An estimated 25 percent of preschool-age children are in some kind of structured program, and those with emotional and behavioral challenges are often asked to leave. In fact, preschoolers are more likely than any other age group to be expelled from a program.
If the goal is to help more children enter kindergarten ready to learn, much more can be done to make preschool more effective for more kids, says assistant professor LeAnne Johnson. She teaches in the special education program in the Department of Educational Psychology and serves as coordinator of the early childhood special education (ECSE) licensure and M.Ed. program.
Johnson has always been interested in helping children with emotional and behavioral challenges become more successful in school. In recent years, Johnson and her team began focusing on educators’ needs—ensuring teachers have the tools to decide which interventions they should use with kids.
Studies have reported that only 10 percent of practices implemented by teachers are supported by empirical evidence and that few collect data they are able to use to check progress related to practices they are implementing.
“The rest are going with their gut,” says Johnson.
Sally Hansen agrees. Hansen is a regional early childhood special education professional development facilitator for the Minnesota Centers of Excellence for Young Children with Disabilities in the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE).
“For many early childhood educators, myself included, we really weren’t trained to analyze data,” says Hansen. “We were trained to work with kids.”
Adopting a new model
A research-based model for supporting social–emotional competence in young children is rolling out in Minnesota. More than 60 programs serving a total of about 300 students are using it.
Based on the Pyramid Model, all children (tier 1) should receive good universal support and responsive interactions from their teachers. Children with mild emotional and behavioral challenges (tier 2) should receive additional coaching. For preschoolers with the highest level of social and emotional challenges (tier 3 or 4), educators need to choose an intervention that works for each child and situation.
Johnson serves on the state leadership team tasked with scaling the Pyramid Model out to districts. As a former special education teacher, she recognized the challenge to convince early educators to adopt a new model for supporting social–emotional development.
Learning from behavior incidents
In early childhood education (ECE) and ECSE classrooms, behavioral incidents—a child fighting with a classmate over a toy, for example—are often documented on paper.
“Today, teachers don’t do anything with paper incident reports for months,” Johnson says. “There’s potential for educators to be empowered to do so much better by having information they’ve never had before.”
Johnson developed a data management system—the Knowledge Management System for Behavioral Incidents, or KMS-BI—to help schools more effectively track incidents and make decisions based on the Pyramid Model.
MDE’s Minnesota Centers of Excellence for Young Children with Disabilities invited school districts implementing the Pyramid Model to participate in training with Johnson and adopt KMS-BI. Today Johnson works with 15 programs, from the Iowa border to the Iron Range, to use and refine KMS-BI. It’s a game changer, according to Hansen.
“It is really difficult to sit down and digest spreadsheets or try to look for patterns in multiple pieces of paper,” Hansen explains. “If we don’t do the work to get to the meaning of the behavior, we’re just throwing darts all over and seeing what sticks.”
Districts using KMS-BI ask that teachers in nearby ECE centers, state-funded pre-kindergarten programs, and ECSE programs use their phones, iPads, or computers to fill out an online form to document each incident. All of a district’s behavioral incident reports enter a database, which a district-designated “data manager” uses to see immediate summary tables and charts of data in a workbook. The data manager brings the workbook to regular meetings with ECE and ECSE teams to support active, data-driven problem solving.
The goal, Johnson explains, isn’t to give the district more data. It’s to help them learn what questions to ask and how to explore answers to those questions using their data.
Finding what works
Robbinsdale is one example of a school district that has found a way to successfully integrate the Pyramid Model into their day-to-day practices using KMS-BI. Early childhood program director Monica Potter attributes the group’s success to their commitment to evidence-based practices. Preschool enrollment is largely low-income and students of color; a third are learning English.
“Our students can come with a lot of trauma,” says Potter. “We’re always sharing with one another current research on trauma and stress to the brain in young children. Our philosophy of early learning focuses on how the brain creates a healthy foundation, so when the kids and families go forward, they’re in a good place.”
Data manager Shannon Peterson makes sure everyone—six early childhood programs throughout the district—is getting and sharing information. When teachers fill out a behavioral incident report, they answer the question, “Do you want help?”
“If they say yes, I send the data for that student to a coach from the district’s social–emotional support team,” says Peterson. “I tell any teacher they can request any data from me at any time.”
The team—made up of Potter, Peterson, early childhood educators, a social worker, a school psychologist, parent educators, and more—says the knowledge management system has improved the way they support students with special needs.
“It’s us changing our behavior to meet the children’s needs, not blaming parents. We don’t ever dismiss kids or throw them out.” —Monica Potter, Robbinsdale
Johnson and her students are so impressed with the way Robbinsdale has implemented the system that they regularly observe and record its team meetings to understand how they make decisions and what challenges they still have. Their goal: to uncover what’s been successful about the way Robbinsdale is using KMS-BI and share those best practices with other districts across the state.
Most importantly, Robbinsdale’s new system is making a difference in the lives of young students and their families.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if about 50 percent of the time we make a tier 1 change in the classroom versus having to go into tier 2 or 3 interventions,” says social worker Jill Russell. “It’s more often a tweak to the environment, a change teachers can make, versus doing anything different with the kid.”
Ideally, Johnson says, early childhood educators should have a state-of-the-art, technology-driven data system that provides real-time data and easy-to-follow summaries. This information would help general and special education teachers provide better support not only for individual kids and their families but entire classrooms.
Learn more about the early childhood special education licensure program.
Johnson, L.D. (2017). “Exploring cloud computing tools to enhance team-based problem solving for challenging behavior.” Topics in Early Childhood Special Education. DOI: 10.1177/0271121417715318
Story and photos by Sarah Jergenson | Fall 2017