Teach By Design
Aug 8, 2023

Anatomy of a Framework: Demystifying the Elements of PBIS

PBIS is a framework, but what does that mean? Here are the systems, practices, and data you need to implement to support your schoolwide efforts.

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Have you ever said a word so many times you start to forget what it means? Repeat the word “door” over and over and over again and tell me it doesn’t sound like nonsense. What about words you assume have one definition when they actually mean something completely different? I thought calling something “infamous” was a good thing (It isn’t) and the color “cerulean” was absolutely green (It’s absolutely blue).

Lately, a new contender in the battle of real vs. imagined definitions has entered the chat: Framework. It’s a word that comes up a lot when we talk about PBIS because PBIS is a framework. I say that sentence all the time. I thought I knew exactly what it meant. Then a new person joined our PBISApps team (Everyone say hello to Jeslyn) and she needed us to define the PBIS framework.

Team, I drew a blank.

It was embarrassing.

Framework. Framework. Framework. It stopped making sense. I needed an expert.

The Center on PBIS recently published an updated version of The PBIS Implementation Blueprint. In it, they define PBIS as: “an evidence-based, multi-tiered, problem-solving, and team-based framework educators use to build a continuum of supports to promote all students’ social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health.”1 It’s a perfect starting point for describing what this framework is and what it’s meant to do.

PBIS is…

Let’s break this definition into parts. PBIS is:

  • Evidence-based: The fundamental components of the framework are rooted in research. Any implementer should know when they commit to PBIS, they commit to a framework backed by decades of evidence demonstrating the impact it has on improving student outcomes.
  • Multi-tiered: The framework spans a continuum of support to meet students where they are and build on the strengths they bring to their school day. There is something in PBIS for everyone.
  • Problem-solving: The framework requires a process of continuous improvement. As problems emerge, there are systems to identify goals, define problems with precision, implement a plan of action, evaluate the plan’s impact, and make changes as needed.
  • Team-based: The work of implementing PBIS isn’t accomplished by one person. It requires a team of people, representing the larger schoolwide community, sitting down to address the issues together.

Which brings us to the word, “framework” in the definition.

What is a Framework?

A framework is a supporting structure. That’s it. It’s really simple. Frameworks support everything from physical buildings to theoretical concepts to software development. In fact, most of the literature out there defining the benefits of a framework comes from the field of software development. My colleague Devin Sullivan is a developer here at PBISApps. He uses a framework every day to streamline his process. The way he describes it, a framework hands him the tools he needs to do his job without dictating exactly how to use them. It makes his work more efficient and keeps the code he writes with other developers more consistent.

The more we talked, the more I understood what it means when we say “PBIS is a framework.” We mean PBIS is a supportive structure we build upon to create safer, more equitable schools. It’s the framework that makes our systems more efficient and our implementation more consistent.

As with all frameworks, there is a visual model to help us describe the elements.

The Circles

For those familiar with PBIS, there are two models that come to mind: The Triangle representing the multi-tiered nature of the framework (we’ll get to that in an upcoming article) and The Circles representing the essential elements.

The Circles model is a set of three overlapping circles labeled “Data,” “Systems,” and “Practices,” with “Equity” labeled in the center where the circles come together. This Venn diagram is surrounded by a fourth circle labeled “Outcomes.” Together, the diagram is a visual representation of the way the essential elements work together to achieve specific goals.

So, what are these data, systems, and practices, bound together by equity, working together to achieve desired outcomes? For an answer to that question, we turn to our favorite survey, the Tiered Fidelity Inventory (TFI)

The TFI is a survey PBIS teams use to evaluate the fidelity of their implementation across one, two, or all three tiers. Each of the items on the survey asks you to score a core feature of the framework on a scale of 0, not implemented to 2, fully implemented. The TFI is one way to help you answer the question: Are we doing what we said we would do?

If the TFI evaluates the features of PBIS, we should be able to fit each of those features into one of the circles…and if we do that, we give our framework a wider platform to start constructing the version of PBIS that works for our context.

Every iteration of PBIS starts with what you do for all students. Here are the systems, practices, and data to help you construct your schoolwide implementation.


