Today's Choice for Tomorrow's Future

Positive Behavioral Supports and the Law


Since Congress amended the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1997, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports has held a unique place in special education law. PBIS, referred to as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports in IDEA, is the only approach to addressing behavior that is specifically mentioned in the law. This emphasis on using functional assessment and positive approaches to encourage good behavior remains in the current version of the law as amended in 2004.

Why Emphasize PBIS?

Congress' reasons for encouraging the use of PBIS are clear and stem from (a) the historic exclusion of individuals with disabilities based on unaddressed behavior and (b) the strong evidence base supporting the use of PBIS.

In 1972, the court in Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia (348 F.Supp. 866 (D.D.C. 1972)) found that students with disabilities were being excluded from educational opportunities for issues related to behavior (among other reasons). Congress intended to address this exclusion in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, as the Supreme Court in Honig v. Doe (484 U.S. 305 (1988)) clarified, saying:

Congress very much meant to strip schools of the unilateral authority they had traditionally employed to exclude disabled students, particularly emotionally disturbed students, from school (p. 323).

Yet the decision of the Honig court did not end concerns about behavior and discipline of children with disabilities. Congress recognized the need for schools to use evidence-based approaches to proactively address the behavioral needs of students with disabilities. Thus, in amending the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act both in 1997 and in 2004, Congress explicitly recognized the potential of PBIS to prevent exclusion and improve educational results in 20 U.S.C. § 1401(c)(5)(F):

(5) Almost 30 years of research and experience has demonstrated that the education of children with disabilities can be made more effective by—
(F) providing incentives for whole-school approaches, scientifically based early reading programs, positive behavioral interventions and supports, and early intervening services to reduce the need to label children as disabled in order to address the learning and behavioral needs of such children (emphasis ours).

IDEA's Requirements to Use Functional Assessments and Consider PBIS

While Congress recognized the potential of PBIS, it was hesitant to dictate any one educational approach to schools. Indeed, Congress was careful to balance the need to promote the education of children with disabilities and the right of states to govern their own educational systems. IDEA's requirements regarding the use of functional assessments and PBIS reflect this balance. IDEA requires:

  • The IEP team to consider the use of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports for any student whose behavior impedes his or her learning or the learning of others (20 U.S.C. §1414(d)(3)(B)(i)).
  • A functional behavioral assessment when a child who does not have a behavior intervention plan is removed from their current placement for more than 10 school days (e.g. suspension) for behavior that turns out to be a manifestation of the child's disability (20 U.S.C. §1415(k)(1)(F)(i)).
  • A functional behavioral assessment, when appropriate, to address any behavior that results in a long-term removal (20 U.S.C. §1415(k)(1)(D)).

To examine whether federal law (IDEA) requires the IEP team to consider PBIS in response to a particular situation, or to identify other legal requirements for a situation involving the behavior or discipline of a student with a disability, we recommend you try out this online IDEA discipline provisions tool.

IDEA, Professional Development and PBIS

Congress further recognized that, to encourage implementation of PBIS, funds needed to be allocated to training in the use of PBIS. Thus, IDEA provides additional support for the use of PBIS in its provisions by authorizing states to use professional development funds to "provide training in methods of . . . positive behavioral interventions and supports to improve student behavior in the classroom" (20 U.S.C. §1454(a)(3)(B)(iii)(I)). Congress also provided for competitive grant funds that can be used to:

  • Ensure that pre-service and in-service training, to general as well as special educators, include positive behavior interventions and supports (20 U.S.C. §1464 (a)(6)(D) & (f)(2)(A)(iv)(I)).
  • Develop and disseminate PBIS models for addressing conduct that impedes learning (20 U.S.C. §1464(b)(2)(H)).
  • Provide training and joint training to the entire spectrum of school personnel in the use of whole school positive behavioral interventions and supports (20 U.S.C. §1483(1)(C & D)).

Professional development is key to proper implementation of PBIS and the improved behavioral outcomes that PBIS can foster. After all, for an IEP team to truly "consider" the use of PBIS requires knowledge of PBIS, discussion of its use, and the capacity to implement PBIS to improve outcomes and address behavior.

For more information please visit the official PBIS website at