Students with Disabilities

High five. Child with downs syndrome giving high five to her teacher in classroom
Creating safe, supportive learning environments for children and youth with disabilities is a critical responsibility of all school personnel. Within a PBIS framework, educators provide a robust continuum of positive, proactive, and inclusive support for all students, including students with disabilities. This reduces demand for more intensive supports and ensures students in need of the most intensive supports receive them. Research indicates implementing PBIS with fidelity improves social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes of students with disabilities.

Why Use PBIS to Support Students with Disabilities?

With the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) and its amendments, Congress recognized schools must be inclusive of all students and use evidence-based approaches to support the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of students with disabilities. Despite this progress, students with disabilities continue to be excluded from general education settings. PBIS is the only approach specifically mentioned in the law for preventing exclusion, improving educational outcomes, and addressing the behavior support needs of students with disabilities. For more detailed information see Why implement Tier 1 PBIS for Students with Disabilities?

Why implement PBIS with students with disabilities? Research shows that when schools implement PBIS, students with disabilities benefit (see details in Table 1, below).

Improved SEB Outcomes Reduced Exclusionary Discipline
  • Higher levels of prosocial behavior and fewer concentration problems (Bradshaw, et. al. 2012)
  • Decreased unexcused tardies (Lane, et. al. 2007)
  • Fewer internalizing and externalizing behaviors (Bradshaw, et. al. 2012; Loman, et. al. 2018)
  • Fewer office discipline referrals (Farkas, et. al. 2012; Jolivette et al., 2014)
  • Fewer suspensions (Bradshaw, et. al. 2012; Gage, et. al. 2019; Simonsen, et. al. 2021)
  • Decreased restraints and seclusions in alternate settings (Grasley-Boy, et. al. 2021)

Using a Tiered Framework to Support Students with Disabilities

Children and youth with disabilities benefit from free, appropriate, public education designed to meet their unique needs. At the same time, we serve students with disabilities best when we integrate their general and specialized supports into the larger school-wide PBIS framework.

Tier 1  

Students with disabilities benefit from Tier 1 when supports  are developed and provided in a way that is accessible and relevant to all. Within classrooms, children with and without disabilities benefit from explicit instruction in social, emotional, and behavioral skills, lots of opportunities to respond, positive acknowledgements, and brief reminders, like prompts and pre-corrections. The suggestions for differentiating Tier 1 below allow students with disabilities to access Tier 1 supports alongside their peers. Check out Supporting Students with Disabilities in the Classroom within a PBIS Framework for more examples of Tier 1 practices.

Tier 2

Students with disabilities who have targeted social, emotional, and behavioral needs may benefit from Tier 2 supports. Tier 2 interventions are targeted to address common needs for small groups of students. (To learn more about Tier 2, visit our Tier 2 topic page.)  One consideration when supporting students with disabilities through Tier 2 interventions is to ensure the Tier 2 intervention does not reduce or replace services outlined in the student’s IEP. Considerations for differentiating Tier 2 supports for students with disabilities are outlined in Figure 1, below.

Tier 3

Tier 3 supports a few students who have intensive or individualized social, emotional, and behavioral needs that persist or remain unmet  with Tier 1 and Tier 2 supports alone. It is important to recognize that Special Education services are not the same as Tier 3 supports. Students with and without IEPs can benefit from Tier 3 supports if Tier 1 and Tier 2 supports alone have not been successful in meeting the student’s needs. Tier 3 supports include designing individualized Behavior Support Plans (BSP) with interventions driven by Functional Behavioral Assessments (FBA). Teams may apply a person-centered or wraparound process to support students with complex needs. These supports place the student and family at the center of the support. (To learn more about Tier 3, visit our Tier 3  topic page.)

Students with disabilities access Tier 3 interventions in two ways

  • As part of typical school practices or
  • As required through the IEP

When a student is suspected to have a disability, teams follow their district policies and procedures to comply with IDEA regulations.

Utilizing PBIS to Support Students with Disabilities: This infographic outlines various techniques for utilizing PBIS practices within each Tier to create more effective and inclusive environments for all students, including students with disabilities. These strategies are offered in order to increase equitable access to Tiers 1, 2, and 3 for students with disabilities (see also, MTSS in the Classroom).


For Educators

  • Are Fewer Students with Disabilities Suspended When Schools Implement PBIS?: This evaluation brief explores the relationship between (a) schools’ implementation of Tier 1 (universal) support within a Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) framework and (b) the proportion of students with disabilities suspended.
  • Supporting Students with Disabilities in the Classroom within a PBIS Framework: In this practice brief, we describe the “top ten” intervention strategies effective educators implement to support all students, including students with disabilities, in their classroom.
  • Supporting Students with Disabilities in the Classroom: Video presentation from the 2020 PBIS Leadership Forum that describes critical features of PBIS to support students with disabilities, discusses how to differentiate and intensify key practices, and highlights Center resources to support students with disabilities at home and school. An exemplar from a therapeutic junior/senior high school that serves students with disabilities shares their experience.

For Families


Bradshaw, C., Waasdorp, T., & Leaf, P. (2012). Effects of school-wide positive behavioral interventions and supports on child behavior problems. Pediatrics, 130, 1136-1145.  
Farkas, M. S., Simonsen, B., Migdole, S., Donovan, M. E., Clemens, K., & Cicchese, V. (2012). Schoolwide Positive Behavior Support in an Alternative School Setting: An Evaluation of Fidelity, Outcomes, and Social Validity of Tier 1 Implementation. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 20, 275-288.
Gage, N. A., Grasley-Boy, N., Peshak George, H., Childs, K., & Kincaid, D. (2019). A quasi-experimental design analysis of the effects of school-wide positive behavior interventions and supports on discipline in Florida. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 21, 50–61.
Grasley-Boy, N. M., Gage, N. A., Lombardo, M., Anderson, L., & Rila, A. (2022). School-wide positive behavior interventions and supports in rural and urban California schools: Effects on fidelity of implementation and suspension outcomes. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 41(2), 84–94.
Jolivette, K., Patterson, D. P., Swoszowski, N. C., McDaniel, S. C., Kennedy, C., & Ennis, R. P. (2014). School-wide positive behavioral interventions and supports in a residential school for students with emotional and behavioral disorders: first years of implementation and maintenance follow-up focus groups. Residential Treatment for Children & Youth, 31(1), 63-79,
Lane, K. L., Wehby, J. H., Robertson, E. J., & Rogers, L. A. (2007). How do different types of high school students respond to schoolwide positive behavior support programs? Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 15(1), 3–20. doi:10.1177/10634266070150010201
Loman, S. L., Strickland-Cohen, M. K., & Walker, V. L. (2018). Promoting the Accessibility of SWPBIS for Students with Severe Disabilities. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 20, 113-123.
Simonsen, B., Freeman, J., Gambino, A. J., Sears, S., Meyer, K., & Hostelton, R. (2022). The relationship between PBIS and discipline outcomes for students with disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 43(5), 287-300.
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.