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?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *