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Early Childhood | October 2011

Want to improve young children's behavior? Increase positive interactions!

Smiling teacher talking with four preschoolers around an activity table
Learn ways to nurture positive interactions in your preschool program

Challenging behavior in early childhood environments is a top concern for preschool teachers as well as a predictor of a child's future academic and social difficulty. Recognizing this, programs and funding initiatives are focusing on better preparing children to succeed behaviorally and emotionally in school.

Programs that have implemented positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) can assess how well their interventions are working with a tool like the Preschool-Wide Evaluation Tool™, or PreSET™. The results of PreSET help programs monitor how they're doing and target program improvements.

Among the elements that PreSET measures are how programs acknowledge appropriate behavior and the ratio of positive statements (praise, approval) to negative statements (reprimand, correction, disapproval). Best practice suggests that positive communication and interactions create environments that encourage positive behavior.

Whether you have a formalized PBIS program in place or not, you can promote improved behavior by fostering three types of positive interactions: between teachers and children, teachers and parents, and children and parents. Try the tips below, garnered from experts in the field of children's social-emotional development, and see the difference it makes in your early childhood environment.

Teacher-child interactions

Teacher–child interaction is key to establishing a classroom dynamic that is positive and productive. As noted in Addressing Challenging Behaviors in Early Childhood Settings, when teachers achieve a respectful and open dialogue with students and commit to closely monitoring their own verbal and nonverbal communications, they reduce challenging behaviors in their classroom.

These strategies, adapted from Addressing Challenging Behaviors, will help improve teacher–child interactions:

  • Engage in self-reflection. Honestly reflect on questions such as Do I monitor messages I send via body language? and Do I consider what I say before I say it? A self-reflection tool like this one from Addressing Challenging Behaviors can help you determine whether you're creating a freely communicative classroom.

  • Deliver "I" messages. "I" messages are a type of sophisticated communication strategy that can be especially helpful. They explain to a child in a non-accusatory way why a particular behavior is negative, while implicitly asking for help from the child in solving the problem. Here's an example of an effective "I" message: When you dump your food on the floor, I have to stop what I'm doing and clean up the mess. It makes me feel frustrated. This sort of careful phrasing can be far more effective than a negative You've been bad message.

  • Start positive conversations. Initiate organic, non-structured conversations with your students every day. Let the children lead the discussion, and involve a personal interest of theirs that isn't necessarily tied in with classroom learning. Any kind of sustained positive attention will lead to a closer bond between teacher and student, as children realize that you're genuinely interested in their thoughts and feelings.

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    Do more listening than talking. When a child has a problem, it can be tempting to simply correct her or jump in with advice. But it's much more effective to use reflective listening strategies. Take time to hear what the child is saying, repeat the message back in different words so she knows you understand, and encourage her to think about the problem and identify a possible solution. Watch this short video clip from Challenging Behaviors in Young Children to see a demonstration of reflective listening, as a teacher helps a young girl work through an interpersonal problem.

Teacher–parent interactions

Teacher–parent communication and family involvement also support positive behavior in the early learning classroom. It's critical to keep parents informed and achieve a healthy classroom-to-home dialogue so everyone is on the same page with behavioral intervention and supports.

These suggestions, adapted from Little Kids, Big Worries by Alice Sterling Honig and Using Skilled Dialogue to Transform Challenging Interactions by Isaura Barrera & Lucinda Kramer, give you a few simple ways to strengthen communication with families:

  • Wonder with parents. During a meeting with a parent to discuss a behavioral issue, you might consider "wondering out loud" together. Use gently probing questions that will encourage parents to talk openly. What could be causing their child's stress? How does the situation make them feel? Do they have any ideas about how to resolve the issue? This strategy helps the parent feel included and can lead to fresh insights on both sides.

  • Practice active listening. Occasionally a parent may express frustration with you or reveal fears regarding their child's behavior. If a parent makes critical statements about you or another staff member or a particular aspect of your program, avoid taking the accusations personally. Instead, try to hear the worries behind the parent's criticism and focus on how to alleviate them.

