Tier 3 – When Nothing Else Works

We’ve talked about preventing/reducing challenging behaviors by implementing classroom-wide environment and relationship strategies (Tier 1) and teaching children social-emotional skills (Tier 2).

But what about children who continue to display persistent, even severe, challenging behaviors?

Tier 3 is an individualized positive behavior support process that helps us address the behaviors in a proactive, targeted, and systematic way.

Why talk about this in June? Think about a child who comes in next year showing out-of-control behaviors…


Now’s the perfect time to reflect on what parts of the process you might need to put in place or improve upon to be prepared for the fall.

What is Tier 3? (Plus 5 Tips to Do it Well)

Tier 3 is a process that leads to planning and implementing an individualized plan (sometimes called a Behavior Intervention Plan, or Behavior Support Plan). Tier 3 involves:

  • Teaming
  • Goal-setting around a behavior
  • Determining the function of a behavior
  • Making an individualized plan, and
  • Collecting data on the fidelity of the plan and the child’s behaviors

Let’s break down the parts with some key tips/reminders.

#1 Teaming and Goal-setting: More heads are better than 1!

It takes a team to problem-solve the tough behaviors—and answer the tough questions such as, “What’s going on here? What else can we do to help this child be more successful—and what will success look like?” When we are the teachers ‘in the trenches’ it’s tough to see all of what’s happening or what a better outcome might look like. Have you ever heard the saying, “you can’t read the label from inside the jar?”


The more people who are objectively observing the child-in-context (looking from the ‘outside the jar’) the more insights and creative solutions will emerge.

#2 Determining the Function: Be a Behavior Detective

All behavior serves a function: to GET something or AVOID something. That ‘thing’ serving as the trigger for the challenging behavior could be: an activity, interaction with teachers/peers, material, or sensory stimuli.

If a challenging behavior is persisting, it’s working for the child in some way. Be a behavior detective and find out why. Observe closely what happening BEFORE and AFTER the behavior. Over time, patterns emerge. Functional Behavior Assessment (or FBA) [see resources below] allows the team to make a hypothesis about why a behavior is happening in order to make a more targeted plan.


#3 Planning: Don’t forget to PREVENT!

How to prevent a particular challenging behavior isn’t immediately apparent, but prevention pays dividends—so it’s always worth the investment to explore what you might change before the challenging behavior happens. Sometimes preventing misbehavior is a matter of changing triggers in the environment and/or making the environment more positive and predictable. For instance, if you see a pattern that a child always struggles in the transition from clean-up—because he doesn’t want to stop a preferred center activity like building blocks— the plan might include: (1) allowing child to save special center material to finish later; and (2) individualized transition reminders, like using a visual timer.


#4 Planning:  What are the Replacement Behaviors to TEACH and REINFORCE?

What do you want the child to be able to do, instead of the exhibiting challenging behaviors?


Those are replacement behaviors. (For instance, instead of hitting or biting, you may want to teach a child to communicate his wants/needs, ask a peer to play, or go to a calm down space.)

As shared in this Tips for Responding to Challenging Behaviors in Young Children handout (by Strain, Joseph, Hemmeter, Barton, and Fox):

“Put 95% of your time and attention into the teaching of replacement behaviors and do this when the child is not engaging in the challenging behavior.”

Remember, the challenging behavior works 100% of the time – so if you want a replacement behavior to stick, reinforce that new behavior a lot!

#5 Collecting data: Give the plan TIME, with FIDELITY

We want to make sure we’ve given the intervention as intended and for long enough time for the benefits to show. If a child has strep throat, but we forget to give antibiotics as prescribed, do we blame the medicine—or the child—when he/she doesn’t get better? Of course not. Yet, it’s easy to quickly dismiss a behavior plan as ineffective—even if we’re in the initial stages of trying it out!

Planning paves the way for fidelity. No one is perfect—we all forget to do things, especially when we’re busy (and stressed)! Remembering to do the plan is much easier when all team members have (1) a copy of the plan with clear steps and (2) have a simple form or tool to track when they’ve done them.

Don’t forget to track the child’s behaviors, negative AND positive. Unlike symptoms like a painful sore throat that eventually goes away—improving behaviors are sometimes harder to notice. Tracking the child’s challenging behavior and replacement behavior allows us to see positive trends over the course of weeks. Expect “good” days and “bad” along the path to improvement! Even the most serious of behaviors can improve—see an example below!

Screen shot from PTR:YC webinar 12-14-2018: http://challengingbehavior.cbcs.usf.edu/training/webinar/archive/2012/12-14/2012-12-14_Prevent-Teach-Reinforce-for-Young-Children.html

A Tier 3 Success Story

A coach in a VPI+ division shared this story:

“One of my teachers had a really rough year with one student in particular. This boy was expelled or suspended from several childcare centers prior to enrolling in our program. His behaviors included violent attacks on teachers and students, hitting, spitting, escaping the classroom, threatening adults, and even threatening to take his own life. Along with a behavior specialist, and team we collected data and completed a Functional Behavior Analysis using tools from the book Prevent Teach Reinforce for Young Children (PTR:YC). We focused on replacing the undesired behaviors and providing Social Emotional supports—including trauma-informed care strategies. We have monitored and used many interventions throughout the year, including teaching him emotion skills. Since then, he has decreased some more aggressive behaviors and no longer elopes. His behavior was so extreme, he has a ways to go but we have seen tremendous progress and he’s successfully stayed in the classroom. What’s helped? Relationships! We’re working as a family. Our school team has a great partnership with the community center and this child has great parents! The Prevent Teach Reinforce for Young Children guide was a great resource, too, for following the steps of the Tier 3 process.” [see below]

What Can I Do?

The resources below can help your team support teachers and children to be successful.

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