Showcasing Instructional Support in Norfolk: How They Grew (and You Can Too)

  • Introducing Showcase PreK in VA

As a part of the last year of the VPI+ grant, we wanted to share our lessons learned from the investments made and networking across partnering divisions in a way that was accessible—that didn’t just convey information in a one-sided way, but really connected leaders and educators and planted seeds of change around the Commonwealth.

Listen to Laura Kassner, VPI+ State Coordinator, share the “why” of the Showcase PreK in VA pilot.  

And so Showcase PreK in VA was born, an adaptation of a model from The Office of Interschool Collaboration in New York City’s Department of Education.

The concept of Showcase? A day of experiential professional development on a specific learning focus area, including storytelling and shared meals that connects hosts and visitors with each other, hosts openly communicating both their successes and obstacles, and visitors getting to see high-quality PreK in action through classroom visits. To support the carryover of practices, visitors receive implementation resources and planning opportunities to take home what will work in their own contexts.

Consider this our official invitation for you to come to one of our hosts’ 16 events scheduled around the Commonwealth for the 2018-19 school year! (Each division met high benchmarks for Quality Rating scores and inclusions percentages, and has chosen their focus on a specific learning area.)

For this month’s blog, we’re going to profile one of our first Showcase hosting teams—Norfolk Public Schools—who chose Instructional Support as their learning focus area. We’ll tell you the story of Norfolk’s journey, including some specific ways in which they positively impacted Instructional Support interactions through PD and structural changes to their daily schedule.

Norfolk Showcase PreK in VA team

How did “team Norfolk” get started?

Since all VPI+ classrooms participated in the Virginia Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS), which includes ratings with both the CLASS and ECERS instruments, the Norfolk VPI+ team received summary reports after ratings in the fall of 2015.  First, they reflected on why their scores were below the threshold on Instructional Support in the CLASS tool, a place of surprise since they thought their teaching was effective (and it was—many strengths were identified, there were just specific places to grow!). They took a holistic look at the report, reflecting also on the information that was captured in the Environment scale (ECERS) and made an interesting discovery…

The baseline report indicated very limited time during learning centers, a time when children were free to follow their interests and have sustained engagement while manipulating meaningful and relevant materials. Teachers were limited in opportunities to have quality, sustained interactions with the children when the daily schedule and activities included teacher-directed and small group time with lots of transitions where time was lost.  This choppiness of the day and the related routines were hampering instructionally supportive conversations (promoting children’s thinking and language skills through open-ended questions, repeating and extending language, etc.).

How did they grow?

So it was clear that Norfolk wanted to see growth in instructionally supportive classroom interactions.  And it was clear that the schedule, which they could control, was limiting their opportunities. Cue changes…

#1 First order of business, they made structural changes to their daily schedule.

While teacher-structured activities had historically been seen as the “teaching” times, transitions, learning centers, and routines provided many more minutes of valuable learning opportunities—especially when teachers were intentionally focused on supporting children’s cognition and language through their interactions.  Norfolk’s leadership made the bold move to change how students spent a significant portion of the day – in rigorous and purposeful centers where the teachers could rotate and interact intentionally.

#2 Second order: they learned what good instructional support interactions looked like and planned for how they could/should look across the day. Teachers had introductory professional development that included exemplar videos that helped them clarify that they wanted to:

  • Have more extended conversations to learn about children’s interests and prior knowledge (Wow, Anthony!  You already know so much about trains and what makes them move.)
  • Ask more thought-provoking questions (Why don’t these two train car magnets stick together?),
  • Embed and explicitly teach vocabulary into their conversations (Did you know that these magnets make the train cars attract—or stick together?),
  • Provide quality feedback to extend children’s ideas/actions (What would happen if we turned that train car around?),
  • Facilitate children’s experiences to plan, create, and evaluate (How would you design a way to connect train cars?  Try building it! How did it work?)

#3 Third: they engaged in ongoing, quality Professional Development including analysis and feedback loops that promoted improvement.

It’s important to note that some (even most) teachers were doing elements of this already, perhaps in limited ways. Maybe more questions were closed-ended. Or the questions didn’t prompt rich, extended conversations. Or the 4-year-old brain wasn’t being stretched in new ways. It was time to dig in deeper into the look-fors for instructionally supportive conversations (through video exemplars, e.g. found on the VPI+ video clip directory). And then it was critical to have teachers analyze their own practices through reviewing their CLASS data and watching themselves on video, supported through individualized coaching. Another key element was a learning community of VPI+ teachers dissecting their practice around a potluck meal once a month. This built connections and helped leveraged each others’ existing and growing strengths.

