TIES TIPS Foundations of Inclusion

TIP #31: Teaching PBIS Tier 1 School-wide Behavioral Expectations to Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities

TIES Center, TIES Inclusive Practice Series (TIPS).


Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is a three-tiered continuum of behavioral support that organizes the strategies used to teach and acknowledge positive behaviors and prevent challenging behaviors. Over 20,000 schools in the United States currently use PBIS (pbis.org). The focus of PBIS Tier 1 is to teach all students the school's behavioral expectations and how these expectations are demonstrated across the different areas in the school (e.g., cafeteria, hallway, recess). When students follow behavioral expectations, school personnel acknowledge and reward students for their positive behavior.

Even though PBIS systems are meant to include all students in a fully inclusive framework (Kurth & Enyart, 2016), students with significant cognitive disabilities, especially those educated in self-contained classrooms, are often excluded from accessing all three tiers of PBIS (Walker, 2018). This creates a situation where students with significant cognitive disabilities may be educated in segregated special education classrooms due to challenging behaviors, but then are unable to access the PBIS research-based strategies that could improve their behavioral outcomes. This TIES TIP provides specific strategies for teaching PBIS Tier 1 behavioral expectations to students with significant cognitive disabilities.


Students with significant cognitive disabilities can successfully participate in and benefit from PBIS Tier 1 when it is made accessible. School-wide behavioral expectations describe important social and community skills that all students need to learn. These expectations can be taught to students with significant cognitive disabilities using the same effective teaching strategies used to teach other skills (Loman et al, 2018) including the use of universal design for learning (UDL), accommodations and modifications, systematic instruction in natural environments, and strategies for generalization. School teams can provide the support needed for students with significant cognitive disabilities to learn and demonstrate schoolwide expectations (Walker et al, 2021). In addition, learning and practicing the same school-wide expectations with their peers in general education leverages the educational power of peer modeling and support.

Students with significant cognitive disabilities who demonstrate challenging behavior generally only have access to Tier 3 PBIS (intensive behavior support) in the form of an individualized behavior intervention plan (BIP). However, research tells us that when these students receive all three tiers of PBIS they often demonstrate greater behavioral improvement than those who receive only Tier 3 support (Loman et al., 2018).

Implementation Strategies

1. Use Universal Design for Learning (UDL) concepts when designing PBIS lesson plans.

The three UDL concepts (Figure 1) are:

  • Multiple means of engagement- maximize student attention and interest in the learning activities;
  • Multiple means of representation- help students understand concepts and make connections to prior knowledge;
  • Multiple means of expression- give students a variety of ways to show what they know (CAST, 2018).

The Three Major Concepts of Universal Design for Learning (CAST, 2018 )

Here are some strategies for how UDL strategies can support students with significant cognitive disabilities to learn school-wide behavioral expectations:

Multiple means of engagement

  • Short, focused lessons
  • High levels of reinforcement
  • Leverage student preferences
  • Link to prior knowledge

Multiple means of representation

  • Visual supports
  • Peer models
  • Social narratives
  • Videos

Multiple means of expression

  • Role play
  • Pointing to pictures
  • Drawing
  • Multiple choice questions

2. Ensure that PBIS school-wide expectations are accessible to all students.

Use language that is accessible to students in all grade levels. Add visuals to all material describing the school-wide behavioral expectations to support emerging readers.

Hallway Expectations

Be Respectful

Keep hands and feet to self

Be Responsible

Put trash in the garbage

Be Responsible

Use hall pass

Be Ready to Learn

Walk quietly to your destination

Ensure that posters are at waist height to allow access by students using wheelchairs. Consider audio descriptions for students who have visual impairments.

If a student responds well to the use of social narratives or power cards, then use a similar format when describing the school-wide behavioral expectations. For example, here is an social narrative "Being Responsible" in the Hallway.

Be responsible in the hallway.

  • Being responsible means putting your trash in the garbage.
  • Being responsible means using a hall pass.

3. Use evidence-based teaching strategies that have proven effective for individual students.

It is helpful to use visual structures that are familiar to the student as a way to support their understanding of the behavioral expectations they are learning. Tools such as first/then boards and picture schedules can be modified to support student learning. Breaking down school-wide expectations into smaller steps is another way to adapt school-wide expectations. For example, this illustration of visual support breaks down the school-wide expectation of “Being Respectful” into two behaviors that can then be taught, practiced, and reinforced.

Two images side-by-side. The image on the right has the title, "first", and the words, get in line, with an illustration of a teacher and a line of elementary students. The second image has the title, "then", above it and the words, go to lunch, with an illustration of elementary students eating together at a lunch table.

4. Provide multiple practice opportunities across a variety of settings.

Students with significant cognitive disabilities may need more opportunities to practice as they learn a new skill. It is important that the students practice emerging skills in all of the school environments where they will be expected to demonstrate those skills, such as in the classroom, the cafeteria, and the playground.


Students with significant cognitive disabilities can and should participate in all three tiers of school-wide PBIS. Using the strategies above will move you forward in your journey to create a fully inclusive school community!


  • CAST. (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. http://udlguidelines.cast.org
  • Kurth, J. A., & Enyart, M. (2016). Schoolwide positive behavior supports and students with significant disabilities. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 41(3), 216–222. https://doi.org/10.1177/1540796916633083
  • Loman, S. L., Strickland-Cohen, M. K., & Walker, V. L. (2017). Promoting the accessibility of SWPBIS for students with severe disabilities. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 20(2), 113–123. https://doi.org/10.1177/1098300717733976
  • Walker, V. L., & Loman, S. L. (2021). Strategies for including students with extensive support needs in SWPBIS. Inclusive Practices, 1(1), 23–32. https://doi.org/10.1177/27324745211000307
  • Walker, V. L., Loman, S. L., Hara, M., Park, K. L., & Strickland-Cohen, M. K. (2018). Examining the inclusion of students with severe disabilities in school-wide positive behavioral interventions and supports. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 43(4), 223–238. https://doi.org/10.1177/1540796918779370

The information in this Brief is not an endorsement of any identified products. Products identified in this Brief are shared solely as examples to help communicate information about ways to reach the desired goals for students.

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • McDaid, P., & Conradi, L. A. (2023). Teaching PBIS Tier 1 School-wide Behavioral Expectations to Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities (TIPS Series: TIP #31). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, TIES Center.

TIES Center is the national technical assistance center on inclusive practices and policies. Its purpose is to create sustainable changes in kindergarten-grade 8 school and district educational systems so that students with significant cognitive disabilities can fully engage in the same instructional and non-instructional activities as their general education peers, while being instructed in a way that meets individual learning needs. TIES Center is led by the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, and includes the following additional collaborating partners: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North Carolina – Charlotte, and University of North Carolina – Greensboro.

TIES Center is supported through a Cooperative Agreement (#H326Y170004) with the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

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