  • Reassure parents with information on developmental norms. Some parents may experience a lot of anxiety if their child is lagging slightly in reaching milestones. As an educator, you're in a perfect position to expand on the loose guidelines developmental norms provide. Strengthen your knowledge of developmental norms (start with a reference like Toni Linder's TPBA2, which includes research-based explanations of birth-to-6 child development). The developmental information you provide can help calm a parent's fears and re-adjust their expectations.

  • Respect the parent's perspective. Parents are experts on their children, so it's important to recognize the inherent value of any ideas or suggestions a parent may offer as a way of dealing with a challenging behavior. For instance, if a child is experiencing separation anxiety after being dropped off at school in the morning, the parent might request a special daily routine, such as a staff member carrying the child to the window for a wave as the parent walks to his or her car.

Child–parent interactions

The third relationship to play a fundamental role in supporting PBIS efforts takes place outside the classroom. As noted in the PreSET manual, it's especially critical that families know how to reinforce your program's positive behavior efforts at home. Share these strategies with parents, adapted from Optimistic Parenting and Parenting with Positive Behavior Support, to promote more positive interactions and to improve behavior at home.

  • Cultivate optimism. The daily stress of raising a child who exhibits challenging behaviors can mentally consume parents. Some of them may become overwhelmed by fear, self-doubt, and self-blame, and they may fall into the mental trap of I'd be happy if only my child's behavior improved. These parents can benefit from an approach like Optimistic Parenting, which shows parents how to reframe negative thoughts and use challenges to enrich their lives. Print out V. Mark Durand's "Ten Tips for Optimistic Parenting" to share with families and help them get started.

  • Establish a clear family vision and expectations. Children naturally want to know what's expected of them, and the PBIS efforts that occur in the organized world of the classroom will be supported when a child's home life has clear shape and structure. Families should first define the specific priorities that are important to them, such as kind, respectful communication or cleaning up after yourself, and then develop simple rules to make them a reality. This sample "Family Vision" form from Parenting with Positive Behavior Support will help families formulate their own rules and expectations.

  • Organize the home to promote positive interactions. It's easy to overlook the way the objects and furnishings in a home are arranged, but home organization can help or hinder positive interactions between parents and children. Parents should ask themselves questions about the layout of the physical space in their home: Is there enough storage for everyday items? Is the furniture placed for optimal supervision? A well-organized home can lead to easier fulfillment of family expectations. See this list of questions from Parenting with Positive Behavior Support to help parents better organize their home to promote positive interactions.

  • Use structured reinforcement strategies. Using a visual aid or another tangible reminder can be an effective way to reinforce positive behavior. Parents have had success with a variety of different methods, including the use of smiley face stickers on a behavior chart and play money that can be redeemed for a special treat. Here are some structured reinforcements parents can try from Optimistic Parenting.

Consider using some of these tips to enhance your PBIS efforts. You'll reduce challenging behavior in your classroom and prepare young children for social and academic success in kindergarten and beyond.

This article features references to and resources from the following guides:

Preschool-Wide Evaluation Tool (PreSET), Research Edition: An Assessment of Universal Program-Wide Positive Behavior Support in Early Childhood Preschool Education in Today's World: Teaching Children with Diverse Backgrounds and Abilities Addressing Challenging Behaviors in Early Childhood Settings: A Teacher's Guide Challenging Behaviors in Young Children: Techniques and Solutions (DVD) Little Kids, Big Worries: Stress-Busting Tips for Early Childhood Classrooms

Using Skilled Dialogue to Transform Challenging Interactions: Honoring Identity, Voice, and Connection

Transdisciplinary Play-Based Assessment, Second Edition (TPBA2)

Optimistic Parenting: Hope and Help for You and Your Challenging Child

Parenting with Positive Behavior Support: A Practical Guide to Resolving Your Child's Difficult Behavior

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