What was the Payoff?

Classrooms observed in 2015 were observed for a second time in the fall of 2017.  The data showed impressive improvements in Instructional Support (exceeding the 3.25 threshold set for VPI+!). The teachers reported pride in the improvements in their classroom observation data, but were quick to list the other (most important) outcome — effects on children that were possible because of their improved interactions. For example:

  • Relationships were solidified as the teachers felt they knew more about the children from the extended conversations they were now practicing and embedding during learning center time.
  • Children were talking more, were more actively engaged, and thinking more deeply.
  • Teachers observed children displaying fewer behavior problems!

This work wasn’t quick.  This work wasn’t always easy.  But this work produced powerful change in the Instructional Support domain scores of class.

What does success look like?

Want to see a beautiful example of what instructionally supportive conversations embedded in rigorous play-based centers look in practice in a Norfolk classroom now?  Buckle your seatbelts. Prepare to have your mind blown by innovation, simplicity, and quality.

Shantee received professional development through coaching and even benefited from a supportive learning community of other VPI+ teachers wanting to make the same improvements to their classroom quality.  She altered her daily schedule to permit significant time for students to have “worktime” in centers, and intentionally planned for instructionally supportive conversation with her students during that time. Take a look!

[Video: 2:55]


Instead of having traditional “calendar time” as a whole-group activity on the rug, stretching 20 minutes with only one child contributing at a time while the others sit-and-wait, look at how this teacher turned “calendar time” into an engaging, personalized center where every participant could be engaged simultaneously!

Feeling inspired?

Stay tuned for Part II- “What Can I Do to improve Instructional Support” in next month’s blog!


Supporting Early Writing in Centers: The Why and The How

If you are an elementary school administrator, you likely have the goal for your students to be reading at grade 3. And, if you have a PreK classroom in your school (or feeding into your school) you want these children getting ample exposure to reading—including book reading at home and school!

But, how intently are you focused on your PreK students doing early writing at age 4?

girl writing
Source: iStock/Liderina

Research tells us that it’s critical for children not to just get exposure to reading in PreK, but to start to learn writing as well.

“It’s really essential to teach early writing in preschool because it’s one of the top predictors of children’s later reading ability,” says literacy expert Dr. Sonia Cabell. (You may remember her from our October 2017 blog: Literacy: Fact or Fiction!)

How can this be?

Writing integrates children’s knowledge of both print and sound. Having children engaged in early writing facilitates literacy learning in print knowledge and phonological awareness. The more opportunities children have to write, the more they learn about print and sound and how to use those together to form words! This, in turn, also helps children read.

How children’s writing develops: The early writing framework

Just as children progress through stages of learning with math and reading, early writing follows a trajectory. When teachers can accurately assess where children are (overall, and child-specifically), they can meet children where they are and take them to the next level.

The Supporting Early Writing During Centers suite (full of free resources you’ll access at the end of this post!) delves into this trajectory, but essentially, there are 4 stages of writing in what is called the “Early Writing Framework.”

Early Writing Framework
Source: UVA-CASTL 2018

At stage 1, children are drawing and scribbling

At stage 2, children can write letters and letter-like forms. Letters don’t yet represent the sounds, but letters can be used to write words and even sentences.

Stage 3, salient and beginning sounds, is a critical milestone because children are putting together their knowledge of print and sound (representing sounds in words that are prominent).

At stage 4, beginning and ending sounds, children use multiple related letters to represent a word (but often miss the middle vowel sound) and their writing starts to look more conventional (as K/1 writing might).

Teachers of young children often see children at stages 1 and 2. The Supporting Early Writing During Centers suite goes into more detail about helping them move to the next level.

4 practices to support children’s writing in centers

A benefit of learning through play in centers (and games, like the math games shared last month) is that they draw on children’s natural interest in play.

A critical ingredient in rigorous center-based learning is the teacher.

It takes a teacher assessing where children’s writing skills lie and using the appropriate, content-specific instructional skills to make the learning fun, meaningful, and challenging.

Let’s watch a teacher promoting children’s writing during centers [0:47] (one of the video clips embedded in the suite presentation.)

As you watch, notice:

  • What practices do you see the teacher doing?
  • Why are children writing?
  • What might be the benefits of instructing through play in this manner?


