Start at Square 1 — Tier 1– to Address Challenging Behavior in PreK

Last month, we introduced the Pyramid Model – an evidence-based approach based in the  Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) framework for young children.

See this handout for full-size visual:

Our main take-away was “don’t flip the pyramid” – in other words, it’s better to implement measures that prevent challenging behavior (Tier 1 & 2 of the Pyramid Model) before spending all of your energy providing intensive help to a few children (Tier 3).

We may all agree with the notion that Tier 1 (building Nurturing and Responsive Relationships and High Quality Supportive Environments) is a good place to start. After all, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” right?

Here, we’ll look at the 8 areas of Tier 1 practices and then highlight 3 common areas of need in classrooms.

What does Tier 1 look like? 8 Practice Areas

See our VPI+ Tier 1 Resources handout for more detail on each area and links to valuable resources.

1-Supportive Communication with Children

2-Adults Work as a Team to Support Children

3-Schedules & Routines

4-Classroom Design

5-Promote Children’s Engagement

6-Teach Behavior Expectations/Rules


8-Providing Directions to Children

Top 3 Common Needs in Tier 1

Let’s take a deeper dive into 3 practice areas that research tells us are typically the greatest needs.

For each area, we’ll share some observable teaching practices, drawn from the CSEFEL Inventory of Practices and other linked resources below.

#1 Common Need: Teach Behavior Expectations/Rules

* Post visuals with 3-5 specific, positively stated rules (e.g., “Gentle hands,” “Walking feet,” “Listening Ears”) – these may correspond to any general expectation (e.g., “Be safe,” “Be respectful”) (see TACSEI Teaching Tools: Classroom Rules PPT)

* Systematically teach classroom rules (with children’s input, demonstration, practice)

* Regularly review expectations/rules– before and after challenging behaviors occur

* Regularly reinforce children who demonstrate these rules/expectations

Video [3:49]: Take a look at this teacher reviewing classroom rules. Note what elements you notice her implementing and what children say/do that indicate her practices are working.

Children Demonstrating Classroom Rules

(source: CSEFEL Module 1)

#2 Common Need: Schedules & Routines

* Create a daily schedule that balances child-led activities (centers, free play) with teacher-led activities (whole group, small group)

* Keep teacher-led activities to under 20 minutes —and shorten further when children’s attention wanes!

* Post and refer regularly to a visual schedule of daily activities at children’s eye level

* Follow a daily schedule with a consistent set of activities with embedded routines—and prepare children for changes

* For children who need individualized support, provide extra cues and visuals (e.g., a cue card, mini picture schedule showing steps to an activity)

(see: VKRP Guide to Using Cues & Visuals with link to TACSEI PPT: Visuals to Print)

(source: CSEFEL Module 1)

#3 Common Need: Supportive Communication with Children

* Give specific praise that describes children’s positive behaviors (see TACSEI: Communication is Key handout)

* Give more attention to positive than challenging behaviors: use a ratio of 5-to-1 Positive to Negative/corrective feedback

* Have extended conversations about children’s interests and ideas

* Join in children’s play to show interest, follow their lead, and offer support

(source: CSEFEL Module 1)

What Can I Do?

#1 Teach and support Tier 1 practices across your workforce, focusing on prevention of, instead of reacting to, challenging behaviors

Use free Pyramid PD resources, starting with CSEFEL Module 1 – which overviews all Tier 1 Practices. This inservice module (with PPT presentation, embedded videos, and supporting materials for trainers and teachers) can be delivered by program staff or a local/hired trainer (reach out to your local T/TAC provider for suggestions).

#2 Assess use of Tier 1 practices using Pyramid observation tools

Fidelity (using practices as intended) is key to success.  Use a good fidelity tool to assess the important, but not-so-obvious, distinctions among levels of implementing practices as intended (e.g., for Teaching Behavior Expectations: posting rules is important, but reviewing them consistently is necessary for children to improve behavior).  Two Teaching Pyramid fidelity measures are the Teaching Pyramid Observation Tool (an in-depth, validated measure for purchase; see TPOT-At-A-Glance for overview) and the TPOT-Short Form (free, less in-depth, unvalidated version found on p. 15-16 of this CECMHC Observation Toolkit).

#3 Have teachers self-assess their practices and offer coaching support to teachers to strengthen selected practices

Teachers should self-assess their strengths and needs (the CSEFEL Inventory of Practices is designed for this) as well as being observed for fidelity. Ongoing coaching support using fidelity observations and teachers’ self-assessments has been demonstrated effective for promoting better social-emotional outcomes and reduced challenging behaviors! 

Don’t Flip the Pyramid! Addressing Challenging Behavior in PreK

Reader feedback was that you want more posts on the topic of challenging behaviors in 2018!

So this is the start of a spring series on addressing Challenging Behaviors…

When we talk about this issue, it’s essential that we first introduce the Pyramid Model.

As an administrator, you may not have heard of the “Pyramid Model,” but you may be quite familiar with tiered systems of supports or Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS).

The Pyramid Model is an evidence-based PBIS approach designed for PreK (and younger) children. The model includes three “tiers” of practice.  Tier 1 includes classroom-wide practices to prevent challenging behavior, Tier 2 refers to more targeted supports, and Tier 3 includes intensive interventions.

When the Pyramid Model is implemented as intended, it improves young children’s Social-Emotional Learning & reduces challenging behaviors (see summary of outcomes here; recent classroom study here). In taking this approach, we can counteract a concerning trend that young children, especially children of color, face punitive measures like suspension or expulsion at alarming rates!

What should the Pyramid look like when implemented as intended?

See this handout for full-size visual:

4 Key Elements

#1 Programs work proactively to build an Effective Workforce.

This means implementing program-wide training, systems, and policies to promote and sustain best practices described below.

#2 Ongoing efforts are made to solidify and enhance Tier 1- Universal Promotion: Classroom-wide.

This involves teachers implementing a number of practices that form “Nurturing & Responsive Relationships” and “High-Quality Supportive Environments.” These Tier 1 practices include: developmentally appropriate schedules and routines, effective transitions, promoting children’s engagement, supporting communication, teaching and reminding children of behavior expectations/rules, giving clear directions, and collaborative teaming with adults.

