, K., Rose, J., & Pinkelman, S. (2021) PBIS cultural responsiveness field guide: Resources for trainers and coaches. Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs and Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.
5 McIntosh, K., Girvan, E. J., Horner, R. H., Smolkowski, K., & Sugai, G. (2018b). A 5-point intervention approach for enhancing equity in school discipline. OSEP Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.

Topics: Multi-tiered systems of support School climate School-wide prevention

Tags: Antiracism Equity Expulsions/suspensions