In your PBIS implementation, a key to success revolves around the support you offer to the adults who do the implementing. These supports are your PBIS systems — the policies, procedures, processes, and priorities to keep your efforts going over the long haul. They establish the ground rules and keep everyone moving in the same direction toward the goal you want to achieve. Most importantly, the systems you create reflect the people, cultures, and values walking through your school every day.

The TFI gives us five systems to evaluate related to your schoolwide implementation:

  • Team Composition: Your PBIS team members reflect your larger schoolwide community and have the skills you need to make decisions as a group.
  • Team Operating Procedures: Your PBIS team (or teams) has a regular meeting schedule. They take minutes, team members have roles, and there’s an agenda for every meeting.
  • Behavior Definitions: Behaviors are defined and there is a clear procedure for which behaviors are handled in the classroom and which ones need an administrator.
  • Discipline Policies: You have policies and procedures for handling behaviors in ways that are instructive, restorative, and proactive.
  • Professional Development: You have access to training and orientation on how to teach schoolwide expectations, acknowledge and/or correct student behavior, and ask for help when you need it.


Where the systems you put in place support the adults, your practices support students. Practices are the things you DO WITH your students. They could be anything, but in PBIS, they are always backed by research. Selecting which evidence-based practices you implement is fundamental to your implementation. They should be culturally-relevant, build on the skills and strengths within your school, and offer the support students need to be successful.

The TFI defines the four practices you cannot skip:

  • Behavioral Expectations: These are the positively-stated expectations and examples you set schoolwide for student and staff behaviors.
  • Teaching Expectations: You teach students about your expectations in your classrooms and other spaces in your school.
  • Classroom Procedures: Not only have you implemented expectations and taught them, you’ve also incorporated them consistently into every classroom process.
  • Feedback and Acknowledgement: Adults in your school use and students receive regular, positive feedback related to their behavior.


You shouldn’t have a favorite circle, but around here, the data circle is pretty special — our apps monitoring your fidelity and outcome data fit so neatly inside it! The data element of your PBIS implementation is where you get your information. Data help you choose your next steps, evaluate how things have been going, and sound the alarm when something needs to change. It’s easy to think of data as strictly numbers, but it’s also direct feedback from students and staff about how they experience the systems and practices you’ve put in place. No matter which data you collect, use it to go beyond looking at what’s working for most and start understanding how it works (or doesn’t) for everyone.

The data features of your PBIS implementation include:

  • Faculty Involvement: You regularly share your schoolwide data with faculty and ask them to provide their input on what they like and what could change about your implementation.
  • Student/Family Involvement: You regularly recruit feedback from students and their families about what’s working and not working related to your schoolwide implementation.
  • Discipline Data: Your team has access to summarized reports related to discipline in your school. Those reports breakdown referral data by behavior, location, time of day, individual students, and more. Reports also break your data apart by student demographic data to see how groups of students experience your implementation.
  • Fidelity Data: You regularly assess the fidelity of your implementation. [Spoiler alert: If you’re taking the TFI, you’re assessing your PBIS implementation fidelity.]
  • Data-based Decision Making: Not only do you collect data, you use it at least every month to make decisions as a team.
  • Annual Evaluation: Every year, you summarize your data and share it with your students, families, and staff.

The systems, practices, and data you use to build and evaluate your PBIS implementation are like headers in an outline. The items on the TFI give you your subheads. From there, it’s up to you to fill in the details. Your systems reflect your school’s culture and support the adults in the building to do their best work. Your practices build on your students’ strengths and values to help them find success at school. Your data improve your decision making and hold you accountable to making your implementation work for everyone.

As a framework, PBIS is complex. We’ve started with the broad strokes, but we can do more. Over the course of this school year, we’re going to take each of the schoolwide features in the TFI, explore what they mean, and what they look like in practice.

This is just the beginning. Stay tuned.

1. Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (July 2023). Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) Implementation Blueprint. University of Oregon. www.pbis.org.

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Megan Cave


Megan Cave

Megan Cave is a member of the PBISApps Marketing and Communication team. She is the writer behind the user manuals, scripted video tutorials, and news articles for PBISApps. She also writes a monthly article for Teach by Design and contributes to its accompanying Expert Instruction podcast episode. Megan has completed four half marathons – three of which happened unintentionally – and in all likelihood, will run another in the future.

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