“Voices from the Field” Interview with Nancy Thompson and Janine Figiel

Nancy Thompson and Janine Figiel from Jolly Toddlers

Nancy Thompson and Janine Figiel from Jolly Toddlers

Nancy Thompson
Nancy is the owner and director of Jolly Toddlers, a thriving high-quality early education center. She opened this child care center in 1984 to meet the needs of local families looking for high-quality care. Nancy graduated from Fitzgerald-Mercy School of Nursing with a degree in nursing, becoming a registered nurse (RN). Later she attained an undergraduate degree in early childhood and elementary education, as well as a master’s degree in counseling from Gwynedd Mercy College. Nancy is the proud mother of four children, and grandmother to six beautiful grandchildren.
Janine Figiel
Janine is the Jolly Toddlers assistant director and the center’s facilitator of the Pyramid Model/PBIS. Janine graduated from Seton Hall University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. After college, Janine worked as a human resource manager in her family’s business while raising her two children. Human interaction and positive reinforcement has always been one of her interests so when Nancy Thompson asked her to help facilitate the Pyramid Model/PBIS pilot program at Jolly Toddlers, she was thrilled. Janine has been at Jolly Toddlers since 2010 and has since received a Child Development Associate (CDA) certificate as well as a director’s diploma in early childhood education.

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Preschool Suspensions: Addressing Disproportional Discipline Practices

Guest Blog Post by Rosemarie Allen

I was suspended multiple times each year from the time I started school until I entered high school. The trouble I found myself in seemed minor and was often the result of my natural curiosity: climbing on the roof of the auditorium to see what the playground looked like from that angle; taking the heads, arms, and legs off baby dolls to see how their body parts fit together; and sharpening pencils down to the erasers to see how long it would take. I was busy. I was curious. My teachers had difficulty knowing how to support this curiosity within the classroom.

The recent data documenting the high rates of suspension and expulsion in early childhood programs should be a wake-up call for all of us. African American preschoolers and boys are being suspended at rates that are alarming and expose serious issues with disproportionate discipline practices. These data suggest that programs are not sure how to understand and address child behavior that is regarded as challenging, that discipline practices are likely influenced by biases, and that programs and practitioners need additional support to effectively educate all children.

The Obama Administration’s initiative, My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) is focused on ensuring that all youth, including boys and young men of color, have opportunities to improve their life outcomes and overcome barriers to success. MBK has outlined six milestones, the first of which is Getting a Healthy Start and Entering School Ready to Learn. We know that early childhood presents a profound opportunity to advance children’s cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development. We also know that children who are suspended in preschool are more likely to be suspended throughout their school career. MBK includes a key recommendation to eliminate suspension and expulsions in early learning settings. (View the ED and HHS Policy Statement on Expulsion and Suspension Practices in Early Childhood Settings to learn more.)

A first step towards addressing this issue is the development of policies that end the practice of suspension and expulsion of young children from the programs that were developed to help them learn the critical social, emotional and academic readiness skills to be successful in school. The second step is to ensure that early childhood educators and programs can implement effective practices so that all children can be successful in preschool.

Supporting Early Childhood Teachers and Programs

One of the greatest needs that teachers have is how to address challenging behavior. Many teachers report that they do not feel that they are knowledgeable or skilled in this. Suspensions and expulsions occur when teachers lack the expertise and the program support to prevent and address behaviors they identify as unwanted, annoying, and aggressive. Without support there is a greater likelihood that children will be suspended.

The perceptions teachers have of boys and children of color, may be influenced by unconscious gender and racial bias. Many programs operate on the values of the dominant culture. Children bring to school the culture and values of their home and community. These conflicting values can create cultural disconnects based on mismatched behavioral and educational expectations.

The challenges that teachers and programs face in addressing behavior, teaching children social and emotional skills, understanding their own biases, and using culturally responsive practices require more than training. These challenges require a program-wide approach where administrators are committed and teachers are trained, supported, and guided to implement effective practices.

