Providing Effective Behavior Support for Teachers and Children

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Detention Slip Flickr ecastro
Excessive, reactive punishment is economically and socially costly – and antithetical to a model of education that is rooted in a child’s ability to be present in class and ready to learn.

Several weeks ago, the US Department of Education and the US Department of Justice issued a series of guidelines to address growing evidence and concern over the disproportionate use of school disciplinary techniques. The announcement of the new guidelines addressed long standing policies and practices of educational exclusion, such as suspension and expulsion, along with zero tolerance practices. The announcement acknowledged that the implementation of these reactive and punitive policies and practices were disseminated at differential rates for both minority youth and children with disabilities.

Above and beyond the disproportional use of reactive punishment, these practices are not associated with success. Children who are frequently disciplined and/or who spend time in school environments where there are ongoing negative disciplinary measures are more likely to be retained at grade level and/or drop out of school. This is economically and socially costly and is antithetical to a model of education that is rooted in a child’s ability to be present in class and ready to learn.

The new guidelines shift the theoretical model of school discipline, from a medical model of child pathology (disobedience in need of punishment/treatment) to a social model of ecological prevention. The guidelines emphasize the role of teachers and supportive classroom practices as a foundation for prevention. Rather than focus on reactions to student behavior using punitive measures, which can involve police and criminal justice responses, the new guidelines consider the prospective development of a classroom that promotes pro-social behavior and prioritizes early intervention over treatment. Pro-social prevention, rather than disciplinary reactions, has been shown to be “best practice” in education and other health and social domains.

Pro-social prevention, rather than disciplinary reaction, is a proven best practice in education and other health and social domains.
CSEFEL Pyramid Model
The CSEFEL Pyramid Model for Supporting Social Emotional Competence in Infants and Young Children

The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) is a national resource center funded by the Office of Head Start and Child Care Bureau for disseminating research and evidence-based practices to early childhood programs across the country. They use a pyramid model to describe promising practices for preventing and addressing challenging behaviors while supporting the social emotional competence of infants, toddlers, and young children. Massachusetts has been a state partner of CSEFEL’s since 2009, benefiting from the Center’s training, technical assistance, materials, and coaching practices in order to build competency across the state in the Pyramid Model approach.

Professional development opportunities and demonstration sites development in using the Pyramid Model continue to be rolled-out across the Commonwealth through a variety of funding, training and coaching resources, including the Connected Beginnings Training Institute, a program of Wheelock College’s Aspire Institute.

In Boston, Family Service of Greater Boston, Inc. has developed a program, Strong StartTM, which provides early education and care consultation and play therapy services to selected childcare agencies in the metro Boston area. The program’s mission is to improve the social/emotional advancement of children in selected inner city early education and care programs by providing intensive intervention services to children with social/emotional delays and/or other mental health needs. In addition, the program also works to improve the quality of the children’s teachers by providing comprehensive professional development activities and opportunities.

Family-srvice-of-GB-logoStrong Start’sTM model provides on-site services of an early childhood educator and a mental health clinician who work together at the same child care site in order to ensure comprehensive services. The program is based on CSEFEL’s pyramid model where at the base of the pyramid all of the childcare personnel at the site receive basic professional development opportunities such as workshops/trainings and articles on relevant topics. At the middle of the pyramid those childcare personnel who may need extra assistance receive in-class consultation, modeling, and mentoring. Play therapy is represented at the top of the pyramid. It is for those children whose needs are greater than what can be met through classroom changes and therefore may need more intensive services.

Programs such as Strong StartTM provide classroom teachers with a strong support system to help them develop strategies to assist children with social emotional needs. Furthermore, they provide a support system to those individual children who may have experienced trauma. These types of programs would be beneficial to educators throughout the prek-12 system. The issues and behaviors may change as children grow and develop, but educators and children still need strong support for responding to and preventing them.

Photos courtesy of ecastro under flickr creative commons license, CSEFEL, and Family Service of Greater Boston

Emily MannEmily Mann is an Associate Academic Specialist in the Human Services Program at Northeastern University. She received a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the State University of New York at Geneseo, a Master’s of Science in Social Work, and a Ph.D. in Social Welfare from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied the effects of early intervention on delinquency prevention. Dr. Mann spent two years as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Clinical Research Training Program (CRTP) at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, and was also a National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow.  Dr. Mann’s teaching and research focuses on educational interventions and academic and social functioning.


Deborah Abelman picDeborah Abelman is the Early Childhood Education Supervisor for Family Service of Greater Boston’s Strong Start Program. She received a B.A. in Linguistics from Brandeis University, an M.Ed. in Young Children with Special Needs from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a Ph.D. in Early Childhood Special Education from the University of California at Berkeley with San Francisco State University. Dr. Abelman has over 30 years of experience in the field of early intervention/early childhood education/special education in both the public and private sectors.

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  1. Hi Deborah,

    This is a voice out of your Charlottesville past. I came across the pictures I took of you in 1993 when I visited Oakland at your little House up in the hills. This was just after the fires. It is good to find you and to learn that you are still serving children.

    btw Pam Moran is our Superintendent and does a good job with keeping communications going.

    More later.