Four practices to look for when you observe teachers supporting early writing:

#1) Teachers writing what children say

When teachers talk with children about their work, teachers can ask children permission to write about their work, either on or near it. Then teachers should say the words out loud as they write them. Teachers can encourage children to point to the words and read them aloud after or with, if ready.

#2) Teachers modeling writing

As teachers write, they say things like, “I am writing,” or “I am writing a word” and say each letter as they write it. This helps children begin to recognize that print carries meaning and that you can represent the words you say and hear with written symbols.

#3) Teachers encouraging writing for varied purposes like: making lists, signing in, writing stories or letters, and taking an order.

#4) Teachers pointing out print & sounds in children’s writing

This strategy works best for those children who are at the end of stage 2 as they’re transitioning into stage 3.

What Can I Do? Supporting Teachers to Use these Strategies

The professional development resources sampled above and shared below can help you support teachers to build children’s early writing and literacy skills. Go to our Supporting Early Writing During Centers suite to view and download our complete set of free teacher training and support resources (developed by UVA-CASTL and VDOE using early childhood research), including:

  • PowerPoint presentation with embedded videos (including those shared above)
  • Action planning form for teachers to use during planning (with coach/supervisor support)
  • Fidelity checklist of key practices for use during planning and follow-up observations by administrators/coaches
  • Handout on early writing, that includes information on the 4 stages of writing and 4 key practices
  • Other key resource from literacy experts: How Do I Write? Scaffolding Preschoolers’ Early Writing Skills, by (Cabell, Tortorelli, & Gerde, 2013)

In the coming months, we will share more resources (including one more PD suite) to continue our theme of teaching rigorous content to young children (including PreK-3rd graders) in a playful, developmentally appropriate way.

PreK Math: Rigorous Instruction through Games

You may have heard that the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program (VKRP) is going statewide in all public Kindergarten classes by 2020. One likely outcome is that people will be paying more attention to children’s math skills at K entry – and before.

We think that’s a good thing!

Setting a solid foundation of math skills in early childhood education is important, not just for Kindergarten readiness, but for 3rd grade achievement, as measured by Virginia SOL’s. Research shows that a foundation in math by K entry is a strong predictor of later success in math and academic success in general.

So let’s talk a bit about PreK math.

First, what should 4-year-olds be learning?

Just like children in grades K-5, PreK kids are developing skills across five key math areas: Numeracy, Operations, Classification and Patterning, Measurement, and Geometry

This video [2:44] shares some of the important math skills that preschoolers are learning in the first two areas: numeracy and operations.

What does good math instruction in PreK look like?

Just like our literacy experts shared in the October 2017 blog: Literacy: Fact or Fiction, math instruction for young children isn’t a matter of “rigorous OR developmentally appropriate” – it can – and should be – BOTH.

What does this look like? What should administrators be observing in PreK classrooms?

LOOK FOR: Playful, explicit and meaningful activities embedded across the day*

LOOK OUT FOR (approaches that are NOT recommended): Rote, de-contextualized activities (worksheets, flashcards) in only teacher-led group activities.

*It begs noting that math instruction should occur throughout the day – including transitions and routines – through guided play in centers AND in activities.

For this blog – and the accompanying Professional Development Suite – the type of activity we’ll focus in on is teaching math through games.

Promoting children’s math learning through games

A major benefit of math games (and any other instructional game) is that they draw on children’s natural interest in play. When kids are having fun playing, they are likely to be actively engaged, a necessary ingredient for learning (as we highlighted in the July 2017 blog on fostering active engagement).

Now, simply giving children a math-related game to play is probably not enough to take active engagement to the next level into math learning (where children practice the skills and come to deeper understanding of math concepts).

It takes a teacher targeting content intentionally and using the content-specific instructional skills in addition to keeping learning fun.

Kids playing a math game

Three things to look for when teachers implement math games:

#1 Teachers being intentional and explicit about the 1 or 2 math skill(s) being taught.

Intentional teachers can tell someone what specific skill(s) they plan to focus on and then reflect afterward on how they met learning objectives related to the skill(s).

How do we know the skill is explicit?  The focus should be clear to the teacher, an observer, and even (to some extent) the kids!

An observer and the teacher should be able to identify the focus (within numeracy, operations, classification and patterning, measurement or geometry) based on the steps and words used. Teachers can make learning goals explicit to children before and after games. For instance, a teacher can forecast the skill when introducing the game by saying, “We’re going to stack cups and count one by one to see who has more.” Then, after the game, they can review with children what math skills they demonstrated, for instance, “You worked hard counting. You pointed to each object as you said a number word for it.”

