Developing Socially Competent and Emotionally Resilient Young Children Through an Early Childhood RtI Framework


Carol Foster, classroom teacher of 4- and 5-year-old preschool students, was facilitating the development of dramatic play and early academic skills in the “Pet Shop” part of her classroom. Two students, Lucy and Marissa, both wanted to use the same clipboard, tally sheet, and marker for writing down how many different kinds of animals were in their “Pet Shop,” and Marissa started to shout that she wanted to do the marking down. Ms. Foster reminded her, “What kind of voice should we use to talk to a friend?”, and Marissa answered, “An inside voice.” Ms. Foster nodded her head, then asked, “…and how can you use kind words to share the clipboard and marker?” Marissa waited a moment, then looked at Lucy and said, “Lucy, you wrote down our pets, I want a turn now.” Ms. Foster nodded again and looked at Lucy, saying, “Marissa has asked you respectfully to share the board and marker. What can you say?” Lucy looked at her classmate and replied, “Marissa can write down the animals now,” and handed the board and marker over to her friend. Later that day, Ms. Foster scanned the playground where her students were playing. One student, Jeremiah, was at the top of the slide, preparing to go down head first. She called out to him, “Jeremiah, be safe!”, and he stopped and looked up at her. She pointed to the posted rules about how to go down the slide safely, and then she prompted him, “When we are safe on the playground, we go down the slide…,” and Jeremiah finished the sentence, “feet first.” With those words, he stood up and sat down on his bottom, and then he looked at his teacher with a smile on his face. She returned his smile with a big “thumbs up” gesture, indicating that he was now “ready” to go down the slide; then he went down the slide with his feet first.


The vignettes presented above are examples of the interactions that occur between teachers and students on a daily basis in our preschool program. During the 2003–2004 school year, we recognized that our young learners needed positive classroom environments just as much as older students in order to function successfully in school settings and achieve essential social and emotional benchmarks (Chandler, Young, & Cirincione-Ulezi, in press; Hemmeter, Ostrosky, & Fox, 2006; Hojnoski & Missall, 2010). We had already developed and were implementing an initiative to enhance children’s growth of essential early literacy and language skills (Young et al., 2008), and we felt we could use a similar process for developing a program-wide initiative that would allow teachers to create more effective and efficient classrooms and would support children’s attainment of social and emotional developmental milestones. So we responded by embracing the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) philosophy (, then developing and embedding a tiered instructional and data-based decision-making model across all facets of our school program (Germann, Snow, Kleist, & Shields, 2009; Shields, Snow, & Young, 2009; Snow & Johnson, 2009; Young & Snow, 2008). The purpose of this article is to describe our current school- and program-wide practices, with a highlight on our “universal” practices. We also provide an overview of our process for developing, implementing, and sustaining these practices, so that other educators of young learners can help them acquire social/emotional developmental milestones and prepare for successful engagement with formal schooling experiences.


Who are We?


We are Prairie Children Preschool, a community preschool that has been operating since August 1998 so that our unit school district’s 3–5-year-old children can experience inclusive educational opportunities within our early childhood education program. Approximately 517 children attended Prairie Children Preschool in the morning and afternoon sessions in the 2010–2011 school year. We are housed in the district’s own early childhood education facility, where we provide a full continuum of special education services. Each of the 21 inclusive classrooms is staffed by a teacher who holds a state certificate to teach preschool children, including those with disabilities; there are also teaching assistants assigned to each class, as well as support staff (e.g., psychologist, social worker, speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, etc.). Each class generally has nine children who are developing typically and whose parents pay tuition (“community” children) and one or two who are developing typically but who are financially “at risk” (and thus their experiences are funded by our state pre-K/“Preschool for All” grant), and there are six additional slots held for students with individualized education programs (IEPs), so each class could potentially have about 16 children. We also have five self-contained classrooms for children who need a smaller setting with more highly specialized adult-directed instruction.