Note: These Tier 1 practices may sound easy—but doing them with fidelity in a classroom of ~20 young children is not. Research suggests that most classrooms have room to grow practices here—as well as the other tiers! (To learn more, see this recent study or the published Teaching Pyramid Observation Tool manual (Hemmeter, Fox, & Synder, 2013.))

#3 Attention is then paid to Tier 2- Secondary Prevention- “Targeted Social-Emotional Supports.”

Here, teachers explicitly teach and support emotions skills, problem-solving skills, and social/ friendship skills. This occurs systematically to prevent and remediate skill deficits (i.e., through classroom-wide, small group, and individualized instruction and in-the-moment feedback).

#4 When children show persistent, severe challenging behavior (unresponsive to Tiers 1-2), a Tier 3 “Intensive Intervention” process occurs.

This process should involve a team (of teachers, parents, school admins/staff/specialists) who uses data to plan, implement, and monitor progress of highly individualized, intensive interventions (in written “behavior intervention/ behavior support plans”).

What does it look like when we “flip the Pyramid?”

Consider this scenario:  

“Jonah” has been hitting peers (and sometimes adults) when he doesn’t get what he wants and shows noncompliance during transitions (e.g., fails to clean up or doesn’t comply with teacher’s instructions to stand in line).


A few of his peers—“Aiden,” “Tania” and “Eden,” have similar behavior problems (e.g., Aiden tantrums during transitions; Eden sometimes bites peers over toys, etc.).

What is often our approach (in a “flipped” Pyramid)?

First, we identify the problem as skill deficits of a particular child—Jonah— or maybe even all 4 children (Jonah, Aiden, Tania, and Eden). We focus on highly individualized, intensive interventions (Tier 3) for the child(ren)’s aggression, noncompliance, etc. We skip past the important step of asking ourselves “what kinds of classroom-wide supports (Tier 1) or targeted social-emotional teaching (Tier 2) strategies could be implemented/enhanced to help this child — AND all children?”

Does this sound familiar to you? In our experience, focusing on the child first and classroom practices second–or perhaps not at all– is quite common.

Why might we jump to the “individualized” interventions first?

No one wants to “ignore” challenging behavior—for the teachers’, parents’, or child’s sake! The teachers (and perhaps parents) who are highly stressed managing the behavior need real, immediate assistance. Without intervention, the child’s challenging behavior may worsen and result in missed learning opportunities and negative long-term consequences. Also, we are more likely to try and fix what we notice (“the squeaky wheel gets the grease” phenomenon)! We notice the challenging behaviors of a child more easily than we notice Tiers 1 or 2 practices that could grow. That child’s behavior makes him/her stick out like a sore thumb! These are all understandable reasons, but what are the downsides?

3 Costs of “Flipping the Pyramid”

#1 We may waste time/resources on intensive, individualized interventions that aren’t ultimately needed.

Dr. Glen Dunlap, author of Prevent-Teach-Reinforce for Young Children (a manualized, evidence-based approach to Tier 3), explains, implementing universal classroom practices often serves to prevent, reduce, or even eliminate challenging behaviors without more time- and labor- intensive individualized interventions. In other words, before going down the path of Tier 3, we should look for more efficient solutions at Tiers 1 & 2. (Especially when resources are taxed by 2, 3, or 4 children’s challenging behaviors at one time!)

#2 Highly individualized/intensive interventions may not work (or work as well) without the strong foundational class-wide practices in place.

A sign this may be happening? You feel like you’re “putting out fires” without making much progress.

#3 Children across the classroom miss out on the benefits of stronger class-wide practices: better social-emotional learning and long-term outcomes.

Ages 4-5 (and really birth through 8) are a critical time for growth in social-emotional learning, which predicts long-term academic and other important outcomes (summarized in this DEC Position Statement on Challenging behavior)

What Can I Do (instead)? 

The good news is there are many things that we can do in our programs (as administrators, support staff, teachers) to implement the Pyramid as intended and get the desired impacts on child learning and behavior.

2 Key Things to Remember

#1 When teaming with teachers around challenging behaviors, we should make sure to start with universally effective environments/relationships (Tier 1 practices) – before, or simultaneously with — implementing highly individualized interventions for individual children (a Tier 3 process).   

For example, in the Jonah scenario: Your team may ultimately make a special plan for Jonah (hopefully informed by good data!)— but you would first consider supporting teachers working on Tier 1 strategies, like: modifying transitions, teaching expected behaviors, giving clear directions/commands, and Tier 2 strategies like: supporting children’s problem-solving skills!

A key question to ask ourselves and our teams is:

What kinds of classroom-wide environmental/relational supports (Tier 1) or targeted social-emotional teaching (Tier 2) strategies could be implemented/enhanced to help this child — AND all children?”

#2 We should develop capacities of our workforce (including ourselves) by learning more about the Pyramid, how to implement the Pyramid “upright” and with good fidelity.

You can start by reading the linked resources above (e.g., what is the Pyramid Model, the DEC’s Position Statement on Challenging behavior).

Then stay tuned in upcoming blogs in our series for answers to common questions about implementing the Pyramid, like:

What do Tier 1 and 2 practices look like, and how do we do them better across our classrooms/programs (using freely available resources)?

What does a Tier 3 process look like—and how can my program do this better?


Top 10 High-Quality PreK Resources of 2017

We started the VPI+ Administrator Blog in May 2017 with the goal of providing administrators and their teaching teams with the best content and resources on high-quality PreK.

To start 2018, we’ve curated a list of top 10 resources demonstrating what “high-quality PreK” practices look like and how administrators can effectively lead improvements!

Block pyramid

#1 To see what quality PreK instruction looks like

The searchable VPI+ Video Clip Directory—with over 150 video clips—includes great examples of effective PreK math, literacy, science, and social-emotional instruction with diverse young learners.

As you’ll see in these clips—like the excellent ones from Erikson Early Math Collaborative— effective instruction is more than just exposing children to content—it boils down to how content is delivered through teacher-child interactions that support engagement, build knowledge, and expand thinking skills. You can check out our 3-part series on “Rigor in PreK” (June, July, August blogs) to learn more.