#2 Teachers setting the stage by selecting groups thoughtfully and gathering needed materials.

Formative math assessment can help teachers design groups of children with mixed or similar levels for a particular skill. When children are called to the group activity, the teacher is ready with all the materials and instructions to minimize wait time and maximize engagement.

#3 Teachers using foundational math practices during their instruction, including:

  • Using math language related to the skill, such as, “How many all together?,” “red-blue-red-blue, that’s a pattern!,” numbers being “greater/less than,” objects being “bigger/smaller,” objects being located “over/under”
  • Asking open-ended questions to have children explain their thinking
  • Modeling math skills, like touching objects while counting aloud, and speaking aloud their own thoughts.

Let’s watch a teacher playing a math game in her classroom from our Teaching Math Through Games Professional Development Suite [3:52]

As you watch, look for examples of her setting the stage, using math language, and asking questions that encourage children to explain their thinking.

What Can I Do? Supporting Teachers to Use these Strategies

The professional development resources sampled above and shared below can help you support teachers to build children’s math skills through games. Go to our Teaching Math Through Games Professional Development Suite to view and download our complete set of resources for training and supporting teachers, including:

  • PowerPoint presentation with embedded videos (including those shared above)
  • Action planning form for teachers to use during planning (with coach/supervisor support)
  • Fidelity checklist of key practices for use during planning and follow-up observations by coaches/supervisors
  • Handout on math games, which includes lesson plans for 3 math games
  • Other key resources from VKRP

Over the next two months, we’ll share more PD suites that continue our theme of teaching rigorous content to young children in a playful, developmentally appropriate way.

Virginia Believes in High-Quality PreK: Be a Part of Virginia’s Developing Story

In the first blog post (back in May 2017), we shared this image – communicating the importance of PreK during a critical developmental period in kids’ lives.

Data source: Harvard Center for the Developing Child

We then talked about how quality PreK matters: not only for getting kids Kindergarten-ready, but also setting them on a positive trajectory into adulthood.

Over more than the past year, we’ve been sharing what quality in PreK looks like, look through the lenses of:

Heading into the 2018-2019 school year, Virginia is at an exciting moment in early childhood education. We have a new Governor and First Lady who are big supporters, and they have brought in new leadership to bring more attention to the ECE world. The general assembly just earmarked funds for broadening assessment in interactions, use of evidence-based curricula, and Professional Development in VPI (public preschool) classrooms, as well as kindergarten readiness assessment around the state. We’re entering the 4th and final year of the VPI+ program, which sought to improve access to high-quality PreK slots while also raising quality through improvements to state funded classrooms. Through the process, we have learned a great deal about what quality practices look like and how to build these practices. The goal now is to sustain the great work of VPI+ and help others around the state looking to make similar impacts for young children.

There are important stories to tell about the importance of PreK and the difference it can make in the lives of PreK students, PreK graduates as they embark on elementary school, for instructional staff and leadership, and for entire schools and communities. See for yourself.

Angel: A PreK Success Story

Listen to the story of one child in a VPI+ classroom in Chesterfield County.

Meet Angel, a 4-year-old boy who’s grown in his confidence, his literacy and social-emotional skills, and his love of learning. Hear his engaged and loving mother, Olinda, and his skillful PreK teacher, Crystal, talk about their partnership in supporting Angel’s development. Meet a kindergarten teacher, Sarah, and the school’s principal, Brian, explain how high-quality PreK classrooms matter so much for children like Angel.

What resonates with you about why PreK matters?

Are you a vocal champion for PreK, like Brian?

What features of PreK quality do you notice in Crystal’s classroom (that you may already see or want to see in your own program)?

Showcasing Quality PreK in VA

Do you want to see more quality PreK, I.R.L. (in real life)?

VPI+ is creating a pilot program to facilitate the sharing of high-quality PreK practices in person—by visiting sites for an immersive professional development experience!

This pilot program, known as Showcase PreK in VA, is a unique opportunity for selected VPI+ programs to share promising practices and to foster collaborative learning networks across the Commonwealth.

This is not about “perfection,” it’s about reflection – and creating the opportunity for educators and leaders to engage meaningfully around a promising practice in the same time and space – a logistical challenge that is a real rarity – especially in early childhood. It’s about acknowledging that often, in getting educators together, “the answer is in the room.