From the beginning, we grounded our program in the recommended practices of the Division for Early Childhood (DEC) of the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), the professional organization for educators of young children with disabilities. The DEC Recommended Practices were built on the Developmentally Appropriate Practice guidelines of the National Association for the Education of Young Children so that they would reflect the “more specialized practices for meeting the individualized needs of young children with disabilities and their families” (Sandall, Hemmeter, Smith, & McLean, 2005, p. 244). Thus, the DEC Recommended Practice guidelines reflect recommended standards, policies, and procedures that would apply to all our children, allowing us to create a sound foundation of assessment, child-focused, family-based, and interdisciplinary practices on which to build our program. To stay congruent with this foundation, we adopted The Creative Curriculum for Preschool (Dodge, Colker, & Heroman, 2002) as our general education curriculum. The Creative Curriculum is aligned with the Illinois Early Learning Standards (IELS; Illinois State Board of Education, 2002), so we are ensuring that our targeted goals and the skill and content objectives are congruent with our state board of education’s expectations. See Table 1 for a visual representation of the alignment of the IELS social/emotional goals, learning standards, and benchmarks with the Creative Curriculum goal development areas and instructional objectives.


Table 1: Alignment of Illinois Early Learning Standards (IELS; Illinois State Board of Education, 2002), Including the Two Social/Emotional Goals, Three Standards, and 13 Benchmarks, With the Creative Curriculum’s (Teaching Strategies, Inc., 2002) Three Social/Emotional Goal Development Domains and 13 Objectives

IELS Goals
IELS Standards
IELS Benchmarks
Creative Curriculum Goal Development Areas ("Sense of Self," "Responsibility for Self and Others," and "Prosocial Behavior") With All 13 Objectives
State Goal 31: Develop an awareness of personal identity and positive self-concept.
Learning Standard A
1. Develop a positive self-concept.
Describe self by using several basic characteristics.

Exhibit eagerness and curiosity as a learner.

Exhibit persistence and creativity in seeking solutions to problems.

Show some initiative and independence in actions.

Use appropriate communication skills when expressing needs, wants and feelings.

III. Prosocial Behavior
13. Uses thinking skills to resolve conflicts.

II. Responsibility for Self and Others
5. Demonstrates self-direction and independence.

I. Sense of Self
3. Recognizes own feelings and manages them appropriately.
II. Responsibility for Self and Others
6. Takes responsibility for own well-being.
State Goal 32: Demonstrate a respect and a responsibility for self and others.
Learning Standard A
1. Perform effectively as an individual.
Begin to understand and follow rules.

Manage transitions and begin to adapt to change in routines.

Show empathy and caring for others.

Use the classroom environment purposefully and respectfully.
II. Responsibility for Self and Others
9. Follows classroom rules.

I. Sense of Self
1. Shows ability to adjust to new situations.
II. Responsibility for Self and Others
8. Follows classroom routines.

III. Prosocial Behavior
11. Recognizes the feelings of others and responds appropriately.

II. Responsibility for Self and Others
7. Respects and cares for classroom environment and materials.

Learning Standard B
2. Perform effectively as a member of a group.
Engage in cooperative group play.

Begin to share materials and experiences and take turns.

Respect the rights of self and others.

Develop relationships with children and adults.
III. Prosocial Behavior
10. Plays well with other children.

III. Prosocial Behavior (Also Listed With 32.B.ECc)
12. Shares and respects the rights of others.

I. Sense of Self
4. Stands up for rights.
III. Prosocial Behavior (Also Listed With 32.B.ECb)
12. Shares and respects the rights of others.

I. Sense of Self
2. Demonstrates appropriate trust in adults.


We are currently in the process of transitioning to fifth edition of The Creative Curriculum (Dodge, Colker, & Heroman, 2010) and the Teaching Strategies GOLD Assessment System (Teaching Strategies, Inc., 2010), the companion assessment system that is replacing the Creative Curriculum Developmental Continuum to monitor children’s progress in acquiring essential skills and content. The Creative Curriculum, 5th Edition and the GOLD assessment system continue to be aligned with the IELS; therefore, we can move forward, confident that our program’s curricular foundations support our work to have children meet our state learning standards.


Teaching methods employed by our staff to have children master targeted skills vary depending on the students’ learning needs and interests. Overall, we have moved toward being more “intentional” in our teaching (Epstein, 2007). Specifically, the amount of child-initiated and teacher-directed instruction required for the students to be successful varies such that children are engaged in instruction that is embedded into their daily activities, including large groups, small groups, and one-to-one learning opportunities. Instruction also increases in intensity and moves toward becoming more explicit (Archer & Hughes, 2011) so that children with the greatest learning challenges are provided with the most explicit teaching. Teachers and the assigned support staff have regularly scheduled planning time during the month to engage collaboratively in analyzing student data, designing lesson plans, and engaging in problem solving about students who have specific needs.


What Do Universal Practices Look Like in Our Setting?

