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Professor Heather George awarded $3.3 million grant to build positive school culture

Heather George, PhD

Heather George, PhD

The University of South Florida’s (USF) Department of Child & Family Studies has been awarded over $3.3 million as part of its continued collaboration with the University of Oregon’s Technical Assistance (TA) Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). USF Professor Heather George, who has been Co-PI and Co-Director of the National Center since 2018 and co-wrote the grant application, will continue to co-direct the Center with Professors Kent McIntosh from the University of Oregon and Brandi Simonsen from the University of Connecticut (U-Conn).

The award comes from the US Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE). More than $21 million in new funding will help the Center continue its longstanding mission of supporting all states and U.S. territories in building positive and affirming learning environments within their school for five more years.

Over the past 25 years, the Center has established itself as a leader in the field of education, working together with state and local agencies to improve social, emotional, academic, and behavioral outcomes for all students. Its work is rooted in prevention, centered in equity, based on human-centered science, and only implemented through collaborative partnerships with students, families, educators, and their extended communities.

 “Funding is aligned with the U.S. Department of Education’s work to accelerate learning and improve student achievement,” said USF Professor Heather George. “This is part of their mission to help schools better identify students who need additional support with varying levels of academic, social, emotional, and behavioral needs. This is referred to as multi-tiered systems of support.”

The Center on PBIS is the longest-running center of its kind in the United States, serving more than 27,000 schools across the country. All of the work is done through the Center’s strong relationships and support provided at the state level, which is unique for a national TA Center to actively support all states and U.S. territories.

The evidence-based PBIS framework is built on a tiered model of support. Rather than singling out certain students with behavioral problems, the Center first encourages steps that will improve the climate and culture using a systems approach across the whole school. Then, some students will receive more targeted support, and an even smaller number will receive intensive intervention. This systems perspective is also applied to the adults in the school as well. “No one is exempt. We need to create healthy school climates where safety and well-being are the priority. This includes supporting the adults, so in turn, they can better support their students,” said Professor Heather George.

Many of the interventions that help students with learning disabilities or behavioral challenges do better in school — like predictable routines and positive reinforcement — also help other students. Having clearly stated and shared expectations, co-developed with buy-in from the students and adults within the school, creates an environment that all are invested in. These kinds of schoolwide approaches can decrease the use of punitive discipline strategies, like suspension or removing students from class, and increase a sense of belonging and teacher efficacy.

“When we do something that's really good for everyone, there will still be students who need more support,” said Kent McIntosh, the Philip H. Knight Chair of Special Education in the UO’s College of Education. “But the number is smaller, so it makes it more doable to put those systems in place.”

The strategies promoted by the Center on PBIS are backed by years of educational research. The Center supports schools in a variety of ways: via free resources available on the website, monthly webinars, an annual forum, and targeted support to state-level leadership teams working to implement the systems in schools.

“Unprecedented challenges and disruptions in school over the past few years have affected students and educators in ways we are just beginning to understand,” added Professor Heather George. “Increased gun violence, social isolation, and a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic are having profound implications for academic progress and mental health of all within a school building.”

In the next five years, the Center on PBIS will focus even more on supporting the mental health of teachers and students, providing resources for Institutes of Higher Education to boost preservice programs and new teachers, and centering equity in their work.

Heather George is a Professor in the Department of Child & Family Studies at the University of South Florida and director of the Florida Center for Inclusive Communities (FCIC), a University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD) and Florida Connect, an OSEP-funded model demonstration project focused on interconnecting school mental health and PBIS to improve middle school student outcomes in Marion County School District. In addition to her role with the Center, USF Professor Don Kincaid serves as an implementation partner. They both also serve as co-directors of the state-wide Florida PBIS.

To learn more about the Center on PBIS, visit: or contact Professor Heather George.