Pyramid Equity Project

Through the Departments of Education and of Health and Human Services’ Preschool Development Grants Program, the Pyramid Equity Project will collaborate with programs to demonstrate the use of a multi-tiered system of support for promoting social competence in young children that has been designed to address issues related to disproportionate discipline and the use of culturally responsive practices in early learning programs. In these program-wide demonstrations, the Pyramid Model for Promoting the Social Emotional Competence of Infants and Young Children will be used along with enhancements for addressing implicit bias, implementing culturally responsive practices, and using data systems to understand potential discipline equity issues. The Pyramid Model provides a framework of early childhood teaching practices that are organized in tiers to include the promotion of social and emotional skills of all children, the prevention of challenging behavior of children at risk of challenging behavior, and individualized interventions for children with persistent challenging behavior.

Program-wide implementation will involve establishing a program implementation team that will meet monthly to establish and support staff buy-in, promote family engagement, establish systems for providing individualized intervention, provide professional development and classroom coaching to teachers, and use data for decision-making on how to improve implementation, intervention, and outcomes.

There is no evidence to support suspension as an effective intervention for improving behavior but unfortunately for many it has become standard practice for addressing inappropriate behavior. Most early childhood teachers enter the field with a heart for children and a desire to make a difference. Children enter early childhood programs bright-eyed, curious and ready to learn. When we give teachers the tools they need to implement an engaging strong developmentally appropriate program, prevent and address challenging behaviors and identify and respond to implicit bias, and give children the social and emotional skills they need to be successful in the classroom, we can stop suspensions.

Rosemarie Allen has been a leader in early childhood education for over 30 years. Her life’s work has centered on ensuring children have access to high quality early childhood programs that are developmentally and culturally appropriate. She is a team member on the Pyramid Equity Project, which is being funded by the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services’ Preschool Development Grants Program through the Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (www.pbis.org). Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the position of the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, and such endorsements should not be inferred. For information about the Pyramid Equity Project, contact Steven Hicks [Steven.Hicks@ed.gov] or Jennifer Tschantz [Jennifer.Tschantz@ed.gov], or for information related to this blog, contact Rosemarie Allen [allenrosemarie@gmail.com].

Moment to Moment and Year to Year:
Preventing Contemporary Problem Behavior in Schools

George Sugai, Rob Horner, and Tim Lewis[1]
National Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports

Effective education faces many challenges: chronic absenteeism, dropout, diversity inequities, antisocial conduct and violence, emotional and behavioral disorders, suspensions and expulsions. We suggest that the solution emphasize the adoption of a two-prong prevention approach that considers informed decision making, selection of evidence-based practices, and implementation of culturally relevant tiered systems of support.

The Long-Vision on Prevention

The first prong is a long-vision on prevention that requires a systematic and deliberate implementation of daily proactive practices. Prevention is more than “catching kids early.” It is about “vaccinating” all children against the adoption or learning of socially and educationally damaging behaviors. This vaccination requires a daily dose of social skills instruction, practice, and reinforcement on everyday expectations and routines that are imbedded into every instructional and social interaction.

At a universal level, we focus on a few school- and classroom-wide traits or values (e.g., respect self, others, and property; or responsibility, respect, and safety) that are defined by specific behavioral examples and linked to typical classroom (e.g., lecture, independent study, transition) and school (e.g., hallways, assemblies, cafeteria, field trips, entering/exiting the school) contexts. Although environmental cues (e.g., posters, signage) are useful, the real impact occurs during each moment-to-moment and day-to-day teaching and social interaction.

From a long-vision perspective, prevention also means having an explicit continuum of evidence-based practices that enables predictable and efficient supports for students who need more than the universal dose of social skills instruction. The investment is on the following priorities:

  1. Development of decision-based data systems that enable efficient universal screening, continuous progress monitoring, and regular checks of implementation fidelity.
  2. Use of the smallest combination of most effective intervention strategies that can enhance the most important educational outcomes.
  3. Coordination or leadership team that is unwaveringly focused on high fidelity delivery of these practices and systems.
  4. Long-vision on prevention includes giving equal priority to the tiered implementation of effective instructional curriculum and targeted differentiated instruction for all learners, especially those with learning-risk (e.g., access to instruction, disability, mental health issues).

If the long vision is given implementation priority, the long-term prevention outcomes can be significant:

  1. reductions in norm-violating behavior,
  2. increases in student self-management behaviors,
  3. decreases in teasing and harassment,
  4. increases in reported positive classroom and school climates,
  5. decreases in the use of reactive management practices, and
  6. increases in attendance and academic engagement.