#2 To promote high-quality interactions, which are the foundation of high-quality PreK (and K-12+) instruction…

The Head Start 15-minute In-service Suites (online modules) provide videos and other resources for administrators/supervisors, coaches/trainers, and teachers to improve interactions. We selected some of best, most in-demand modules for you below. Many we shared in blogs—with a few bonuses*. (Tip: Remember to scroll down and look under the heading “Supporting Materials”):

Social and Emotional Support 1) *Following Children’s Lead  
2) Being Aware of Children’s Needs
3) Creating a Caring Community
Well-Organized Classrooms 1) Creating Classroom Rules
2) *Classroom Transitions
3) *Redirecting Behavior
Instructional Interactions 1) Asking Questions
2) Fostering Children’s Thinking Skills
3) Providing Feedback

#3 To observe & promote children’s engagement, a necessary element for all learning…

Our Administrator Checklist for Observing Active Engagement is a simple checklist designed to help administrators systematically gather information about how young children are actively engaged within/across PreK settings and use this information to plan with teachers. See examples of highly engaging PreK activities in our July blog.

#4 To promote children’s literacy skills

The PALS office has great resources for administrators and teachers seeking effective literacy activities for PreK, including these two: This searchable directory of PALS Activities and this 1-page “Teacher Checklist of Literacy Practices” overviews literacy practices to consistently implement.

Key point from the October blog: Encourage activities that are explicit, playful and meaningful, across the day (during book reading, learning centers, and routines) and discourage more rote, de-contextualized activities (worksheets, flashcards, or letter-of-the-day).

#5 To promote children’s self-regulation skills (and reduce challenging behaviors)…

This Self-Regulation resource from the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program provides free guides to implement 6 evidence-based strategies, including: Playing Games, Using Cues and Visuals, and Modifying Activities & Environments.

Key point from the December blog: self-regulation should be taught and supported to both build these critical skills class-wide and as a proactive way to reduce challenging behaviors of individual children.

#6 To promote children’s social-emotional skills (and reduce challenging behaviors)…

The TACSEI Teaching Tools for Young Children has a set of resources for school and home use including: the “Turtle Technique” to teach children emotion regulation and Visual Strategies (like schedules, cue cards, etc.) to teach expected behaviors. You’ve Got to Have Friends is a brief article from CSEFEL that provides evidence-based strategies for teaching social skills (like using a buddy system).

#7 To use classroom interactions data (CLASS) to guide PreK quality improvements…

If you are an administrator in VPI+ classrooms with CLASS-PreK observation data (or in Head Start and other programs around the country who have this data), this Head Start guide on using CLASS-PreK for program improvement will give you a helpful introduction and step-by-step approach.

#8 To use child Kindergarten Readiness data to assess PreK program outcomes & promote learning in Kindergarten…

Dr. Amanda Williford’s November post outlines ways that leaders and teachers can use the data provided by the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program. To learn more, a recent Ounce of Prevention Fund report, “Uses and Misuses of Kindergarten Readiness Assessments,” provides helpful information about the Do’s and Don’ts for using kindergarten readiness assessment (KRA) data.

#9 To reflect on the balance of play and explicit instruction in early childhood…

This EdWeek article by Dr. Daphna Bassok delineates how Kindergarten can—and should—be both developmentally appropriate and focused on rigorous instruction. It’s not an “either/or” scenario – it should be “both/and.”

#10 To reflect & plan for your critical role for instructional leadership (PreK-3)…

This Foundation for Child Development Principal’s Brief titled “PreK-3rd: Principals as Crucial Instructional Leaders” explains how you can guide improvements that will maximize impacts for all students in your school (including those 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders!).

Our Top 9 above support many of their recommendations! Administrators need to know: what high-quality PreK looks like, how children learn key skills (like literacy, self-regulation, social-emotional), how to support teaching practices, and how to use data effectively to guide program improvements.

We hope this “Best Of” helps you quickly find resources most needed — now & for future reference!

In 2018, we hope to bring you more of the content that’s most useful to you! Please share your feedback in this mini- survey!

Preschoolers’ Self-Regulation and Challenging Behaviors: What We Must Know

Reflect for a moment: Do we expect infants to control their behavior on their own? If they cry, flail their arms and legs, is this misbehavior?

Source: istock/CareyHope

No, we see these behaviors as cues to caregivers that the child needs help regulating. And we respond by soothing the child (picking them up and using a calm voice) or we engage the child in a positive interaction/activity (game of peek-a-boo, etc.).

Yet, sometimes we assume 4-5 year olds will automatically regulate– without any adult support!

(Aside: Would we ever expect this with literacy learning? “They’ll just learn to read on their own…”)

The Problem (or Solution) of Self-Regulation

In last month’s blog, we introduced you to the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program (VKRP), which expands the measurement of school readiness skills to include self-regulation.

Some people responded with questions about what we mean by “self-regulation” – it’s not something most educators learned about in school. But it is something that you deal with every day. More often you hear about the flip side of self-regulation – challenging behaviors like disruptive behavior, non-compliance, and aggression.

Often we think about “how we can decrease these challenging behaviors?” – but it’s helpful to flip the question to: “how we can promote positive self-regulatory skills?”!

3 Things Administrators and Educators Need to Know about Self-Regulation

#1) Self-regulation can be taught and supported as a proactive way to address behaviors. Behavior regulation, a key aspect of children’s self-regulation, involves children learning to STOP certain behaviors and START an appropriate behavior (based on the expectations of adults and peers in a particular activity/setting). Children 4-5 years old naturally display a wide range of behavior regulation skills but all children can make progress with the right strategies. (We’ll introduce some key strategy resources to you at the end of the blog!)

#2) The same child can be highly regulated or highly dysregulated depending on the context (including adults’ expectations and supports.)

#3) The lens we use to observe self-regulation behaviors in context is critical. If we miss the context (what happens before-and-after) moments of dysregulation we end up missing teaching opportunities—and we may react to behaviors in less helpful ways.

To see point #3 in action, let’s take a quick look at a 4-year-old child (the girl in the orange vest) who is developing her behavior regulation.

Video [0:10]

source: UVA-CASTL: ECI

What are your initial observations? How do you interpret her behavior: is she being “aggressive”? “Having difficulty controlling her anger”?

That’s a common first take.

Now watch again, this time with some more context—what happened before and after?

