Social-emotional program teaches preschoolers: ‘Bee’ your best
Be safe. Be kind. Be your best! On the surface, seemingly simple, straightforward, behavioral expectations. And on the surface, Meigen Fink's preschool classroom at Kirkwood Elementary in Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) may seem like any other preschool experience. But beneath the surface in this particular hive, the young preschoolers buzzing about Fink's classroom are all participants in a skillfully implemented, multi-tiered framework known as early childhood, program-wide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PW PBIS).
That’s where a thriving, intricate, honeycomb of positivity lives, where children learn the necessary skills to productively manage their own social-emotional selves, ironically, through a framework that also depends upon changing the behavior of the adults charged with their care.
“PW PBIS works because the teachers are willing to make the changes necessary in the classrooms,” said Angie Van Polen, consultant in the Bureau of Learner Strategies and Supports at the Iowa Department of Education. “They are changing how they run their classrooms and making everything very intentional. If teachers weren’t willing to make changes, there wouldn’t be growth. PW PBIS is for the kids, but it is all about the adults making changes to make it work.
“A good teacher has these practices embedded in everything that they do, so it’s not a separate lesson that they are doing, it’s all day long. District-wide behavior expectations – be safe, be kind, be your best – should be practiced through various activities throughout the day. You should see those visuals up, you should hear that language.”
Van Polen said there are strategies teachers can use to make changes and get better outcomes with children in lower grade levels, but first, you build a culture where you feel safe with each other and then create openings to honor the opportunity for change.
“PW PBIS is a framework, and there is a progression to it,” Van Polen said. “It’s not something you do in year one, and you’re done. It takes three to five years for full implementation. The progression is the emphasis.”
The 18 preschool classes within 13 elementary buildings in the ICCSD are in year two of the PW PBIS implementation cycle.
Leadership and culture
“Our district has created a leadership team for program-wide PBIS,” said Sharon Helt, instructional design strategist for ICCSD. “We created steps we can take to get consistency across all of our programs. The goal is that we want a similar preschool experience for the students and families related to social-emotional learning.”
The ICCSD leadership team consists of Jay Beaver, preschool and special education lead support teacher, Mary Funke, external coach and early childhood program-wide PBIS consultant with Grant Wood Area Education Agency, and Sharon Helt and Terri Novak-Cicha, both internal coaches and preschool instructional design strategists with ICCSD.
Other members include four teachers, two paraeducators, a parent to provide feedback about family engagement, and Randi Kimm, preschool program and special services secretary that Helt describes as the unsung hero who plays an integral part in making sure the ideas that are brought up actually get into play, and the resources and support materials get into the hands of the teachers.
As part of the state’s larger early childhood PBIS efforts, ICCSD has adopted program-wide PBIS to assure district-wide implementation of pyramid model practices. ICCSD is unique in their support for early childhood with the instructional design strategists funded through Teacher Leadership and Compensation (TLC). The leadership team is being guided by benchmarks of quality, where indicators guide the professional learning with the teachers, based on whether the benchmarks of quality have been met.
Some staff in the primary grades have expressed interest in what the preschool teachers are talking about, and want to learn more about the schedules, structures and routines, intentionality, repetition, and explicit teaching in PW PBIS. The primary teachers think it could apply to their work.
“There’s a shared focus, this is our culture,” Novak-Cicha said. “We are all in this together. Everyone feels more valued. Elementary school principals are interested in our work, which makes the preschool teachers feel valued, appreciated, and respected. We had one principal designate time and money to train kindergarten teachers on the preschool PW PBIS model.”
Helt credits the success of the program in large part due to the support of training opportunities with the Iowa Department of Education, and opportunities with Grant Wood AEA. As a result, professional learning is happening in the classroom on an ongoing basis. It’s not the teachers attending a training and then being expected to go back and implement on their own, but rather coaches are working alongside teachers on a continual basis.
“We have camaraderie, an open group that likes to learn alongside each other, and share with each other,” Helt said. “It’s making a difference with the children. We are seeing fewer challenging behaviors, and that is the big incentive. You are able to have joy in your day when you can reduce those.”
Coaching and data
Early childhood PBIS utilizes a practice-based coaching process that aligns with pyramid model practices with the best evidenced-based outcomes. Coaches meet regularly with preschool teachers in a coaching cycle that includes observation and data gathering through the use of the Teaching Pyramid Observation Tool (TPOT), which contains 14 positive pyramid teaching practices. Based on what the data shows, teachers decide which area of teaching practice they want to work on, doing so with the benefit of a supportive, nurturing, mentoring relationship.
Funke, the PBIS consultant with Grant Wood Area Education Agency, said that unique in the process is the use of data that drives action plans to assure implementation with utmost fidelity.
“This is our new culture,” Funke said. “We want this to be the language that is used in the classroom, what we see, hear, and feel. We want everyone to embrace it. We’re teaching kids to have the skills to do what we want them to do rather than to direct, or redirect, what we don’t want them to do. It’s a constant teaching, learning, coaching, and re-teaching process.”
