Photo of a group of hifi-school aged teenagers of various ethnic backgrounds smiling at the camera
Educational systems cannot not be considered effective until they are effective for all student groups. PBIS provides an ideal framework for increasing equity in student outcomes. Research shows that schools implementing PBIS with fidelity have greater equity in school discipline, specifically for African American students. However, PBIS teams may need to include equity-focused strategies in their action plans to achieve equitable outcomes for all student groups.

What Is Equity?

In education, equity is "when educational policies, practices, interactions, and resources are representative of, constructed by, and responsive to all people such that each individual has access to, can meaningfully participate, and makes progress in high-quality learning experiences that empowers them towards self-determination and reduces disparities in outcomes regardless of individual characteristics and cultural identities."[1][2]

Why Address Equity?

There are different aspects of equity in education, such as academic achievement or placement in special education or gifted and talented programs. In PBIS, the most common outcome is equity in school discipline, or the reduction of risk for exclusionary discipline such as, office discipline referrals and suspensions based on individual characteristics like race/ethnicity or special education status.

Foundational Elements of Equity in PBIS

Instead of ineffective approaches, such as one-time events or disconnected initiatives, PBIS teams are more likely to increase equity in school discipline when they add explicit equity goals to their action plans. Addressing equity works best as a multi-component approach embedded within their existing PBIS system. The components of equity within a PBIS framework are:

Collect, Use, and Report Disaggregated Discipline Data

A foundational component of any effective practice is using data to

  • Identify the extent of the challenge
  • Understand why it’s happening
  • Plan interventions
  • Monitor progress toward goals

This element of PBIS is even more central for assessing and addressing equity. Any school or district committed to reducing discipline disproportionality should adopt data systems that can disaggregate student data by race, ethnicity, and disability and provide instantaneous access to these data for both school and district teams.

Implement a Preventative, Multi-Tiered, Culturally-Responsive Behavior Framework

School systems can either reflect a biased society or provide a protective buffer against it. To make it a protective place, teams should adopt a behavior framework that is preventive, instructional, and flexible enough to be tailored to the strengths, needs, and values of its students, families, and community. PBIS can be implemented with fidelity only when it is adapted to fit the local context, which means attending directly to aspects of culture.

Use Engaging Instruction to Reduce the Opportunity Gap

Racial disparities in academic achievement are commonly called the achievement gap. This label implies the challenge lies within the student, when really it’s a lack of opportunity for effective instruction causing the divide. It is more instructive to call this disparity the opportunity gap. Teams can ensure each student group has equitable access to engaging instruction by including these four components

  • Using explicit instruction
  • Building and priming background knowledge
  • Increasing opportunities to respond
  • Providing performance feedback.

Develop Policies with Accountability for Disciplinary Equity

Even policies making no mention of race or ethnicity (e.g., zero-tolerance discipline codes) can exacerbate inequities because of their impact on student-teacher interactions. Instead, administrators and policymakers should adopt policies with clear definitions and discipline procedures, replace harmful practices with instructional responses to unwanted behavior, and install accountability for improving outcomes.

Teach Strategies for Neutralizing Implicit Bias in Discipline Decisions

Research increasingly shows the influence of implicit bias on classroom and school discipline decisions.[2],[3]There are strategies educators can use to identify and neutralize their implicit biases before they affect decision making including

  • Identifying vulnerable decision points – specific discipline situations more prone to implicit bias
  • Learning strategies to help educators respond in line with their values.

Equity in a Tiered Framework

Equity is a Tier 1 issue. Teams cannot address inequitable student outcomes by providing Tier 2 and 3 supports to students from groups who receive disproportionate rates of referrals and suspensions.

Tier 1

School PBIS teams build Tier 1 systems honoring students’ cultural strengths by including student voices meaningfully in classroom systems and building positive student-teacher relationships. School personnel can learn about their own cultural backgrounds and personal biases to define and teach school-wide and classroom expectations reflecting the values and norms of their students, families, and communities. To improve relationships, school personnel should use strategies to acknowledge students meaningfully and respond instructionally instead of punitively.

Tier 2

A key equity step for Tier 2 teams is to assess the extent to which access to positive, instructional Tier 2 interventions is consistent across student groups. For example, students from marginalized groups may be under-referred for Tier 2 support, even if their ODR or other screening data indicate a need. In equitable Tier 2 systems, interventions increase instructional opportunities, feedback, and positive home communication with students’ families. Teams may also use interventions such as mentoring from local culturally-specific agencies (e.g., church or Pan-Hellenic groups).

Tier 3

Behavior support plans at Tier 3 are individualized and contextualized. Effective Tier 3 systems include processes to involve students and their family members meaningfully in goal-setting and intervention design. It is critical to build trust and establish systems for two-way communication and shared decision-making, without making inaccurate assumptions about home life or family values regarding education.

Get Started…

For most schools and districts, the very first step to start addressing issues of equity will be to examine discipline data to assess disproportionality and identify an existing team that will build a plan and monitor progress.

It may seem daunting to mobilize schools to address a societal challenge like equity. However, schools are the best place to provide environments where each student feels welcome, safe, and encouraged. At the same time, they are the best places to teach each student how to be a caring and productive citizens in a diverse, multicultural society. Although there may not be interventions that are evidence-based for eliminating the discipline gap, there are enough promising practices within a PBIS approach to do the work to achieve equity in our schools.


There are many resources available for addressing equity in your school. A few basics to get your started include:

Using Discipline Data within SWPBIS to Identify and Address Disproportionality

This guide offers school PBIS teams a resource for using discipline data to address racial and ethnic disproportionality in school discipline practices. It describes a framework and steps for identifying levels of disproportionality, analyzing data, and monitoring effectiveness of action plans.

PBIS Cultural Responsiveness Field Guide

This guide is for trainers and coaches looking to help school teams implement culturally responsive practices to address equity in school discipline.

Key Elements of Policies to Address Discipline Disproportionality

This guide is for districts and school developing policies and procedures to reduce racial and ethnic disproportionality in school discipline. It provides examples of key policy elements, ideas on how to apply these elements in schools, and a tool for assessing policies to enhance equitable discipline.

[1]Fraser, N. (2008) Social right and gender justice in the neoliberal movement: A conversation about welfare and transnational politics. Feminist Theory, 9,225-245.
[2]Great Lakes Equity Center (2012). Educational equity: What’s it all about? An Equi-learn Webinar presentation by Skelton, S & Kigamwa, J., The Great Lakes Equity Center Retrieved from http://glec.education.iupui.edu/archived-webinar-events.html
[3]Girvan, E. J., Gion, C., McIntosh, K., & Smolkowski, K. (2017). The relative contribution of subjective office referrals to racial disproportionality in school discipline. School Psychology Quarterly, 32, 392-404. doi:10.1037/spq0000178

See More/Less


Resources in this section include assessments, blueprints, examples, and materials to aid in implementing PBIS.


Publications listed below include every eBook, monograph, brief, and guide written by the PBIS Technical Assistance Center.


Presentations about their experiences, published research, and best practices from recent sessions, webinars, and trainings


Recordings here include keynotes and presentations about PBIS concepts as well tips for implementation.