Video [0:22]

source: UVA-CASTL: ECI

Typically observers see the behavior differently this time, once they notice the context. Although the child clearly intruded on her peer’s space in an unwanted manner, it wasn’t intentionally “aggressive” or driven by “anger.” They agreed to ‘play fight’ with the horses (“Let’s see who wins!”). This girl is having a hard time regulating her behavior during the play. She isn’t aware that her level of ‘pretend fighting’ with the horse isn’t appropriate for the setting. She misses several cues from her peer that the play is too rough (grimacing, turning away).

What did it take for her to become regulated? Her teacher providing the cue that she needed to stop and play more gently (“Lilly, that’s too rough”).

The Take-Aways

Some of the misbehavior we see in early childhood classrooms is just a normal part of young children learning about behavior— what’s appropriate, when, with whom?

Now, this doesn’t mean that misbehavior should just be accepted!

Nor does it mean that all misbehavior should be punished.

Remember: punishment won’t serve to teach a skill or replacement behavior! (In fact, frequent reactive punishment can exacerbate negative cycles with children—especially when that child is viewed as a “problem child” or labeled “aggressive.”)


Instead, behavior difficulties can be seen as opportunities to teach and support children to self-regulate.

Here’s an example of how a teacher is proactively teaching children as a class to regulate their behaviors (“use calm bodies and voices” to greet one another) in morning circle time.

Video [1:07]


What Can I Do?

#1 Ensure that children showing challenging behaviors are observed in context—When is the behavior happening? What happened before and after?—so that needs for teaching and supporting regulation skills can be assessed (and then re-assessed over time to ensure response to interventions).

#2 In addition to individual child observations, it’s important to understand ALL children’s regulation needs and look for opportunities to teach and support regulation class-wide. Looking at classroom level self-regulation data, ask: What are the trends in data to suggest the need for class-wide strategies versus (or in addition to) more intensive individual supports to one or two children? It’s easy to focus in on one child when many/most young children could benefit from regulation teaching and supports!

#3 Share strategy resources to teach and support self-regulation, as outlined in this helpful Self-Regulation resource from the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program.

On page 4 are links to free guides to implement 6 evidence-based strategies to promote children’s self-regulation, including these three—which we pulled out to get you started:

  1. Playing Games
  2. Using Cues and Visuals
  3. Modifying Activities & Environments

We’ll return to the complex challenge of challenging behaviors (it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach!), but we think looking at challenging behavior with a regulation-in-context lens is a critical first step.


Do’s and Don’ts of Using Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Data

What do you know about your Kindergarteners’ readiness skills when they enter your school?

Have you heard, over the past 3 years, Virginia has been working to expand measurement of kindergarteners’ readiness to assess not only learning in literacy (using PALS—as introduced in last month’s blog) but also self-regulation, social skills and math?

Our guest blogger for this month is Amanda Williford, a professor at UVA-CASTL who leads the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program (VKRP).

She shares important tips on the Do’s and Don’ts of using VKRP data for leaders at every level of your system: teachers, assistant principals and principals, division leaders, and state-level leaders.

If you want more information on VKRP, please go to their website ( –and feel free to add any questions/comments to our comments section.

This fall marks the 3rd year of the voluntary statewide roll out of the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program (VKRP)—an initiative to expand our understanding of the early learning skills that young children display at the beginning of kindergarten. Almost half of all school divisions are now participating, including almost 20,000 students.

That’s a lot of data!

Source: istock/Saklakova

So, what’s next? Let’s make sure we use it wisely!

A recent Ounce of Prevention Fund report, “Uses and Misuses of Kindergarten Readiness Assessments,” provides helpful information about the Do’s and Don’ts for using kindergarten readiness assessment (KRA) data.

Aligned with these recommendations, VKRP data is designed to help school leaders ensure that every young child has the supports they need to be successful in school and life.

DO’s of VKRP Data Use

Teachers can use the data to:

  • Meet a student where they are and help them learn the next set of skills
  • Refer a student for additional assessment or services
  • Have a conversation with a family member to support a child’s learning at home

School leaders can use the data to better understand incoming cohorts of students, informing decisions about individualizing professional development to teachers, deploying existing resources, and procuring additional supports by answering questions such as:

  • How much variability is evident in readiness for incoming students?
  • Is this variability similar or different across readiness skills (e.g., literacy vs. math)?
  • Is the pattern of readiness similar or different across classrooms?
  • How does our school’s data compare to similar schools within our division, or across Virginia?

Division leaders can use the data to:

  • Look for variability within and across schools
  • Align preschool, kindergarten, and elementary programming
  • Create better transition practices
  • Highlight the importance of developing students’ self-regulation and social skills
Source: istock/Rawpixel

State leaders, advocates, and policy makers can use the data to:

  • Identify statewide readiness gaps
  • Understand variability from community to community to get a better picture of statewide needs
  • Examine whether services prior to kindergarten contribute to improved readiness
  • Examine data over time to identify patterns and trends across the state
Source: VDOE

It is appropriate and prudent to use VKRP data (and other sources of early childhood education information) to identify readiness gaps, track system-level trends, and inform effective allocation of education resources.

Statewide representative data tell us that on average, 34% of young children arrive to kindergarten in Virginia lacking foundational skills in the areas of reading, math, self-regulation, or social skills. In other words—as shared in the first VPI+ Administrator blog post, 1 in 3 children are “not ready”!

We need to know where the gaps are so we can meet the needs!

DON’T’s of VKRP Data Use

But, it would also be easy to misuse VKRP data. It is important to note that VKRP was not designed to be reliable within a high stakes accountability environment, and therefore is not well suited for use as a specific consequence to students, teachers or programs!

Rather, these data are primed to help key players in classrooms, schools, divisions, and government make data-informed decisions about how to best meet the needs of Virginia’s youngest students and invest strategically in early childhood initiatives.

The Bottom Line

Widespread participation in VKRP presents a valuable opportunity to inform conversations among Virginia stakeholders when designing early learning programs, aligning educational practices from PreK to third grade, and leveraging resources for maximum impact. For instance, having VKRP data in school divisions where VPI+ PreK expansion and improvement work is happening can answer the key question:

“Are children in our division showing up for Kindergarten MORE ready to learn?”


When we use data in the right ways (as Dr. Williford shares above), we should run toward the data and not away from it.

Early Literacy: Fact or Fiction??

Teachers across Virginia have spent a lot of time in August and September conducting assessments to get a “read” on where their students need more literacy support (pun intended!). In PreK classrooms that usually means PALS – or the Phonological Awareness Screening- PreK.