Simply stated, we have taken The Creative Curriculum and added the PBIS practices to it. As described by Benedict, Horner, and Squires (2007), PBIS is a systems-wide model that includes three levels of prevention and intervention with data-based decision making so students’ needs are met at tiers of varying intensity. In the first tier (universal), staff members focus on building positive relationships with children in a safe and predictable learning environment; school and classroom physical environments are intentionally arranged, the daily activities and allocated instructional time are purposefully organized, and prosocial verbal and nonverbal behaviors are taught. Also, clearly defined behavioral expectations are explicitly taught. Two additional tiers of increasing intensity are also components of the model so that students with more challenging behavior can have their needs met in the PBIS paradigm as well. The PBIS structure is highly congruent with the “Recognition and Response” philosophy now being espoused by Coleman, Buysse, and Neitzel (2006) and the Pyramid model described by Fox, Carta, Strain, Dunlap, and Hemmeter (2010) for development of effective and efficient instructional models with tiers of varying intensity that include a systematic problem-solving focus for use with preschool-age children.

A visitor to any one of our classrooms would note the implementation of the following positive classroom strategies that are essential components of the PBIS program, similar to those described by Benedict et al. (2007). First, we developed three “expectations” to define acceptable behavior in our program; we teach children to “Be Ready,” “Be Respectful,” and “Be Safe.” (Picture 1 shows the PCP behavior expectations and logo.) These expectations were broken down into specific rules that apply to everyone in our program, including children, certified staff, classified staff, and parents. Our PBIS Matrix, presented as Table 2, illustrates how we took the three expectations and developed specific rules for various locations and activities that occur within our program. Examples of the Playground rules are presented in Pictures 2 and 3. Then we developed “Cool Tools” so that all staff could use the same lessons, teaching procedures, and manipulative and visual materials for ensuring that the expectations were being implemented consistently across the program. (See Figure 1 for the “Ready/Not Ready” Cool Tool teaching protocol as an example and Picture 4 for the Cool Tools icons.) Instruction using the Cool Tools typically takes place during the large group time of our school day so that all children get the same instruction about ways to demonstrate desirable, prosocial behaviors. Visual supports developed with Boardmaker software (DynaVox Mayer-Johnson, 2011) were also created and are used regularly in conjunction with the Cool Tools. We also instituted the practice of making the classroom routines predictable by posting a visual schedule; most teachers have 8 ½ × 11 inch sheets of paper that have an icon of an activity printed on it (e.g., musical notes for “Music Time”) and the pages are lined up on the edge of a whiteboard in every classroom. So, children can actually see the sequence of activities planned for each day. Then, as an activity takes place, the page is turned around, signifying which activities are completed and which are coming up next. We also regularly give a verbal pre-alert statement that a change in activities is coming up (e.g., “One more minute of ‘Table Toys,’ Frog friends”) to enhance children’s ability to end one activity, such as playing with manipulatives at Table Toys, and then prepare to start another one, such as “Circle Time.” When it comes time to transition, every teacher uses some kind of a signal, such as dimming the lights, signing a song (e.g., “Clean up, Clean up, everybody everywhere…”) to help the students bring closure to one activity and to start a new activity. We also use “precorrection” by giving a reminder of a rule to enhance rule compliance, such as “Remember to use your inside voices” where children tend to be loud, even when no shouting has yet occurred. Finally, our staff members use a number of strategies to positively reinforce students for exhibiting appropriate behavior, including stating specifically what the student has done that should be repeated (e.g., “Casey, you walked around the Lego tower, so you were being safe”).


Picture 1: Prairie Children Preschool “Be Ready, Be Respectful, Be Safe” PBIS Logo
Note. Prairie Children Preschool developed “Be Ready, Be Respectful, Be Safe” as the PBIS behavioral expectations for the school during the 2003–2004 school year.


Table 2: Prairie Children Preschool PBIS Matrix of “Be Ready, Be Respectful, Be Safe” Behavior Expectations Across Settings

Drop Off
Bathroom/Wash Hands Multi-Purpose Room Playground
Pick up
Be Ready
-Be dressed appropriately for the weather
-Wear backpack
-Wake children in car before arriving
-"Hands free"—not eating/playing with toys
-Listen to teacher
-Follow directions
-Talk about where class is going: "How are we going to get there?"

