U.Va. Researchers Test Positive Strategy for Improving Preschoolers' Behavior

December 01, 2010

December 1, 2010 — Two professors from the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education are addressing the behavior problems of a student population with the nation's highest rate of expulsion from school: preschoolers.

In their search for an evidence-based intervention for dealing with problem preschooler behavior, Curry faculty members Marti Snell and Tina Stanton-Chapman are developing and conducting trials of a three-pronged strategy to teach positive behavior to help children be socially and academically successful.

So far, they have observed encouraging results. Teachers have improved their approaches to problem behavior and social skills instruction and their pupils' behavior has also improved.

These research activities comprise the Social Competence in Children project,  conducted through the U.Va. Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning, or CASTL, and funded by a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences.

According to prior research, between 10 percent and 20 percent of all children exhibit challenging behavior in preschool classrooms, Snell said, but the numbers nearly double among children who live in poverty or who are at risk due to other social or physical issues. Inappropriate behavior may result from a number of factors, including poor social and language skills, both of which can be improved through instruction.

"Because preschool is a privilege not a mandate, schools typically expel children if their bad behavior is chronic and severe," Stanton-Chapman said. Once students are expelled, opportunities for them to acquire appropriate social skills may be delayed until kindergarten, at which point behavior problems may be even more entrenched, she added.

Snell and Stanton-Chapman along with their team of researchers (Rebecca Berlin, Kristen Jamison and Mary Voorhees) and several doctoral students are coaching teachers in a problem-solving approach called "Positive Behavior Supports," which has been well researched with older students. They address problem behaviors at three different levels of intervention. 

Teachers are first taught Tier 1, or universal, strategies which aim to prevent misbehavior and reinforce expected appropriate behavior. Snell cites evidence that student misbehaviors in school settings have been avoided in about 80 percent of all children through these universal strategies. 
Examples of these methods 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.

Another 15 percent of children who exhibit problem behaviors need additional help. Stanton-Chapman and Snell are sharing with the teachers in their study an explicit approach to teaching social skills, called the Social Pragmatic Storybook Intervention, which is regarded as a Tier 2 strategy.

This strategy developed by Stanton-Chapman, 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."

The third level of intervention addresses the remaining 5 percent of children who continue misbehaving 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.

Last year, the researchers worked with preschool instructional teams in five Virginia Head Start classrooms, providing one-on-one coaching sessions that included feedback based on classroom observations. This spring, they gathered preliminary data about the teachers' ability to apply the interventions and children's resulting behavior.

Preliminary results indicate that teachers who participated in the intervention were better equipped to handle problem behavior in the classroom when it occurred than they were prior to intervention. They used preventive strategies, such as limiting the number of children in a center at a given time and making adjustments in transition routines. They also taught children who needed additional assistance to use phrases during play so they could be better play partners. As a result, the number of instances of children's problem behavior was reduced compared to the prior year.

In this third and final year of the project, Snell and Stanton-Chapman are coaching teachers in 10 additional Head Start classrooms and will again collect data on the effectiveness of the intervention. They will then apply for additional grants to continue their work in Virginia classrooms.

Failing to develop social competence has long-term ramifications for students, Snell said.

"There is clear research indicating that children's problem behavior not resolved in preschool continues into kindergarten, and, if it is not resolved by third grade, problems are often chronic and extend into adulthood," she said.

Media Contact

Lynn Bell

Curry School Foundation