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What is Community-Based Instruction?

Group of students with their teacher at a museum

At a Glance

Definition and Criteria: Exploring what Community-Based Instruction (CBI) entails and the key criteria that define effective CBI activities.

Benefits of CBI: Discussing the real-world experience, community engagement, and exposure to unique procedures and norms that CBI offers to students.

Potential Pitfalls for Educators: Addressing the challenges in CBI, particularly the risk of enforcing certain behaviors and the pressure educators may feel in public settings.

Welcome to our Community-Based Instruction (CBI) series, where we will be covering some of the ins and outs of this versatile and often important component of teaching community and independent living skills. Throughout this series we will be looking at some examples of CBI, goals you can work toward with the help of CBI, and ways you can plan your CBI outings. 

Today we will be starting with the basics of what CBI is and the common criteria between various CBI activities. 

If you would like to share your own CBI experience or want to see a particular topic related to CBI covered more closely then we would love to hear from you! Just drop us a line at and in the meantime we will dive into what CBI is and what it can do for students!

What is CBI?

Community-based instruction is an umbrella term for a wide range of activities that students can practice in community settings, from skills related to tasks supporting independent living to leisure activities to receiving necessary services, if students are going to the location in question to practice then it likely falls under the CBI category. 

But what makes CBI different from a standard field trip? What should students be learning on site? We have established a list of basic criteria that are worth considering when proposing a CBI-related school trip:

  1. Helps with practicing a skill that is used in a community setting.

  2. Takes place in that community setting.

  3. Shares information about and offers opportunity to work on unique procedures related to receiving services in that location.

  4. Discusses but does not enforce behavior related to unique social norms in that location.

  5. Acts as a safe space where it is OK to make mistakes even though it is set in the community.

If you read multiple sources about CBI, you may eventually run across some that do emphasize “appropriate behavior” as a major component and benefit of CBI. 

The reason we do not consider this a benefit or encourage its instruction is that like other forms of instruction we believe CBI should support student autonomy to make choices, and that while it can be valuable to learn about and practice navigating social norms, we do not want to enforce a world where a student can only exist in one way if they are to be accepted in a particular space. 

There is a marked difference between informing students about the challenges they might face in the world and imposing one of those challenges from our position of authority.

What are some benefits of CBI?

Real World Experience

Try as we might to replicate what happens at a movie theater or a grocery store or a bank in our classroom, there simply isn’t a replacement for going to the location and interacting with people who handle those processes every day. 

In addition to the value of talking to the same people you’d be talking to if you had business in that location, you’re also getting the full sensory experience of that location. While for some people the sensory difference between a classroom and, say, a grocery store might not be a big deal, for others the difference in lighting and smell and noise and the number of people could make it a potentially overwhelming experience. 

A student might learn they need some sensory tools to navigate a particular space, or perhaps just some additional time to charge their battery before that particular trip. If it’s a task or activity that feels integral to independent living or is simply the type of activity that makes life richer and more fulfilling then it is probably worth practicing in person!

Getting to Know People in the Community

One underrated element of CBI, apart from the value of the real world experience itself, is that these trips take place locally and student interactions are likely to occur with members of the community they are also a part of! 

Getting to know people in the community with whom you may be interacting as part of your day to day life can be hugely valuable from an ice breaking standpoint, and for students who may need accommodations in a particular setting having an established relationship with the people who work there can make a huge difference in how well the experience goes. If you are planning a CBI related trip, make sure that getting to know the people on site is a part of the process!

Experiencing Unique Procedures and Norms

The other core reason we teach CBI is that different community settings often have very different procedures and norms around receiving the service that they offer in that location. When you are used to navigating all these different spaces such procedures can feel trivial, but they can be daunting and overwhelming if you have not experienced them before and nobody has bothered to teach you! 

Consider that a restaurant and grocery store are both ultimately about getting food but do not work even close to the same way. Even between different restaurants there can be wildly different procedures, and the clues as to what type of restaurant it is (for example ordering from the counter or the table) aren’t always the most intuitive to look out for. Even if they are not all immediately remembered, just knowing such procedures and norms exist can make it easier to navigate such situations.

Are there any potential drawbacks to CBI?

Enforcing Behavior as Part of Curriculum

As we alluded to earlier, it’s not at all uncommon to see educational resources tout the benefits of using CBI to enforce “appropriate behavior” in the community, and to further lump in behaviors that genuinely need to be addressed immediately (unsafe, actively disruptive) with those that are harmless and can be an important component of a student’s mental health (stimming, scripting). 

The article we previously cited specifically lumped together a decrease of “self-stimulatory, ritualistic, [and] anti-social behaviors” as a part of appropriate work habits. When we enforce masking behavior such as this in a community setting that does not have a clear safety purpose, we run the risk of making those spaces feel hostile to students who do make use of habits like stimming, which is the opposite outcome from what we are hoping such instruction will achieve! 

Pressure to Enforce Behavior in Public Setting

Even when we intellectually understand the importance of not enforcing specific behaviors, the shift in setting from a classroom to a public space can put additional social pressure on us as educators, as we may feel scrutinized by some people who expect us to enforce a certain type of behavior among our students. 

Here it is even more important to be able to draw a distinction between behavior that is genuinely harmful and disruptive versus that which simply stands out as different. 

While it may be perfectly natural to have an emotional response to feeling scrutinized by a stranger in public, it is worth remembering that you are just getting a taste by proxy of what your students might have to deal with in a public setting every day and that as the people primarily affected by that kind of scrutiny they should have some degree of choice as to how they want to navigate those situations. It can be a difficult dynamic to work through sometimes, but it is important to do so to have your students’ backs.


We hope that this introductory article has given you some idea of the lens through which we view CBI, as well as why we will be focusing on this framework throughout the series compared to some other frameworks that might be out there. 

As mentioned at the top, we are always interested in hearing your thoughts on this or any other topic, and if you’d like to let us know what you think about this series so far or where it is headed we would love to hear from you at, and we will be back next week with part 2!

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