How much do you know about what the PALS-Pre-K assesses? For that matter, how much do you know about very early literacy skills? Many of the administrators we talk to say they didn’t get a lot of training in what early literacy development looks like – or how teachers can best support those skills.

So let’s talk a bit about Early Literacy.

As you get your PALS-PreK results, your inclination may be to look for the gaps in literacy skills measured by PALS-PreK and have teachers respond by doing more rhymes, more flashcards, letter of the day, or any number of activities…

But what does the latest research say about early literacy? Read each statement below and take a moment to say whether you think its FACT or FICTION. Then play the video and you’ll get the answer from national experts in early literacy.

#1 Preschoolers should be taught to read.


Dr. David Dickinson tells us that preschoolers shouldn’t be expected to do “traditional reading,” but they should engage in “emergent reading”– including: engaging with books/poems/songs in an enjoyable way, understanding how print works, and writing words (like their names) and even simple sentences to convey language.

#2 Language and literacy skills, like vocabulary and print knowledge, lay a foundation for later reading.


Dr. Laura Justice talks about how young children (as young as 1 or 2) produce increasingly complex language and come to recognize that print has meaning. Preschool language and literacy skills serve as building blocks to reading and writing achievements– K-5 and beyond.

#3  It’s not developmentally appropriate to explicitly teach early literacy skills to preschoolers.


Dr. Sonia Cabell talks about how interested young children are in books, words, and letters. They see text around them every day and get really excited about starting to “unlock” the code. But she also points out that literacy instruction for young children needs to remain playful. We shouldn’t be using worksheets or flashcards in the preschool classroom. Below are some great ways to be both explicit and playful in teaching early literacy:

Daily interactive book reading in which the teacher explicitly draws children’s attention to: print, letters, sounds (beginning sounds, syllables, rhyming), or the meaning of text. (Caution: mixing all these skills at once isn’t recommended– intentionally focus on 1 literacy goal at a time!)

This video (4:34) is an example of a PreK book reading that focuses primarily on the meaning of text, with an opening  activity that incorporates sounds (rhyming, syllables):

Teaching Channel: Interactive Read Aloud
*Click to play video in new tab
Source: Teaching Channel

Children engaged with teachers and peers in print-rich learning centers (think: menus in a restaurant center, content-rich books in science center, calendar in home center, varied writing materials in a writing center). What’s key here is that teachers facilitate literacy learning in a playful and explicit manner with children by using the materials, having discussions about print, etc.! Just having the materials available isn’t enough – teachers need to take an active role.

Remember: Meaningful activities (as described above and expanded in the PALS resources below) are much preferred to rote or de-contextualized activities like worksheets, flashcards, or letter-of-the-day.

So, what can I do?

As our experts highlighted, PreK is not about “teaching children to read” but instead intentionally fostering children’s engagement in literacy through a variety of book reading, early writing, and language experiences, to help them develop skills that pave the way for later reading success.

When you review PALS-PreK data with teachers, consider what we learned about the instructional practices that help 4-year-olds learn best.

Consider recommending activities that are explicit, playful, and meaningful, across the day (during book reading, learning centers, and routines) and avoid more rote, de-contextualized activities (worksheets, flashcards, or letter-of-the-day).

The PALS office has great resources for administrators and teachers seeking effective literacy activities for PreK, including these two:

  1.  1-page “teacher checklist”: reviews different types of activities to embed across the day
  2. PALS Activities: searchable directory of activities organized by literacy skill (PALS subtest) and level (PreK, K, 1-3, and All)

3 Things You Can Do to Start the Year off Right in PreK

As the new school year begins, you are probably consumed with so many tasks as an administrator—planning PD, meetings (so many!), and getting to know your new teachers, children, and families! Here are a few practical suggestions for making the most of the time you have in your PreK classrooms this fall.

What should you expect to see in your PreK classrooms at the beginning of the year?

Let’s not forget that for many preschoolers, this is their very first time in a structured classroom setting. So don’t expect to walk in and see all the children focused and sitting quietly from day one. As we’ve discussed in prior posts, young children learn best when actively engaged. And for this to happen, teachers need to work hard at building a foundation of relationships and expectations that enable children to make the most of learning opportunities.

So what does this look like? Here are 3 things you should look for in your PreK classrooms this month.

#1 Teachers building positive relationships with children and families.

How do children who are separating from family (for the first time) feel safe, trust a new teacher, and ultimately take learning risks in a new, challenging environment? It all starts with relationships.

Building relationships sounds simple, but what does that look like for teachers of young children?

Make individual connections through conversations with each child and their family. Learn what’s unique about each child. What are their interests? Who lives with them? In what ways do they seek and need support? Using this information to individualize learning activities ensures that all children feel valued and experience success from the start.

Build on strengths through encouragement and specific affirmation. This brings children a sense of acceptance when they may be questioning, “Does this teacher like me?” and “am I good enough?” Always remember: Every child has strengths. It is easy to focus on what a child cannot do (yet), but we must begin with finding and building upon what they can do already do to help the child move forward in a positive way. This is never more important than the first 2 weeks of school when children have so much to learn. Focus on reinforcing efforts and the process of learning.

Become aware of children’s unique emotional needs. A young child’s first days in school often involve confusion, worry, and insecurity. When we closely observe children’s signals, we can notice and assist the child who is anxious about separation, the child who is voraciously hungry or overtired, the child who is running from the cafeteria because the sounds are overstimulating to him. We cannot jump in and begin teaching until that child has received an empathic response from us.

#2 Teachers creating a classroom community of learners.

Teachers shouldn’t be the only support person for a child—peers are important (yet often untapped) resources. Teachers have the wonderful opportunity to build a classroom community of learners who support each other’s learning and development. Teachers who take the time to teach and reinforce these skills from the start will likely save time responding to conflicts and challenging behaviors in the classroom.

What might this look like?

Establish routines, songs, and activities that help children get to know one another in whole group (morning meeting) times.

When children ask for help, get peers involved. For instance, “Maria needs help with her shoes. Does anyone else know how to tie shoes that can help Maria?” or “Justin needs to find the scissors—who can help him?” Tip: organize your materials on low shelves with pictures to allow children to help each other (and themselves) independently.

