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Positive preschool behavior: Tools to improve children’s social-emotional skills

Using the right assessment tools and program-wide approaches can help you be sure you have preventive measures in place and are implementing effective interventions. Here are four tools you can count on to make sure your PBIS efforts are on track.

How do you help children learn to make friends? Discover tools and approaches to put children’s social-emotional skills on track

You know how important behavior is to the classroom environment as well as a child’s academic and social future. In fact, you’ve probably included some level of positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) in your program to model and address behaviors.

How well are your efforts working?

And what do you do when a child is struggling with social-emotional skills?

Using the right assessment tools and program-wide approaches can help you be sure you have preventive measures in place and are implementing effective interventions. Here are four tools you can count on to make sure your PBIS efforts are on track.



 Assesses program-wide PBIS implementation in early childhood settings at the universal tier

Preschool-Wide Evaluation Tool™ (PreSET™), Research Edition

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Assess program-wide PBIS with PreSET™

Program-wide PBIS is a model of tiered interventions and supports designed to improve young children’s social and emotional development and reduce challenging behaviors. Many young children demonstrate challenging behavior such as hitting, biting, and having tantrums during their early development. One of the primary missions of a program-wide approach is to reduce and prevent challenging behavior in very young children.

A tool such as the Preschool-Wide Evaluation Tool™, or PreSET™, can help programs quickly determine how effectively their program-wide PBIS efforts are working at the primary, or universal, tier.

PreSET examines program practices aimed at establishing nurturing and responsive relationships and providing high-quality supportive learning environments.

Establishing a program-wide acknowledgment system

For instance, children should receive acknowledgment when they follow classroom rules and engage in other appropriate behaviors throughout the day. How they will be acknowledged should be decided at the program level for consistency across classrooms.

In a program-wide acknowledgment system, teachers provide children with discrete feedback (giving the child a “caring” leaf to put on a tree poster) immediately following the appropriate behavior (after the child shares a toy with another child).

Children should collectively work toward a class goal to earn a special event such as a pajama party, silly hat day, or bubble-blowing party after they have reached their target (filling the tree poster with leaves).

The PreSET results help programs understand the percentage of effective practices they are following, and suggest approaches that can bolster program-wide adoption of effective practices.



Measure behavior support with TPOT™

A widely adopted approach to PBIS is the Pyramid Model for Promoting Social Emotional Competence in Infants and Young Children. The model is based on a multitiered framework that practitioners can use to support positive behavior at three levels of intervention.

The Teaching Pyramid Observation Tool (TPOT™) for Preschool Classrooms, Research Edition, measures how well teachers are implementing the Pyramid Model. The TPOT can be used in several ways:

  • to support effective implementation of the Pyramid Model
  • to implement strategies to prevent and address challenging behavior
  • to guide coaching efforts

Implementation includes an observation and an interview lasting around 2 hours. Observers score teacher-directed activities, child-directed activities, and transitions on 14 Key Practice items as well as Red Flags, which indicate potential trouble spots, using TPOT scoring forms.

Questions such as, Tell me how you teach or help children to learn how to be friends and How do you teach or help children recognize and deal with emotions? help determine classroom practices.




Assesses how well teachers are implementing the 3-tiered Pyramid Model of practices

Teaching Pyramid Observation Tool (TPOT)

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Measures children’s social-emotional development and parenting competence

Social-Emotional Assessment/Evaluation Measure (SEAM)

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SEAM at a glance

Sample Family Profile

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Coordinating across programs

Smokie Brawley, statewide project manager for the Healthy Social Behaviors Project in North Carolina, found TPOT to be “the natural answer to measuring the [Pyramid] model’s implementation to fidelity” when her agency partnered with 8 other state agencies and the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL). They were able to use results to enhance the programs’ capacity for adopting the model, increase the number of high-quality trainers and coaches, and develop a cadre of local demonstration sites.

Take an closer look at individual needs with SEAM™

When a child struggles with behavior within a classroom setting (or when results from a screener such as ASQ:SE recommend follow-up), teachers and program directors may want to conduct a more in-depth, individual assessment to identify social-emotional issues. The Social-Emotional Assessment/Evaluation Measure (SEAM™) helps programs improve a child’s skills and prevent problems by optimizing positive parent–child interactions and building positive partnerships with families.

Jane Farrell, an early intervention early childhood special educator for Early Childhood CARES in Eugene, Oregon, says SEAM is a perfect tool for use in her parent–toddler groups. The tool helps her identify appropriate social goals for children and focus her consultations with parents and caregivers by zeroing in on specific areas to address; she especially likes “the way it allows parents to rate their comfort or confidence levels!”

SEAM includes three intervals:

  • Infant, with a developmental range of 2–18 months
  • Toddler, with a developmental range of 18–36 months, and
  • Preschool, with a developmental range of 36–66 months.

During the evaluation, 10 benchmarks and corresponding behavioral items that represent social-emotional and behavioral competence skills are assessed and scored. As Farrell pointed out, a unique component to SEAM is the importance it places on understanding family and community values and expectations. For instance, some families and cultures find noisy, active children acceptable, while others do not. Understanding this helps define a workable game plan that moves between home and school.


Prevent–Teach–Reinforce for Young Children

Family-centered approach used in schools nationwide to resolve challenging behaviors

Prevent-Teach-Reinforce for Young Children: The Early Childhood Model of Individualized Positive Behavior Support

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An approach for addressing persistent problem behavior

Prevent–Teach–Reinforce for Young Children (PTR-YC) is a systematic approach programs can put in place to prevent and address persistent problem behaviors. It equips early childhood educators with the tools necessary to understand the why of a child’s behavior so they can address environmental arrangements that will promote appropriate behavior and prevent challenging behavior.

Patti Willardson, director of education at the Bal Swan Children’s Center in Broomfield, Colorado, describes how her center uses PTR-YC:

PTR-YC guides adults to support children in their learning by promoting their use of pro-social behaviors to have their needs met as opposed to demonstrating challenging behavior to do so.  It enables adults to look at behavior and see what the function is before asking what we can do to prevent the behaviors and what skills we can offer as replacements. It also helps you consider what children are going to respond to in terms of reinforcement.

The steps in PTR-YC are tailored for use with young children in early childhood settings. Willardson says she has seen children make astounding turnarounds to become quite successful in preschool, which ultimately supports their transition into kindergarten. “It doesn’t take long at all to see results.”

Through the PTR-YC team process, children’s challenging behaviors are replaced by desirable behaviors such as peer-related social and communication skills.  For example, once a child learns how to gain a peer or adult’s attention, share, trade, and enter and maintain play in pro-social ways, negative behaviors are reduced because they are replaced with these pro-social skills.


Measurement is key to knowing what is working in your program and what needs improvement. We all know challenging behaviors are to be expected. It’s how we deal with them that makes the difference to a program’s success. Interventions are intended to produce sustainable reductions in problem behavior by including supports that address universal and individual needs.

With these systematic assessments and positive behavior approaches, you’ll find what you need to support your PBIS efforts and increase success for both your students and your program.

(Originally published: October 2014)