Teachers are being trained to use specific, high-quality instructional teaching strategies, classroom supports, and evidence-based behavioral interventions aimed at helping students successfully develop their social-emotional competence and prevent challenging behavior. Providing directions, engaging students peer to peer, and family engagement are some examples of the 14 positive pyramid teaching practices.
“Practice-based coaching, specific to practices and indicators, and the use of data, reflection and observation has made such a difference in what we do,” Helt said. “Teachers are understanding it, and there’s clarity in what our partnership is. It’s a respectful, equal partnership.
“As a result, we are feeling joy in our jobs, and teachers are feeling joyful. Behaviors still will occur, but our teachers are far more equipped with tools in their toolkit. They know how to respond better and can be reflective and proactive for the next day.”
Coaches also measure their coaching success based on progress teachers are making on their action plans. Coaches may decide to continue certain components of their coaching if progress is being made by the teacher. If not, coaches figure out what they need to change or do differently as a coach to help the teacher.
“We look at all those pieces, graph the data, and then we work together to make up the teacher’s action plan,” Novak-Cicha said. “We help monitor the outcome of that action plan and help support them to meet that action plan through reflection and feedback. It’s seeing reality through an objective lens.
“We used TPOT last year to get a baseline for the 18 teachers, and then again this year. Every single teacher has made growth in multiple areas of the teaching practices. It’s a huge celebration for us because everyone has made such great gains.”
Angie McLean, who teaches preschool at Coralville Central Elementary School in Coralville, values the training she receives through the coaching relationship and the impact it has on her teaching.
“Coaches come in and observe and give us feedback which helps us a lot,” McLean said. “They see things we wouldn’t necessarily notice. The TPOT has helped with that. It’s things you’re aware of and know you are supposed to be doing, but it’s that extra step when things are written out and there’s data. You can see where you are missing a piece or could add something in.
“Paras also receive advice and feedback. We’re all on the same page. We have meetings and we all talk about how we can do better. Building a relationship with the children is a huge part of that, and our paras are all aware of that. We all have that training. It makes such a huge difference when we all build that relationship with the children, when they’re willing to listen to you, and trust you.”
The district is committed to having all teaching teams, including paraeducators, trained in the pyramid model practices, which means making sure Tier 1 practices are in place and teachers understand what they are, what the expectations are for them, and that they are supported. Then the bottom level of the pyramid (nurturing and responsive relationships) is an effective workforce.
“For example, what indicators need to be in place when you do a transition?” Helt said. “What about your schedule? What about your routine? Having a conversation with a child that is not just giving directions, but a rich conversation with multiple exchanges. Not telling them something to do, but learning more about them and their interests. Just by stepping back and making sure those Tier 1 practices are in place we can be proactive.”
Last fall, the leadership team wrote a grant through the Iowa City Community School District Foundation, and was awarded four recording devices. The devices are used for video recording observations where teaching staff are wearing a microphone, and then do their own self checklist tallies on how many positive feedbacks they give out. Some teachers love the cameras and are comfortable with it, and some are still learning. The exercise provides opportunity to compare data, do some individual paraeducator or teacher coaching, or whole team coaching.
As for student data, Beaver, the ICCSD early childhood coordinator and lead support teacher, says they use a couple different data components.
“We have always been taking data on our kids using Teaching Strategies GOLD assessments, and looked at that data multiple times a year to see how kids are progressing in all ways, not just social-emotional,” Beaver said. “We are seeing real positive end of the year scores in all classrooms across the district.”
This year, in a few classrooms with students who are exhibiting some challenging behaviors, the district is piloting a social-emotional screener for preschoolers, called the Devereux Early Childhood Assessment (DECA). Beaver says there are already positive effects to show from that as a result of social-emotional teaching in the classroom.
More specific to challenging behaviors, the teachers now use a Behavior Incident Report (BIR) form for students with challenging behavior. The information provides the district with data on the types of behaviors that are happening, when they are happening, how staff are responding, and a hypothesis about the function of the behavior. It’s a way to collect data on behaviors that are occurring within a classroom, to monitor it and put supports in place to help reduce the behavior. The leadership team is optimistic the data collection piece will show a decrease in challenging behaviors over time as a result of the positive teaching going on in the classrooms.
At Kirkwood Elementary, in Meigen Fink’s preschool room, BIRs have proven very useful.
“I had a student who was exhibiting some pretty intense, challenging behavior, and I couldn’t figure out why it was happening,” Fink said. “Terri and I sat and looked at the BIRs from a two- or three-day period, and every incident correlated to a transition time. The data made it very clear the issue was obviously related to transition times. We were able to make some modifications to help the student. By us being responsive to a student’s needs, we could head things off before it got to more challenging behavior.
“For me, PW PBIS is looking at the whole class and the teacher support. We’re developing a classroom and a framework that supports what we want to be able to do. We have to have all these different pieces here in place. The visual supports, the education, and then we have to work as a collaborative team to make it all work.
“If you don’t have the collaboration and a job coach to be able to help you know what to do, sometimes you just can’t reach your goal because it’s not meshing, it’s not working. My philosophy is, I’m willing to learn and grow and figure it out.”
