He was the same age as all the other children in the preschool class but twice their size.
“This little boy controlled all play with other children,” said Kate Tacy, a Staunton City Schools teacher. “He was not a mean child, he just didn’t have the language for back-and-forth play. He assigned all the roles, he put items in other children’s hands, and he told them how to use them.”
Sometimes, the four-year-old would back children into a corner to ensure compliance.
In the past, Tacy may have endured considerable frustration dealing with the behavior of a child like this. Last year, though, she participated in a pilot project called Social Competence in Preschool, or SCIP. Led by Tina Stanton-Chapman and Martha Snell, special education professors in the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, SCIP’s goal was to develop an evidence-based intervention for dealing with problem preschooler behavior. They then tested their strategies in ten Virginia classrooms to see if their recommendations were both effective in changing children’s behavior and feasible for teachers to incorporate into their classroom routines.
The SCIP team adapted an approach called “Positive Behavior Support,” and developed a three-tiered method for addressing multiple levels of misbehavior. They also developed a system for coaching teachers to use a problem-solving process to identify the reason for children’s problem behavior, with the aid of classroom video, and to analyze circumstances surrounding the problem behavior. They then assisted classroom staff to develop an action plan to prevent the problem behavior and to teach and reinforce appropriate behavior.
Tier 1, or universal, strategies are used with all children and aim to prevent misbehavior and reinforce expected appropriate behavior. These methods might include clearly defining appropriate behavior to students, providing rewards for appropriate behavior and limiting periods of time when students are not constructively occupied, such as waiting in lines.
Results from observations and surveys taken in the ten participating preschool classrooms indicate that after using Tier 1 universal strategies, classrooms experienced fewer occurrences of problem behavior overall, with the most marked changes showing up in classes with higher initial rates of problem behavior.
Some children who exhibit problem behaviors need additional help, so teachers go to the Tier 2 strategy. This is an explicit approach to teaching social skills, called the Social Pragmatic Storybook Intervention, which was developed by Stanton-Chapman. It uses storybooks, theme toys and instruction to teach children how to initiate play and how to respond, share and cooperate with others. A storybook about construction play, for example, shows two children interacting with blocks. The books provide examples of appropriate social skills for playing together:
“Thomas says, ‘Aaliyah, let’s build a house.’
Aaliyah listens and then says, ‘Okay.’
Thomas sits next to Aaliyah to build the house.”
“Many children don’t have the language or don’t know how to appropriately ask their peers to play,” Stanton-Chapman said. “They may act out instead, taking the toy or hitting to get what they cannot ask for.”
In the study teachers identified one child from each classroom, whose problem behavior was related to their inability to play interactively with other children. These children each received the Tier 2 intervention. Afterwards, nine of the ten children increased their interactive play and decreased non-interactive play.
The strategy clearly held the key for improving the behavior of the boy in Tacy’s class. His social skills improved dramatically, she said. “Watching him evolve was absolutely amazing. He was like a different child, having two-way conversations and not forcing play at all.”
Tacy said that when SCIP coach Mary Voorhees first introduced the strategies to her, she was skeptical. As she watched the videotapes of her student’s play, though, she saw an almost immediate change in the boy. “I became a believer,” she says.
For both tiers 1 and 2, teachers said that the strategies were feasible for use in their classrooms and that the interventions had positive effects on the students.
The third tier developed by SCIP is targeted at the remaining 4-5 percent of children who continue displaying problem behaviors even after tiers 1 and 2 have been applied. Teachers attempt to understand the reasons for the child’s behavior and develop an individualized plan to address it. From across the ten classrooms only three children were identified who needed this level of intervention. One child had problems during clean-up times, throwing toys, hitting teachers and children, climbing on tables and book shelves, and attempting to leave the classroom. Another child would not participate in group activities like singing and listening to a story. The third child had significant delays in social skills and also refused to participate in group activities. He would hit, bite, and spit when directed to join the circle of students.
After the intervention, all three children showed improved behavior. Teachers said that the strategies were practical and that as a result of using them, they felt less stress related to the child’s behavior.
The researchers will be disseminating their findings in the coming months and seeking opportunities to provide professional development to teachers interesting in learning more about their positive behavior support approach.
SCIP was conducted through the U.Va. Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning and funded by a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. The SCIP team also included research associates Rebecca Berlin and Kristen Jamison, as well as several graduate students.