Several years ago, I was beginning my new assignment as an early childhood education manager for the Salt Lake CAP Head Start and began visiting each classroom within the agency. At one point, I came to a classroom that had a girl with challenging behavior issues. The teacher looked at me, pointed to the child, and said, “Help! Fix that kid!” The situation reaction and the plea for help cemented for me the realization that we were badly in need of staff training. At the time, I had only a limited Special Needs staff and I knew that the teachers needed to be given more resources to handle challenging behaviors.
The true success of an early childhood program is enabling a child to function socially and emotionally within the classroom. After all, if a child can learn to function well in a preschool classroom, there is a strong chance that success will follow into the ensuing school years. The National Association for the Education of Young Children has, in fact, devoted an entire section of their new accreditation standards to social-emotional development (NAEYC, 2005).
Happily for us, Salt Lake CAP Head Start was allowed to participate in a Partners In Excellence (PIE) program conducted by the Center for Social Emotional Foundations in Early Learning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, under the direction of US Department of Human Services, National Child Care and Head Start Bureaus (CSEFEL). During this training, participants were introduced to the Teaching Pyramid Model for social and emotional teaching strategies.
Under the instruction of CSEFEL, the teaching and special needs supervisors were trained using this pyramid model. The model is read similarly to the old food pyramid; the larger the piece in the pyramid, the more time the teacher needs to spend in that area. Studies conducted by CSEFEL maintain that teachers, when using this model for classroom organization, were able to prevent many negative behaviors in the classroom. This was replicated at Salt Lake CAP Head Start during the three years they used the Teaching Pyramid Model. Salt Lake CAP Head Start found that there has been a dramatic reduction, each year, in behavior intervention referrals to Special Needs Services. Let’s look at each area of the pyramid and how it can affect the behavior of the children in a classroom.
Building Positive Relationships
The largest portion of the teaching pyramid, as you can see, is devoted to providing positive relationships. One important factor we learned is that positive relationships not only include the teacher/child relationship, but also the teacher/teacher and teacher/parent relationships. Since this is the largest portion of the pyramid, teachers should understand that the largest portion of social and emotional time should be spent in this area.
Assuming that most teachers make efforts to build a wonderful and nurturing relationship with each child, here are suggestions for increasing the energy in that area:
• Positive/Negative Commenting Ratio: One suggestion for improving the positive atmosphere of the entire classroom is to monitor the positive and negative comments given by the teaching staff. The suggested ratio is 8/1. In other words, for every negative comment, there should be at least eight positive comments to counterbalance and enhance the positive atmosphere. Hopefully, early childhood teachers do not use negative comments with children. Teachers should be aware, however, that direct instruction comments are perceived by children as negative comments. For example: “Go get your coat and line up at the door.” We can see that there will always be a need for direct instruction comments in classrooms. Each direct instruction comment, therefore, needs to be offset with eight positive comments, or the teacher can simply rephrase the request. A positive spin on that direct instruction might be: “If you get your coat, we will get to go outside and have some fun.” The atmosphere of our already-positive Head Start classrooms blossomed when we worked towards the 8/1 ratio. Have fellow teachers take turns running a positive/negative ratio count on their colleagues every couple of weeks for a 10-15 minute period.
• Adult Compliments: Nurturing early childhood teachers often compliment children on good behavior or accomplishments to build self-esteem and confidence. Children should also witness teachers complimenting and praising other adults in the classroom setting. Children might witness a teacher say, “Miss Jill, you did a wonderful job reading that fun story.” Modeling positive behavior and complimenting each other is a great example for children and will add to the positive atmosphere in the classroom. It is also helpful in building a positive working relationship between professionals.
• Administrative Support of Teaching Teams: Another important aspect in building positive relationships is to have a strong teaching team. Sometimes this means that administrators need to make sure the teaching team is working well together. A teaching team that does not have a strong positive relationship can undermine the positive feelings in the classroom. Children can easily pick up negative feelings between the teachers or other adult personnel.
Designing Supportive Environments
Classroom design encourages positive behaviors. In fact, it is the next most important consideration when building positive relationships. For years, teachers have rearranged seating and activities when negative behaviors occur. CSEFEL suggests that children respond to the way a classroom is physically arranged and how the daily schedule is maintained. In fact, we know that the school day can be the most organized portion of the child’s life. Recognizing this fact should help teachers realize how critical that organization and dependability must be for each child. Here are some suggestions when creating the classroom or center environment:
• Comfortable Classrooms: One consideration should always be the comfort of the classroom for the children. Teachers must be comfortable in the setting, but special thought needs to be taken in creating an atmosphere that is comfortable and easy to use for the children. One of the first things the teacher should consider when children are running, fighting, or not cooperating is an adjustment of the room. Perhaps an uncomfortable set up is assisting in the creation of negative behaviors.