Explicitly teach children social skills, like how to make polite requests (“May I borrow that, please?”), how to join play (“Can I play with you?”), and how to give compliments (“I like how you shared with me”). Teachers should make a habit of reinforcing these and other friendly behaviors (e.g., sharing a toy, solving a social problem, helping a friend who is sad).

#3 Teachers teaching children expectations.

Entering a new classroom involves so many new transitions, routines, activities – each with different behavior expectations (and often different expectations from home)! It’s understandable that children need lots of guidance to learn what to expect and what’s expected of them across the daily schedule.

What might this look like?

Teach children expected behaviors by creating, posting, and practicing 3-5 positively stated classroom rules. Then, teachers reinforce children with specific praise when they follow rules. This positive guidance works a lot better than correcting behaviors with “no, stop, don’t”!

Teach children how to use materials appropriately. Gradually show children all the materials in the classroom that they will be able to use in learning centers. This takes time and patience on the part of the teacher.

Show and tell children what to expect before it happens using a daily visual schedule. Visual schedules that are displayed and referenced throughout the day serve as important reminders to all learners (and are an absolute necessity for children with special needs and dual language learners!)

What can I do?

Keep in mind that the new PreK students in your building are looking to teachers for comfort, a sense of belonging, and positive direction in this critical first month of school. Teachers who implement the 3 practices above can meet young children’s needs and start the year on a positive note!

Communicate the importance of these practices through check-in conversations with teachers during the first month of school.

For teachers who want to know more about these practices, share some helpful resources below.

  1. Building Relationships

Being Aware of Children’s Needs (ECLKC 15-minute Inservice Suite with a quick video, presentation, and resources)

  1. Creating a Community of Learners

Creating a Caring Community (ECLKC 15-minute Inservice Suite with a quick video, presentation, and resources)

You’ve Got to Have Friends (brief CSEFEL article that provides evidence-based strategies for teaching social skills)

  1. Teaching Children Expectations

Creating Classroom Rules (ECLKC 15-minute Inservice Suite with a quick video, presentation, and resources)

TACSEI Teaching Tools for Young Children (set of resources that include materials for making Visual Schedules)

Rigor in PreK Part III: 3 “Key Ingredients” to Instructionally Supportive Interactions in PreK and Beyond

In this month’s blog, we’re learning more about Instructionally Supportive Interactions, which we introduced in our first blog on Rigor in PreK. We think this topic deserves its own blog given how critically important these interactions are—and how much room we have to grow.

Let’s first review 3 take-aways from research about the importance of improving Instructionally Supportive Interactions 

#1 Children learn more in classrooms when teachers provide more instructionally supportive interactions. And these same interactions are important regardless of content being taught (math, language, literacy or social-emotional). In essence, the quality of interactions denotes how well curricula are delivered by teachers in a way that supports children’s thinking and learning.

#2 Learners of all ages benefit from Instructionally Supportive Interactions. Hence the “beyond” in this month’s title! Whether PreK, K-5, or secondary, teachers engaging in instructionally supportive interactions have students that learn more.

#3 You may recall from an earlier post that most PreK-5 settings researched have relatively low levels of Instructionally Supportive Interactions (see pic below). And very few children have access to effective instruction for multiple years.

For simplicity’s sake, we’re boiling down a complex ‘recipe’ for Instructionally Supportive Interactions into 3 key ‘ingredients.’

3 Key Ingredients for Instructionally Supportive Interactions—for PreK and beyond

#1 Get children thinking deeply, by: 

Asking thought provoking questions: open-ended versus closed-ended questions (which can be answered “yes” or “no” or by a single word) and  “how,” “why” or “what makes you think…” types of questions as opposed to recall-type questions with one right answer (e.g., What color is this?, What is that thing called?).

Helping children make connections between new information and things they already know and understand. Teachers need to make efforts to understand what children already know about a topic before they just give lots of information. And for preschoolers it is so important to make connections to their real lives – most 4-year-olds are interested in things they can see, touch, and interact with.

Supporting children in developing their own ideasActivities that prompt children to generate their own ideas and products develop their thinking skills (e.g., reasoning and executive function). Get them to brainstorm and predict what will happen!

As you watch this video (2:31), notice how the teacher asks thought-provoking questions, connects learning, and provides opportunities for children to predict.

*Click to play video in new tab
Source: Office of Head Start

This teacher got the children thinking deeply using thought-provoking questions (“What do you think the ‘thumbs up’ might mean?”), connecting a new idea to previous learning (“We’ve been talking about our 5 senses…”), and asking children to make predictions (“Can anybody guess what’s inside here?”).

#2 Teachers should promote extended serve-and-return interactions
Getting children to think deeply is just the first step. It’s the resulting back- and- forth exchanges between teachers and children that really matter. Such exchanges are sometimes called “serve and return interactions.” Think of classroom interactions like a tennis match. If you see a teacher “serve” a question, a child’s response is the “return.” Likewise, if a child “serves” a statement to the teacher, the teacher may “return” with a follow-up statement or question. Children’s “serves” may be obvious, like a question, but can also include more subtle cues, like a confused look. Note that even high-quality “serves” aren’t always returned — a teacher might ask a great question, but if the child doesn’t respond, there’s no return—and that’s a missed opportunity for interaction.

#3 Teachers should “return” children’s serves with timely and effective feedback
Learners need many opportunities to practice a skill or gain new knowledge with immediate teacher feedback. Effective feedback involves serve and return interactions that lead to children having deeper/clearer understanding of concepts. Teachers need keen observation skills, flexibility, and persistence to provide effective feedback. Children won’t necessarily ask for feedback – teachers have to “read” their cues in real time and provide just the right scaffolding to aid in learning (including hints, follow-up questions, asking children to explain their thought process, giving more information, and encouraging effort.)

Take a look at this brief video (1:16) and see if you notice two children’s “serves” and how the teacher “returns” them with effective feedback.

*Click to play video in new tab
Source: Office of Head Start

The children in this video made several “serves” (e.g., “What’s a shuttle?” and “What if you let goed of it and we blowed on it?”) and the teacher consistently “returned” these serves with feedback by encouraging effort (“that’s a good question, should we try it?”) and giving information (“a shuttle is a spaceship,” “it still fell down because we have so much gravity …”). You also may have noticed aspects of Key Ingredient #1: Getting Children Thinking—asking thought-provoking questions and giving children opportunities to predict.