Visitors to a Showcase day can expect:

  • A day of interactive professional development experiences (including guided tours and hands-on activities) so they can know, see, do, and reflect on promising practices
  • To hear from program leaders and early childhood teachers about steps they’ve taken to implement and refine practices and conditions that help at risk students thrive
  • Time to plan for implementing relevant elements in their own home programs
  • Access to curated artifacts and resources that clarify practices and provide support for implementation

What Can I Do?

Are you ready to see more, expand your knowledge base, and access more quality PreK resources?

  1. Sign up for Showcase PreK in VA & share with staff and partners!

Consider attending with your team to see promising practices in action. Intended audiences include not only administrators (elementary principals, program leaders, center and elementary, directors, superintendents) but teachers as well. And share with your community partners in private settings. (Good practice is good practice, regardless of the setting!) To learn more and sign up, keep on the lookout for the upcoming Superintendent’s memo. We hope to see you there!

  1. Keep reading (and sharing) our blog posts this fall, which will include rolling out the next, new Professional Development Modules – with embedded video clips of real VPI+ teachers implementing:
  • Math games
  • Early writing activities
  • Self-regulation games

We hope these will help you and teachers have a shared vision about specific teaching practices, what they look like in PreK, and implementation supports to help your teaching teams do the practices more/better.

  1. Join the conversation on Twitter

By using the hashtag #PreKinVA, we can begin to connect and create networks for sharing and learning collectively. We have the opportunity to share our individual professional stories and innovations that move us towards higher-quality PreK practices.

Here’s to a great year: reaching more children like Angel and his family on the quest for school readiness and life skills – and more collaboration across Early Childhood in VA to make that goal a reality!

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:

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.

Tier 2 Part II – Promoting Children’s Friendship Skills

Children show challenging behaviors for different reasons, but a critical one to note is: they don’t have the skills to be more successful… yet!

When we TEACH children needed social-emotional skills, negative behaviors decrease, and social and cognitive outcomes improve.

Last month, we introduced Tier 2 of the Pyramid Model and looked at one example of targeted social-emotional supports: strategies for teaching social problem solving.

This month, we’ll examine another Tier 2 support, promoting friendship skills and we’ll share our new Promoting Friendship Skills Professional Development Suite on the VPI+ website.

Promoting Children’s Friendship Skills: The What and Why

Friendship skills help children engage in and maintain positive relationships with peers.

These skills include:

  • sharing
  • taking turns
  • joining and organizing play
  • giving compliments; and
  • helping others.

To know which friendship skills to teach, we need to look underneath the surface of challenging behaviors for the skills that are lacking.

For example, think of a child who has arguments with peers that sometimes escalate to grabbing toys and hitting.

Source: istock/Zabavna

What could we teach her to prevent or reduce these conflicts? If I observe that this child often argues over who gets to play with preferred toys, we might focus on turn-taking!

Or, for a child who invades peers’ space to get attention, we might teach and support the skill of joining play.

Friendship skills are important to teach – not only children with challenging behavior, but ALL young children – because they support a key part of children’s social skill development, which helps children who struggle with building positive relationships and also helps all children broaden their network of friends.

4 Strategies for Promoting Friendship Skills: The How

#1  Classroom expectations that support a friendly environment, like this (see p.4)

CSEFEL Super Friend: Classroom Expectations
Click on pic to download Super Friend social story (see Expectations on p.14)

#2 Explicitly teach skills using books or social stories, like these:

CSEFEL Super Friend social story; CSEFEL Book Nook: Rainbow Fish
Click on pic to download Book Nook

#3  Visual prompts and reminders, like these (see p.5):

CSEFEL Super Friend cue cards
Click on pic to download Super Friend story (see Cue cards p. 16)

#4 Peer pairing

source: UVA-CASTL

Our Professional Development Suite dives into #4, Peer Pairing.

For a taste of what’s in the PD Suite, see some introductory information and videos below.

Introducing the Peer Pairing Strategy

Peer pairing is a technique for intentionally pairing children to maximize opportunities for learning and practicing friendship skills. Using peer pairing effectively involves a few steps:

  • Before play: Planning peer pairing
  • During play: Providing support
  • After play: Reflecting and reinforcing

Before play: Planning peer pairing [Video: 3:56]

After play: Reflecting and reinforcing [Video: 1:50]

A note: Many children often need adult support in the moment to be successful—and yet, providing extra support during peer pairing is often the part that’s most difficult to do (there’s no script; we don’t know what may happen and what kind of support children may need). Look at our PowerPoint presentation linked below for a bonus video on “Providing Extra Support During Play” (see slide 16) as well as tips and planning ideas!