• Supportive Routines: As mentioned earlier, the school day might be the most organized portion of a child’s life. This structure is critical for many children living in our transient society. It is important for the teacher to provide solid, dependable routines for the children in her care. Many negative behaviors can be avoided simply by having an organized way of doing things. When a child understands what is expected of her and how to reach that expectation, fewer behavior problems will occur. The teacher should look at each routine in the classroom and guarantee that the children know the routine and how to complete the task. These routines should be supported by visual reminders (see next point).
• Visual Rules, Schedules, and Procedures: It is essential that visual rules, schedules, and procedures be incorporated into every early childhood classroom. Many teachers label portions of the classroom with pictures and words that indicate the item or area. It is just as important, if not more so, to have a visual set of classroom rules, a daily schedule, and other forms for organization. The classroom rules should always include pictures of children obeying the rule. The same thing should happen for the daily schedule. Pictures of the children functioning in each part of the day should be displayed as part of the schedule. This is not to say that words should not also be displayed for literacy and language reinforcement. However, the emphasis should be placed on the visual aspect of these classroom routine charts. Other suggested visual charts may include: a home-to-school board, a center choice board, center participation charts, etc.
Social and Emotional Teaching Strategies
Program standards from NAEYC (NAEYC), the Administration of Children and Families (Head Start), state education standards and early childhood programs (POCET) all include specific strategies for social-emotional development in our young children. Regardless of the standards that are required for individual programs, several points are critical:
• Concrete Standards: There should be a concrete, organized set of social and emotional standards for teachers to follow in their classroom instruction. These should not be haphazard rules or lessons that occur only when classroom problems arise.
• Everyday Practice: Since social and emotional skills are behavior skills, they should be used within the every day routines in the classroom. Social and emotional skills should not be taught as a ten-minute lesson on Monday and then forgotten about until “social/emotional” time the next week. Once a skill has been introduced to the children, it should be monitored and encouraged throughout the school day. Constant encouragement and practice should be the rule for effecting positive behaviors.
• Continual Modeling: Social and emotional skills should be continually modeled by the teacher and revisited on a regular basis. Classrooms are much more efficient, effective, and positive when the classroom is a model of good social and emotional behavior.
Individualized Intensive Intervention
In our project with Salt Lake CAP Head Start, we found that there were still a small percentage of children who needed individualized help with behavioral issues. However, classrooms that faithfully followed the first three sections of the teaching pyramid had fewer children in this category. It became evident that only the children with special behavioral needs required additional help when the children were part of a well-run, supportive classroom. This last, and smallest, portion of the pyramid indicates that there are rare times when more support is necessary. Individualized intervention usually includes administrative supervisors and often members of a special needs and special services team. At this point, it is critical for the teacher to work closely with those who provide the additional support and to include the child’s family members.
During the three years that Salt Lake CAP Head Start participated in the Partners In Excellence grant (CSEFEL), we saw remarkable changes in our classroom atmosphere. The number of children exhibiting negative behaviors decreased and the referral rate for special needs services diminished significantly. The most remarkable fact is that during those three years, the number of children with potential behavior issues and children with behavior IEP (Individual Education Plans given by school district for children with a diagnosed disability) children increased. It was evident to those participating that by following the Teaching Pyramid Model, teachers were able to improve behavior issues in the classroom and create a more positive atmosphere.
John Funk was named “Utah Teacher of the Year” in 1996. He has worked as an early childhood specialist for a large school district and has managed early childhood services for Salt Lake CAP Head Start. He is past president of the Utah AEYC. Currently, he is the Manager of Educational Programs for Excelligence Learning Corporation, and he teaches courses in children’s literature and early reading at the University of Utah.
The Center for Social Emotional Foundations in Early Learning (CSEFEL).
Head Start Bureau, The Administration of Children and Families.
POCET, Preschool Observation Checklist and Evaluation Tool, 2006. Discount School Supply.
NAYEC, National Association for the Education of Young Children. Accreditation Standards, 2005. http://naeyc.org/accreditation/standards/standard1/