The Short-Vision on Prevention

The short-vision prong emphasizes implementation of immediate and daily prevention practices, that is, what we do every day, all day, and across all school settings to reduce the likelihood of minor and major behavior incidents and increase the probability of prosocial behavior.

Every staff member during every lesson must:

  1. Set challenging and achievable academic and behavior goals for every student.
  2. Model positive examples of the same social skills and behaviors expected from students.
  3. Prompt/cue and recognize desired social behavior at higher rates than are used for negative or norm-violating behavior.
  4. Maximize every minute for successful academic and behavioral engagements.
  5. Continuously and actively supervise all students across all settings at all times.

On an hourly and daily basis, minor behavior incidents (e.g., noises, wandering, off task) should be treated constructively, quickly, and quietly. Incidents of minor disruptive behavior represent teachable moments or opportunities to remind students of the desired behavior and to prompt and reinforce future opportunities to be successful. The process of handling minor problem behaviors should never sacrifice instruction time for any student, and if minor behaviors become chronic, the focus shifts toward a plan that rearranges conditions so that the opportunity to engage in problem behavior is reduced or eliminated.

Every major behavior event (e.g., fighting, intentional inappropriate behavior, harassment, disruptive non-compliance) should be treated as a “bad” habit that has worked for the student in the past and is highly likely under specific situations. Because a bad habit by definition is chronic, habituated, and efficient, solutions must be much more informed and targeted. That is, the intervention must be based on a specific understanding of the triggering and maintaining conditions and development of a specialized intervention that formally cues and rewards desired behavior and carefully eliminates competing cues and rewards for problem behavior. This plan must provide at least hourly implementation schedules, especially in the most likely problem behavior settings, by individuals who are better at doing the intervention than the student is at doing the problem behavior. Daily progress monitoring is required to enable immediate tweaking of the intervention to improve effectiveness and efficiency.

Prevention is More than Practices

Effective implementation of this two-prong approach requires more than careful selection and organization of evidence-based practices. Efficient systems must be in place to support staff implementation.  These systems include strong school and district leadership that is effectively distributed at the classroom, grade level, department, and school levels. In our most challenged schools, effective principals must be instructional leaders and given at least 3–5 years to establish a durable effective and positive school culture. In addition, principals should share and distribute meaningful leadership authority to important teams (e.g., climate committees, behavior support teams, grade level and department teams) for durable implementation capacity. Daily decision-making must be guided by easily accessible and interpretable data and efficient teaming.

The full set of behavior support practices must be organized in an implementable and integrated manner, that is, a multi-tiered continuum of support. Establishment and implementation of this continuum are guided by some simple but important principles:

  1. Carefully define the behavioral needs of classrooms and school-wide settings.
  2. Based on these needs, eliminate practices that are no longer needed or effective and select the best evidence-based practices that have documented good outcomes related to these needs.
  3. Establish data systems based on decision rules for progress monitoring and differentiation of supports.
  4. Align and integrate all practices so that three general support tiers are in place:
    • Tier 1—all students, all staff, all settings;
    • Tier 2—targeted and group implemented; and
    • Tier 3—intensive and individualized interventions.

Concluding Comments

Contemporary school and classroom challenges must be defined, verified, and discussed. However, emphasis must be shifted quickly from rumination to prevention. A prevention-based multi-tiered system of practices requires moment-to-moment, hour-to-hour, day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year engagement. Practice selection and adoption are necessary but insufficient. Equal, if not more, attention must be directed toward systemic or organizational supports (leadership, decision making, support continuum) that enable implementation to be effective, efficient, durable, and relevant. If implementation fidelity is high and sustained, preventing the development and occurrences of our contemporary challenges is thinkable and doable, and effective classroom and school organizations with common vision, language, and experiences are possible.

[1] The preparation of this document was supported in part by the Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports and a grant from the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education (H326S980003), Project Officer Renee Bradley. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Education, and such endorsements should not be inferred. For information about the Center, go to www.pbis.org, or for information related to this manuscript, contact George Sugai at George.sugai@uconn.edu.