What Can I Do? Supporting Teachers to Use these Strategies

The resources below can help you support teachers to build children’s friendship skills.  Go to our Promoting Friendship Skills Professional Development Suite to view and download our complete set of resources for training and supporting teachers, including:

  • PowerPoint presentation with embedded videos
  • Action planning form for teachers to use during planning (with coach/supervisor support)
  • Fidelity checklist of key practices for use during planning and follow-up observations by coaches/supervisors
  • Handout on promoting friendship skills
  • Other key resources from CSEFEL and VKRP (as linked above)

Next month, be ready for us to tackle Tier 3—a process for helping children with persistent challenging behaviors.

What’s Next? Tier 2 Practices to Address Challenging Behavior in PreK

Over the last two months, we’ve been looking at the Pyramid Model – an evidence-based approach to addressing young children’s challenging behavior using three tiers of practice.

Tier 1 — Classroom-wide practices to prevent challenging behavior

Tier 2 — Targeted supports to teach specific social skills

Tier 3 — Intensive interventions

See this handout for full-size visual:

Last month, we took a close look at Tier 1 – foundational practices to build Nurturing and Responsive Relationships and High Quality Supportive Environments – measures that help prevent much of children’s challenging behavior.

In this post, we will address the question, “What’s next?”  In other words, once Tier 1 supports are in place, what are next steps to address challenging behavior that may still occur?  This is where Tier 2 supports come in!  Tier 2 includes targeted practices to address the specific needs of children at risk for challenging behavior – those children who have difficulty regulating emotions, do not make friends easily, or are persistently noncompliant.

What do Tier 2 practices look like?

Tier 2 practices are about skill building.  Many children exhibit challenging behavior because they are missing key social and communication skills!  Consider a child who is aggressive with peers during play – often taking materials or hitting when frustrated.  This child may be missing skills needed to ask his/her peers if he/she can play with them, or if he/she can share their materials.

Over this post and the next, we will examine Tier 2 practices in two skill areas where many children need support: 1) social problem solving, and 2) friendship skills.

This month, we’ll look at how to support children’s social problem solving. (Keep an eye out for our Social Problem Solving Professional Development Suite coming soon to the VPI+ website!)

Teaching Social Problem Solving

It is important to teach children about social problem solving before they encounter a problem.  They need to be taught how to treat others and what behavior is acceptable.  However, what is often most difficult is to know how to turn a social conflict into an effective teaching opportunity “in the moment.”  That’s what we will focus on here.

In this video, you will see five steps for teaching social problem solving in the moment and how to use them in a classroom.

#1  Recognize and describe the problem

#2  Encourage solutions

#3  Discuss consequences

#4  Agree on a solution

#5  Try it out


Did you notice how this teacher used materials to help her talk to students about the problem and possible solutions?

This teacher used part of a classroom “Solution Kit” developed by the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL).  You can download and print a Solution Kit poster and solution cards (in full size and cue card size) for teachers to take and use in their classrooms.

Unfortunately, we more often see teachers use ineffective practices like these:

Solving the problem for children – Why don’t you just share?

Minimizing the problem – It’s no big deal.

Telling children to just figure it out – You two can work it out yourselves.

Punishing (or threatening punishment) – If I see this again, you will have to sit out of our game.

Talking to each child separately (not coming to a joint resolution)

Another mistake some teachers make is trying to have children problem solve when they are feeling too overwhelmed by strong emotions.  Children in a highly emotional state are not likely learn to learn from the process.  Instead, it may be appropriate to first help children regulate their emotions before engaging them in problem solving.

Source: istock

Supporting Teachers to Use the Strategies

The resources below can help you support teachers to use these strategies.  And our upcoming Social Problem Solving Professional Development Suite, including a complete set of resources for training and supporting teachers will be coming soon the the VPI+ website.

Two-page resource from the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program (VKRP) for teachers and coaches/mentors on key points learned during the training and reviewing classroom practices for future reference

Materials for a classroom Solution Kit (Poster; Solution Kit Cards – full size; Solution Kit Cards – cue card size) for teachers to take and use in their classrooms

Fidelity checklist of key practices for use during planning and follow-up/observations by coaches/mentors.

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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!