LeAnne Johnson, assistant professor in the special education program and coordinator for the early childhood special education (ECSE) licensure and M.Ed. program, has always been interested in helping kids with emotional and behavioral challenges become more successful in school. In the beginning, Johnson’s work centered on designing specific classroom interventions and tracking how they help kids learn and grow. In recent years, Johnson and her team have shifted their focus to educators—ensuring teachers have the tools they need to decide which interventions they should use with kids.
Johnson says, “It’s one thing to guide a teacher by saying ‘use this intervention with this kid’ and something entirely different to say ‘here’s your menu of interventions we think are effective, choose one for your student and situation.’”
According to a study by Hess, Morrier, Heflin, & Ivey, only 10% of practices implemented by teachers are supported by empirical evidence. This is a challenge made worse by reports that only 64% of early educators collect some form of data and only 30% ever collect data that they can chart to see if children are making progress related to practices they are implementing (Brawley & Stormont, 2014).
Johnson says, “The rest are going with their gut.”
Even teachers who are following evidence-based practices don’t always feel confident they’ve selected the best possible intervention for the student and situation.
“For many early childhood educators (myself included), we really weren’t trained to analyze data. We were trained to work with kids,” says Sally Hansen, a regional early childhood special education professional development facilitator for the Minnesota Department of Education's (MDE's) Minnesota Centers of Excellence for Young Children with Disabilities.
Hansen’s job is to train early educators to adopt evidence-based practices that help kids with and without disabilities thrive.
Johnson adds that working in early childhood education (ECE) poses some unique challenges. Only 25% of preschool age children are in some kind of structured program (Gilliam, W.S., 2016), and kids 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 (Gilliam, W.S., 2016). If the goal is to help more children enter kindergarten ready to learn, Johnson says, much more can be done to make preschool more effective for more kids.
Johnson and her team rely on the Pyramid Model to show educators how to best support young children in their classrooms. According to the model, all kids (the base of the pyramid or tier 1) should be receiving good universal support and responsive interactions from their teachers. Kids with mild emotional and behavioral challenges (the second tier of the pyramid) should be receiving additional coaching on self regulating their actions (e.g., naming their emotions), problem solving, and basic social interactions. For preschoolers with the highest level of social and emotional challenges (tier 3 or 4 of the pyramid), educators need to understand how the child is interacting with their environment and choose an intervention that works for each child and situation.
The challenge, Johnson explains, is to convince early educators, many of whom have been practicing a certain way for years, to adopt this new model for kids’ social-emotional development. One potential solution is to get general preschool programs (often centers not run by school districts) and ECSE programs to share data that helps them recognize opportunities to make changes that directly benefit kids.
“There’s a tension around who’s responsible (general preschool programs or ECSE) for kids with emotional and behavioral challenges,” Johnson says.
The Pyramid Model is slowly being rolled out across the state. Today, 60 programs—over 200 preschool classrooms and more than 300 children—are following the model.
Johnson serves on the state leadership team tasked with scaling the Pyramid Model out to districts. A former special education teacher, she saw an opporunity for ECE and ECSE classrooms to change the way they handle behavioral incidents—for example a child fighting with a classmate over a toy.
Johnson knew these incidents are often documented using a paper process. So, she developed a data management system, Knowledge Management System for Behavioral Incidents (KMS-BI), to help schools more effectively track these incidents and make decisions based on the Pyramid Model.
The MDE's Minnesota Centers of Excellence for Young Children with Disabilities, invited school districts implmenting the Pyramid Model to participate in training with Johnson and adopt her system. Today, Johnson works with 15 programs—from the Iowa border to the Iron Range—to use and refine KMS-BI which will help educators across the state more effectively address children’s social emotional, and behavioral needs.
According to Hansen, Johson's system is a game changer for early educators.
“It really is 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 Johnson's system ask that teachers in nearby ECE centers, state funded pre-k programs, and ECSE programs use their phones, iPads, etc. to fill out an online form to document each incident. All of the district’s behavioral incident reports (BIRs) are automatically fed into 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 this workbook to regular meetings between ECE and ECSE team members to promote active, data driven problem solving.
The goal, Johnson explains, isn’t to just 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. During team meetings, district educators are learning to detect patterns, find focus areas, and use data to inform decisions about supports needed for students, classrooms, and programs.
According to Johnson, 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. Monica Potter, Robbinsdale’s early childhood program director, attributes the group’s success to their commitment to evidence-based practices.
“The makeup of students in our preschool programs is 73% free and reduced, 63% students of color, and 33% English language learners. These students can come with a lot of trauma,” she says. We’re always sharing, with one another, current research on trauma and stress to the brain in young children," says Potter. "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.”
Shannon Peterson, Robbinsdale’s data manager, makes sure everyone—six different early childhood programs throughout the district—is getting and sharing information.
“When teachers fill out the BIRS, they answer the question, ‘Do you want help?’” Peterson says. “If they say, ‘yes,’ I send the data for that student to a coach from the district’s social emotional support team (SEST). I tell any teacher they can request any data from me at any time.”
And 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.
“When I get the student or the classroom data, the teachers get that information as well. We identify times of the day or activities,” says Robbinsdale early education school psychologist, Keri Hoffman. “If it looks like many of the incidents are around circle time, we need to look at what’s happening in circle time,” Hoffman continues. “How long is circle time? Is it following our best practice guidelines?”
Johnson and her students are so impressed with the way Robbinsdale has implemented the system they regularly observe and record the district's 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.
“Robbinsdale is my constant feedback loop,” Johnson says. “This fall, I heard them discuss issues I knew the system couldn’t handle. So, we quickly adapted it to meet their needs.”
Most importantly, Robbinsdale’s new system is making a difference in the lives of the young students and their families.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if about 50% of the time we make a tier 1 change in the classroom versus having to go into tier 2 or 3 interventions,” says Robbinsdale 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.”
"One of our kids has had a lot of BIRs this year. My co-teacher and I pull the BIR data and take a look at it during our meetings,” adds Jenny Byers, an alumna of Johnson's ECSE licensure and M.Ed. program. Byers is now an ECSE team lead, teacher, and classroom coach at Robbinsdale. “We started one intervention with the child and kept separate BIRs on that. We shared the data from that intervention and the regular data with the family for comparison.”
By having supportive conversations with the child’s family, the team learned about challenges the child was facing outside of the program and found the right classroom to meet his needs. The team was able to help the family in ways they might not have thought possible, and the child’s behavior quickly improved.
“It’s us changing our behavior to meet the children’s needs, not blaming parents,” Potter explains. We don’t ever dismiss kids or throw them out.”
Ideally, Johnson says, early childhood educators should have a state-of-the-art, technology-driven data system that provides real-time data to educators and administrators displayed in easy-to-follow summaries. This information would help special education teachers and general education teachers, provide better support not only for individual kids and their families but their entire classroom.
“Today, teachers don’t do anything with paper incidents 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.”
Brawley, S. & Stormont, M.A. (2014). Investigating reported data practices in early childhood: An exploratory study. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 16, 102-111.
Gilliam, W.S. (2016). Early childhood expulsions and suspensions undermine our nation's most promising agent of opportunity and social justice. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Available online: http://www.rwjf.org/content/dam/farm/reports/issue_briefs/2016/rwjf431300/subassets/rwjf431300_2>
Hess, K.L., Morrier, M.J., Heflin, L.J., & Ivey, M.L. (2008). Autism treatment survey: Services received by children with Autism Spectrum Disorders in public school classrooms. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38, 961-971. doi: 10.1007/s10803-007-0470-5
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