-Eyes on speaker
-Quiet hands and feet
-Follow directions
-Ask for help
-Raise quiet hand for turn
-Wait your turn
-Ask for help
-Cool Tool: universal step with signs for wash hands sequence and toilet sequence
-Push up sleeves before washing hands
-Follow directions
-Have a plan
-Clean up/return items
-Follow directions
-Have a plan
-Follow playground schedule (Teacher)
-Know why you're going
-Be dressed (backpack on)
-Listen for your name
Be Respectful
-Greet others
-Listen to teacher
-Hold all friends' hands
-Remember personal space
-Listen to teacher
-Quiet hands
-Be respectful of the work of others on the bulletin board
-Take turns/share
-Be a good listener
-Personal space
-Use kind words
-Beware of feelings
-Inside voice
-Use toilet
-Seat up/seat down
-Hands at sides
-Use sink: turn on/off
-3 pushes on level for paper towel
-Take turns
-Play safe
-Include others
-Watch your time
-Take turns
-Play safe
-Include others
-Organize the areas the way they should be
-Greet office staff
-Use a quiet/inside voice
-Wait your turn
-Use equipment appropriately
-Play quietly
-Listen to teacher
-Do what the teacher says
Be Safe
-Hold hands
-Eyes forward
-Adult/teacher by curbside always; children inside
-Parent Role: Watch the Drop off/Pick up line—eyes forward when driving, not watching kids enter building
-Stay with your teacher
-Hands to self
-Eyes forward
-When obstacle is out, talk about how to get around it
-Ask for help
-Be calm
-Feet on floor
-Quiet hands
-Eat your own food
-Hand holding
-Wash hands (sing song or count)
-"User friendly" soap dispenser
-Step stool for both sinks
-Step stool: carefully step on/off
-Monitor at sinks
-4 pulls on towel
-Follow rules
-Look where you are going
-Follow rules
-Look where you are going
-Listen to the teacher
-Keep hands to self
-Walking feet
-Stay with teacher
-Use equipment appropriately
-Stay in your spot
-Hold a teacher's hand
-Wait for the car/bus to stop
-"Walk with me"


Picture 2: PCP Playground Rules to Meet PBIS Behavior Expectations
Note. Sign posted at Prairie Children Preschool playground to support children meeting the “Be Ready, Be Respectful, Be Safe” behavior expectations.

Picture 3: Prairie Children Preschool student meeting expectation to “Climb by Teacher”
Note. Prairie Children Preschool student following playground behavior expectations to “Climb by Teacher” with the PBIS playground rules sign in the background.

Picture 4: Prairie Children Preschool “I’m Ready/Not Ready” Cool Tool Picture Icons

We also have developed a “Positive Patches” system that is unique to our program, described in Figure 2 , based on an application we developed of the book Elmer by David McKee (1968). (See Picture 5 for examples of the Positive Patches mascots and Picture 6 for the Elmer book and elephant.) Children who demonstrate our behavioral expectations earn pieces of tissue paper to put onto the black line drawing of their classroom mascot; then, when the mascot is completely filled-in with colored paper, it is posted near the school office and the students’ accomplishments are celebrated. Recently, entire classrooms of children have paraded through the building, while bringing the mascot to be hung on the wall, to recognize their efforts to meet our expectations. We also celebrate children’s accomplishments program-wide on a monthly basis by holding “Game Days.” On those days, members of the class play board games—specifically set aside for Game Day and not played at other times of the month—to reinforce demonstrations of the behavioral expectations.


Picture 5: Prairie Children Preschool “Positive Patches” Mascot Cool Tool
Note. Turtle mascots for the morning (AM) and afternoon (PM) classes that accompany the “Positive Patches” mascot Cool Tool.


Picture 6: PCP Positive Patches Mascot Elmer (Mckee, 1968) Book and Stuffed Animal
Note. The book Elmer (McKee, 1968) and the Elmer elephant used to as part of the incentive system to help children meet the Prairie Children Preschool PBIS positive behavior expectations.

In the 2007–2008 school year, based on examination of our PBIS and Creative Curriculum data, we decided to add the Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS) program (Domitrovich, Greenberg, Kusche, & Cortes, 2004) to our program to enhance development of prosocial skills. While the PBIS program resulted in reduced disruptive and aggressive behaviors and greater compliance with teacher directives, it did not help us to teach children how to make friends, resolve conflicts, and use their words to create productive relationships with adults and peers. The PATHS program includes a specific scope and sequence of skills to be taught, along with all the necessary materials including puppets, to teach these prosocial skills. At first, our school psychologists and school social workers conducted the PATHS lessons as a pull-out program with only those children who had received low scores on a screening measure, in conjunction with teacher nomination, as a Tier 2 type of intervention. However, over time, our teachers came to several conclusions: 1) they felt that the PATHS curriculum needed to be taught to all the students, not just to students who were experiencing significant behavioral/social challenges; 2) the skills could be taught more effectively and efficiently if the program were taught by the teachers instead of the specialists; and 3) better application and generalization of skills could take place if it was taught by teachers in the students’ authentic classroom settings instead of in a separate location. So, implementation and progress monitoring of the PATHS curriculum is now conducted by the teachers as part of our universal practices.

