Comparing PBIS and MTSS


Understanding the difference between PBIS and MTSS can be confusing because they are often used synonymously in education, but there are some small differences that impact their implementation.

What is PBIS?

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, is a schoolwide system that creates a positive learning environment by proactively teaching students the expected way to behave. Schools incentivize good behavior and use a tiered system of support for students who are struggling.

→ Download our PBIS playbook to learn how to implement your program schoolwide

The tiers of PBIS are:

Tier 1: Universal Supports/Practices 

  • Positive support provided to all students to create a positive learning environment and prevent undesirable behaviors from occurring.

Tier 2: Targeted Supports

  • Small group interventions for students who are not responding to Tier 1 support or who are exhibiting extreme behaviors.

Tier 3: Intensive Supports

  • Individualized, intense, targeted supports provided to students struggling with severe behaviors who are not responding to Tier 2 supports.

A common misconception is that PBIS is only a token economy system where educators motivate students to positively behave through tangible rewards. PBIS, just like core content areas, uses direct instruction where schools define key behaviors then model, teach, practice, and reward students for good behavior.

The key word with PBIS is positive. Expectations and directions are clear and phrased positively for students. For example, instead of saying, “Don’t talk” teachers say, “We are silent.” When using PBIS, teachers collect and analyze behavioral data, progress monitor, and use evidence-based interventions for students in tiers 2 and 3.

What is MTSS?

Multi-Tiered Systems and Supports, or MTSS is an instructional framework of multiple tiers of supports that uses universal screeners, assessments, and data to inform decisions at each tier to improve learning outcomes and support all areas of needs for students. It is a system in which struggling students are proactively identified and schools intervene quickly. MTSS focuses on the whole child by looking at academic, behavioral, attendance, social, and emotional data. The goal is for struggling students to catch up to their peers quickly.

The MTSS tiers are: 

Core Classroom 

  • Teachers effectively teach and differentiate research-based curriculum and support students socially, emotionally, behaviorally, and academically.

Small Group Interventions

  • Teachers use research-based, targeted small group interventions to support students who are not responding effectively to whole group support in areas of need.

Individual, Intensive Supports

  • Teachers provide intensive individual interventions based on areas of need for students who are not responding to small group Interventions.

MTSS uses universal screeners, usually three times a year, for all students to help schools make data-driven decisions, progress monitor their evidence-based interventions, and involve all stakeholders in decision making processes. This is extremely important because the beginning of year screeners provide students who are struggling with an opportunity to start receiving interventions sooner rather than later.

How are PBIS and MTSS Different?

Basically, PBIS is under the umbrella of MTSS because PBIS focuses on behavioral supports where MTSS is more robust and includes other data points to focus on the whole child.

Both PBIS and MTSS share best practices like involving stakeholders and using data points to collaboratively discuss and decide upon the best evidence-based interventions for students. Schools that have different teams to analyze academic, behavioral, social/emotional, and attendance data silo themselves into different teams instead of discussing in depth how all parts contribute to a students’ overall performance. This can sometimes lead to having teachers implement interventions that contradict each other. Both PBIS or MTSS make certain that students are receiving the right interventions at the right time to help them grow in areas needing support.

Schools and districts that use either MTSS or PBIS should support teachers with professional development, coaching, technical support, and the data analysis skills needed to ensure assessments, content delivery, and interventions are implemented effectively and consistently.

MTSS and PBIS are tiered systems that provide different supports for students. The ultimate goal of both systems is to ensure that all students are getting the instruction and support they need to learn and succeed in school.