What can I do?

1. Observe for Instructionally Supportive Interactions in your next classroom visits (PreK and beyond). As you observe, remember that it’s more than just the frequency of teacher strategies (like questioning), but the quality of serve-and-return interactions that matter. For instance, how frequently is the teacher asking open-ended, higher-order questions that result in child talk? How does the teacher then give feedback that leads to back-and-forth discussions? Videotaping in classrooms can allow you (and the teacher) to reflect on the nature/quality of interactions.

2. Use PD resources to support quality Instructionally Supportive Interactions with teachers (PreK and beyond). Here are three 15-minute Inservice Suites with videos, presentations, and resources. You will find resources for administrators & teachers, including observation tools, under the heading “Supporting Materials.”

1. Asking Questions
2. Fostering Children’s Thinking Skills
3. Providing Feedback

Rigorous Pre-K Part II: Fostering Active Engagement for 4- & 5 -Year- Olds

In the last post we introduced 3 features of rigorous PreK instruction: (1) children are actively engaged, (2) learning is contextualized, and (3) teachers have instructionally supportive interactions.

In this post, we’ll dive deeper into Feature #1: Active Engagement.

Active Engagement is a critical condition for learning. Research has found that academic achievement occurs through engagement, yet one study found that preschool children were disengaged 1/3 of the time  (e.g., wandering, waiting, not engaged in any activity)!

Administrators who observe older grades are used to looking for signs of engagement, like students raising hands, answering questions, and sustaining attention during group and independent work.

But what does Active engagement look like for young learners across the day: whole/small group, learning centers, transitions?

Let’s Address Some Common Misconceptions


Common Misconception: Young children should sit quietly and raise hands as directed during extended whole or small groups.

Reality: Young children actively engage in groups through on-task talk, movement, and enthusiastic participation, including–but not limited to–raising hands. Young children may be moving or fidgeting more than older children, but this movement can actually help children maximize their learning. Children show more engagement when provided frequent opportunities to move, talk, and manipulate materials and are more likely to sustain attention across brief groups (under 15-20 minutes).

Take a look at this video clip (1:40) of children showing active engagement through movement in whole group:

*Click to play video in new tab
Source: Office of Head Start


Common Misconception: Young children should quietly rotate through pre-assigned centers at a brisk pace.

Reality: Children get the most out of centers when they are using materials and having rich interactions with teachers and peers. More complex active engagement can be demonstrated by children creatively using materials, coordinating play with peers, or persistently problem-solving. A classroom of young children engaged in learning centers may sound “loud,” but if the noise comes from on-task talk with teachers and peers, we’d say this is a good sign!

Note: You may be surprised that young children show higher engagement with tasks and peers in free choice than in teacher-directed activities. So observing how children engage with self-selected materials and peers during extended learning centers is worthwhile.

Take a look at this video clip (0:53) of children actively engaged with materials, the teacher, and each other in a math center:

*Click to play video in new tab
Source: Office of Head Start


Common Misconception: Transitions are most effective if children are silently walking in line, hands to themselves as directed by the teacher.

Reality: Learning time is maximized when transitions intentionally incorporate opportunities for children to engage in embedded activities. Actively engaged children will not just follow directions — they will be doing something related to learning objectives, like moving and/or talking on-topic as they transition.

Note: A common argument is that transitions must be silent to prevent distracting others. That does apply at times, but we want minimize those kinds of passive transitions, given that transitions and routines have been found to take about 1/3 of a typical preschool day! We want make sure children aren’t losing precious time to practice language, math, social and other skills.

Take a look at this video clip (0:32) of children practicing counting as they walk up the stairs:

*Click to play video in new tab
Source: Office of Head Start

What can I do?

  1. Self-assess: How do your expectations for young children’s engagement match the “common misconceptions” and/or “realities”?  Share your comments.
  2. Observe for children’s engagement in your next classroom visit. If you don’t already have a tool that’s working for you, here’s a simple checklist that includes “look fors” and ways to analyze patterns in engagement.
  3. Use resources to support improvement in 1 area of need. Below are 3 scenarios of child engagement challenges with suggested resources. Do any fit your observations and analyses of engagement patterns?

If children have low active engagement in…

Whole or small group: consider helping the teacher plan shorter activities (under 15-20 minutes) and increase opportunities for children to move, talk, and manipulate materials. This Inservice suite on Giving Children Responsibilities provides a video and helpful Teacher and Supervisor resources that may be useful.

Learning centers: consider helping the teacher assess changes to materials. This Inservice suite on Materials to Support Learning provides a video and helpful Teacher and Supervisor resources to help teachers select and provide children access to interesting materials.

Transitions: consider helping the teacher plan how to embed learning opportunities. Many curricula offer specific strategies; for example, Creative Curriculum offers a 10-minute YouTube video on making the most of transitions. Also consider revising your school/center’s policies/schedules to minimize the number of transitions, especially ‘silent’ ones. For example, some VPI+ school administrators have reduced time children spend in hallways by making changes such as serving lunch and holding “specials” in the classrooms.

What’s next?

A deeper dive into Rigorous Instruction Part III: Contextualized learning.

What does rigorous PreK look like–and what can I do to support it?

Rigorous instruction, in PreK and beyond, supports children to reach learning targets and expands their cognitive capabilities. Rigorous PreK helps close achievement gaps—as we discussed in our first blog.

So, what does rigorous instruction in PreK look like?

Let’s Take a Look

First, let’s start by comparing two brief video clips of PreK instruction.

Both teachers are focused on math measurement, specifically estimating/measuring volume. This learning objective is aligned to the Virginia Learning Standards for Grade Three Measurement 3.9: “The student will estimate and use U.S. Customary and metric units to measure…liquid volume in cups, pints, quarts, gallons and liters”. But you’ll see that how they teach this content to 4-year-olds is quite different across the two clips.

As you watch, ask yourself, which clip shows more rigorous instruction?

Clip A (1:09) :

*Click to play video in new tab
Source: Office of Head Start

Clip B (1:30):

*Click to play video in new tab
Source: Erikson Math Collaborative

Now keep in mind what you saw in these two clips as we walk through some key features of rigorous PreK instruction.

3 Key Features of  Rigorous PreK

#1 No matter how good a lesson looks on paper, children must be actively engaged to benefit!