We continue to monitor the effectiveness of our PBIS and PATHS programs in several ways. We continue to gather monthly data on the levels of “disruptive,” “aggressive,” and “noncompliant” behaviors demonstrated in class with a PBIS-specific data-collection system, as well as on the replacement behaviors we want students to demonstrate. We also conduct a yearly pre- and postintervention assessment with the PATHS-specific tool to gauge how well our students are gaining prosocial skill proficiencies. Finally, we use data from the Creative Curriculum to find trends and to locate converging data. The data gathered from these sources allows us to engage in collaborative problem solving around the needs of individual children and groups of children, and to conduct program evaluation analyses. We can state with confidence that these two programs, in combination, have had a significant impact on the social competency and emotional resiliency of young children. More sophisticated data analyses will be provided in future articles.

What Steps Could Other Early Childhood Educators Take to Create Positive Classrooms and Learning Environments?

Our multi-year process was highly similar to that described by Hemmeter, Fox, Jack, and Broyles (2007), so the reader may gain ideas by reading about our experience, as well as by checking that resource. Our first step was to secure an invitation to attend districtwide PBIS training that was being offered to our district K–12 schools. Once we started the training, we organized a PBIS Leadership Team. Our school principal is a strong proponent of the initiative, and she designated a school psychologist and a school social worker who are extremely knowledgeable about the development of social/emotional competencies and passionate about the PBIS initiative to head the team. Additionally our PBIS Leadership Team includes representatives of all the disciplines who are providing services within our program (e.g., speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists) as well as teachers. During the districtwide PBIS training, our PBIS Leadership Team had to carefully consider our program’s structure and philosophy, resources and expertise, developmental and behavioral needs, and the evidence-based practices (Hemmeter et al., 2007) to determine if the PBIS model could be adapted to the preschool level. Once they determined that the PBIS principles could be applied with modifications, they worked to gain commitment from our staff and to maintain the training link with our statewide trainers. Our team kept our staff informed throughout the months of training about the rationale for the program, how our needs assessment findings indicated that we needed to become a PBIS school, how it would be advantageous to all staff for us to embark on this journey, and so on. The team moved forward at a moderate pace to ensure development of a positive attitude and a good skill set that would support long-term adoption and institutionalization of the PBIS practices. Throughout the first year, we developed strategies for teaching and acknowledging student compliance with the expectations, as well as a staff development plan for maintaining consistency across the program. We also strengthened our link with our mental health professionals (school psychologists and school social workers) to create tiers of increasing instructional/intervention intensity, embedding a data-based decision-making process within and across the tiers so that student needs are properly identified and met; then, progress within and across each tier is monitored.

Family involvement is another important component that needs to be reciprocal in nature; we needed to gain input from families about our evolving PBIS program and we used the PBIS strategies to support families in developing social/emotional skills in home and community settings. We included regular articles about the PBIS program in the newsletter sent home from our preschool PTA as well as by the individual teachers, we incorporated PBIS information in the student handbook, and we printed the program-wide expectations on the “carpool tags” that parents hang from their rearview mirror (see Figure 3), so they can follow our program-wide expectations too! We’ve asked our school PTA for funds to purchase a variety of supplies, including puppets that are used to teach the behavioral expectations, large signs for the playground, and so on, and we have also enjoyed the opportunity to conduct “make and take” evenings with parents so they can make their own “behavioral expectation chart” and “picture schedules.”



Through the past 8 years, we have developed, implemented, and evaluated a systems-wide model that includes three levels of prevention and intervention with data-based decision making so students’ needs are met at tiers of varying intensity. We have institutionalized a set of universal practices for our young learners so that staff members build positive relationships with children in a safe and predictable learning environment. Additionally, the school and classroom physical environments, daily activities, and allocated instructional time are purposefully organized, and prosocial verbal and nonverbal behaviors are taught explicitly.

Carol Foster, our preschool teacher, would attest to the power of this model to help staff recognize and respond to the needs of young learners for positive classrooms and schooling environments. Our young learners deserve nothing less.



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