U.Va. Researchers Land Grant to Help Preschool Teachers Address Students' Challenging Behaviors

Young children with challenging behaviors have trouble engaging in positive ways in the classroom. They can experience social conflict and isolation and have trouble staying on task. This in turn reduces their exposure to learning opportunities – in preschool and beyond.

Research being led at the University of Virginia – with the aid of a new three-year, $1.27 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Institute for Education Sciences – aims to develop a method of consultation that helps preschool teachers accurately observe children who display challenging behaviors in their classrooms and select evidence-based strategies to meet the needs of these children.

"Self-regulation is a major developmental achievement in preschool that enables learning and contributes to social competence," said Jason Downer, the principal investigator and assistant director of the University of Virginia's Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning, or CASTL. "Children who display challenging behaviors often have difficulty being successful in school."

Self-regulation is the ability to manage emotional reactions, focus attention and inhibit or activate behavior in response to environmental demands, said Amanda Williford, co-investigator and assistant professor at CASTL. "When teachers better understand where in the classroom children are having self-regulation problems and why, they can structure the classroom and provide supports that intentionally address these children's needs and play to children's strengths. Taking this effort to see and understand what is happening with a child's behavior can ultimately promote the child's successful, adaptive engagement with teachers, peers and classroom tasks."

Downer and Williford are heading the Learning to Objectively Observe Kids, or LOOK, Project, in partnership with Rebecca Bulotksy-Shearer, an assistant professor at the University of Miami.

The LOOK model, which will serve as an alternative to traditional in-service teacher workshops, will include an online short course, a video library of children's classroom engagement and periodic consultation sessions with early childhood mental health consultants. These consultants will provide feedback and support to individual teachers based on videos of that teacher's classroom practice, focusing on the methods the teacher uses with all children in the classroom, as well as individualized practices that target a particular child's challenging behaviors.

As they develop the consultation model over the next three years, they will pilot their methods with teachers in two Head Start programs, one in Charlottesville and one in Miami, serving at-risk preschoolers.

"One of the most critical aims of the LOOK Project is to change teachers' attitudes toward children who display challenging behaviors by shifting from a 'child is the problem' stance to understanding that context plays a major role in facilitating or interfering with children's classroom engagement," Downer said. "For example, a child who constantly interrupts and has difficulty sitting still when the teacher reads to the entire classroom may remain highly attentive during a hands-on, small group activity. We want to help teachers pay attention to the connections between classroom context and individual behavior so they can modify those contexts when necessary and increase children's engagement."

– by Lynn Bell