Four-year-olds need frequent opportunities to move, interact with others, and touch interesting materials.


You may have noticed that in Clip A, materials were available, but not accessible – children weren’t having hands-on learning experiences. [Note: Maybe the teacher was about to do that, we just didn’t see it in the clip.]

In Clip B, children were manipulating the materials, freely talking to each other and the teacher. Engagement was consistently high during this play-based instruction.

Oops, we said PLAY! Is that a bad word?

Source: istock/YiorgosGR

The teacher in Clip B facilitated the play (that children were clearly enjoying) and turned it into a teachable moment. Why is that important?

We need to keep in mind that young children have limited capacity to stay still and listen passively. Have you ever observed a teacher begin a lesson on a high note, but then lose children’s engagement as the lesson goes on (past 10, 15, 20, minutes)? Maybe you see children getting restless, off-task, disruptive?

When children are manipulating interesting materials (especially materials chosen by them), not only do they absorb more of the content, but they are less likely to show challenging behaviors.

So finding ways to keep children actively engaged—using hands-on materials, questioning, or movement opportunities— is an essential component to rigorous instruction.

#2 Learning should be contextualized — connected to their real world!

Learning happens most effectively when new content is connected to prior experience and knowledge.

Children need to understand teachers’ learning targets in their own terms. Then they need active engagement with hands-on materials and real-life experiences to fully comprehend and remember the content.

Source: istock/ matka_Wariatka

As we saw in Clip B, the children are primed to understand volume as the teacher connected this learning objective to their play at the sand table. The teacher facilitated their learning by relating it to their actions (filling up the buckets and comparing which is “bigger”).

Whether teaching happens in large or small groups, learning centers, transitions, or routines, children should be learning in the context of real-life experiences.

Worksheets or flash cards won’t cut it.

How will you know when it’s working? Children will be talking and making connections to their lives. Again, there’s that active engagement.

#3 Instructionally supportive interactions are necessary to build children’s thinking, skills, and knowledge.

Students need to learn facts—but facts alone are not sufficient to build depth of knowledge that can be applied to real world situations. If we want school to teach children to be good thinkers, creative problem-solvers, persistent learners—drilling facts won’t get us there!

A smarter approach is to focus on effective instructional interactions, which provide children rich opportunities to think deeply, answer challenging questions, receive feedback on their learning, and develop their growing language skills.

Source: istock/kali9

We saw this happen through questioning and discussions facilitated by the teacher in Clip B. She asks children a series of thought-provoking questions, including “how do you know it’s bigger?” They respond and a back-and-forth dialogue ensues. We can see children using their math thinking and language skills.

Studies show that when teachers engage in moderate to high quality instructional interactions, children show significant gains in math, language, and literacy.

The bad news: Most PreK classrooms—even K-5 classrooms— studied around the nation have low levels of quality instructional interactions.


The implications: We have some real work to do to improve instructionally supportive interactions.

So which clip above demonstrates more rigorous instruction?

Clip A looks good in some ways: the teacher clearly focuses children on learning objectives. The materials (water, buckets) are interesting and children are outdoors—not sitting inside doing worksheets. (This teacher clearly put effort into planning this activity!) The teacher even asks children prediction questions—like: “How many do you think will fit?” However, we see limited child engagement and lacking evidence that children are gaining a deeper understanding of what “volume” means.

Clip B hits all 3 features of rigor: #1 Active Engagement, #2 Connection to real life, and #3 Instructionally supportive interactions. Because of this, we’d predict that students in Clip B would remember more and have a deeper understanding about volume (with regular teacher-student interactions like this across the day.) Think about how powerful these moments are for children’s school readiness!

What can I (as an administrator) do to support rigorous instruction?

Action Step #1: Challenge assumptions

Like ‘learning happens best in large group’ or ‘play isn’t REAL learning.’

Maybe this is a philosophy in your schools for older children in later grades, but encourage your team to look at what’s working for your 4- to 8-year-olds.

A few resources on the topic of play in early childhood are worth mentioning: This article by VPI+ partner Marilyn Rice reviews the role of play in early childhood, including how teachers can facilitate play intentionally to promote thinking (like we saw in Clip B.) This NAEYC article nicely summarizes research showing the need for both play-based learning and direct instruction in PreK. Even children 5 years and older benefit from a balanced view of how children learn best. This EdWeek article by Dr. Daphna Bassok delineated how Kindergarten can—and should—be both developmentally appropriate and focused on rigorous instruction. It’s not an “either/or” scenario – it should be “both/and.”

Action Step #2: Look for the most important things in your observations

Examine the tool you use for observing classrooms.  Does it include indicators of positive instructional interactions? Is it providing useful data for guiding improvements to classroom rigor?

Virginia’s Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS), called “Virginia Quality,” will be used to collect CLASS-PreK observation data in every VPI+ classroom this fall (Fall 2017), which includes measurement of instructionally supportive interactions mentioned in Takeaway 3. If you are an administrator in these classrooms, you will have the opportunity to look at this CLASS PreK data and use it for program improvement and planning targeted PD.

Action Step #3: Create shared PD experiences so everyone works to improve academic rigor together

Talk with your preschool team — better yet, your PreK-5 vertical teams—to explore options for shared PD that gets at ‘academic rigor’ in developmentally appropriate ways (as explored above).

Know that there are great free resources available, like the Head Start 15-minute In-service Suites, which break apart effective teacher-child interactions and environments into practical, actionable steps that teachers and programs can use for improvement. You can find this resource and others in the searchable VPI+ Resources directory (tip: select “Teacher-child interactions (CLASS)” on the left side of the page).

Remember that although content-specific PD is useful, foundational aspects of instructional rigor cut across content areas.

Like we saw in the clips, effective instruction is more than just exposing children to content—it boils down to how it’s delivered through teacher-child interactions that support engagement, build knowledge and expand thinking skills.

What’s next?

Look out for our upcoming blog posts diving into the 3 features of rigor: active engagement, connection to the real world, and instructionally supportive interactions!

What can I do now?

Share your experience 

What is an example of rigorous instruction in PreK that you’ve recently observed in your school or center?

How do you plan to support rigor in your classrooms next year by challenging assumptions, cueing in on observations on supportive instructional interactions, or creating shared PD?

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