Common language at home and school
As part of the Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program funding, family involvement and home visits are a program component of PW PBIS. Prior to starting a new school year, teachers visit students at home and provide families with a welcome packet containing background information about PW PBIS. Families also receive a large refrigerator magnet which shows three smiling bumblebees illustrating behavior expectations (Be safe. Be kind. Be your best!), so children and adults can use the same language at home that is used in school.
“From the first day, children recognized the cues on the magnet that was provided to them during the home visit,” said Stacey Dorman, who teaches preschool at James Van Allen Elementary School in North Liberty. “It isn’t something brand new. You can say to them, ‘Here’s what it means to be safe at school, now what would that look like at home?’ In my newsletter each week, I try to pick one thing to highlight how we were safe, kind, or our best at school, and then ask students to think of ways to do the same at home.”
At parent-teacher conferences, many parents comment on how they use the common language that goes back and forth from school to home.
“During conferences we send home information about the ages and stages of 3-,4-, and 5-year-olds and challenging behaviors, how to give clear directions, and how to use positive language to support the Be concepts,” Dorman said.
Karla Howell, the mother of 4-year-old twins who attend preschool at Kirkwood Elementary, believes a positive environment for behavior, rather than negative consequences, is beneficial to the social-emotional development of her children.
“The program really helps them identify and understand what they are feeling, how they should react, and what they should do when they feel a certain way,” Howell said. “It offers them tools to help if they are upset, and helps them have language to ask for what they need. Especially with technology, they will be getting into conversations and I want them to be able to set boundaries.
“My daughter came home and showed me her stars in her backpack. She told me, ‘I get those when I tap a friend on the shoulder and say, would you like to play?’ It’s giving them those kinds of skills instead of just butting in and saying, ‘I am going to join your group.’”
Howell was a bit nervous at first having both children in the same class because she wanted them to develop independence and autonomy, have their own voice, likes, dislikes, and friend groups. Instead, she credits PW PBIS for providing both children tools to learn appropriate social skills and help them be individuals.
“It’s good for them to transfer those skills to home,” Howell said. “They have taught their younger brother some of those tools. I am using similar language and try to incorporate those strategies as much as possible at home.
“At conferences, I asked for some help implementing a calm down corner, having a similar type of space for that at home as well. I know that repetition is helpful, and it will help me get better results at home as well as school.”
“In teaching social skills, we are also teaching kids self-regulation and problem solving,” Helt said. “We guide them and show them with visuals in the classroom that there are many different solutions to problems that might arise. We help them learn what would be a good solution for the situation. Would it be fair? How would everybody feel? Then they try it and see if it worked.
“Sometimes we have to think of another solution. It’s the whole process, that they can have those tools, they can do things independently, learn to solve problems, reflect, and feel successful. These are all high-level things they don’t come to naturally, so we have to be that guidance professional helping them learn these processes along the way.”
It’s intrinsic, kids guide each other, and it’s contagious. Teachers agree, PW PBIS works.
Megan Forbes, Preschool teacher, Alexander Elementary, Iowa City
“From last year to this year, the amount of kids coming up to me to help guide them through their social issues has decreased dramatically. I’ve gone a full week without having to intervene with the kids because they know to look at the toolkit. They know there are options out there that don’t involve me at all. They know to try three and then come to me. I’m the last resort.
“Whenever an issue arises, they turn and look at all their options. It’s been awesome too, because I have had kids guide each other. I’ve had kids not be able to think or process a solution, and another kid will swoop in and say, ‘This one, I think you should try this one!’, and they’ll give them the appropriate card, and give them the words to use that card, and then the issue’s resolved.
“We’ve given them tools, options and strategies to use, with the visuals all over the room reminding them how to deal with the situation themselves before they engage with the teacher. We are always there if they need us, but that shouldn’t be their first step.
“Visuals have helped because we have a lot of ELL kids. Sometimes the ELL kids will get the visuals, and the English-speaking kids will give them the words to say share, trade, get the timer. They all work together really well.
“It’s also helped this year reflecting on everything as a class. Like after center time, during carpet time, we go through and we talk about did anything happen during center time. What was the problem? How did you feel? What solutions did you try? Did they work? Was everybody happy? It acknowledges again with the attention of the whole, entire class, so they have that knowledge for later too. It’s been a good year!”
Sarah Majerick, Preschool teacher, James Van Allen Elementary School, North Liberty
“We used to try to tap into the school-wide PBIS, and that was a lot of tickets, or tokens when catching kids being good, and it just wasn’t flying for preschool because they just didn’t get the tickets, and then the rewards for the tickets weren’t that appropriate for preschool.
“I think what we are doing now is much more effective in having a common set of rules in all the preschools and we’re working off those rules. So catching kids being safe, being their best, and being kind. Just focusing on three things rather than 25 things or trying to keep up with the building program.
“We still participate in the school-wide PBIS celebrations, but what we do in the classrooms is totally different. We use these badges and give them out when we say something like, ‘I really like how you were kind and helped your classmate clean up the block area.’ And then we put the badge up on a poster and we take note of that at the end of the morning or afternoon, so the reinforcement is immediate and specific.
“There’s a very intrinsic part of it. We are not reinforcing them with trinkets, but rather getting them to be intrinsically motivated. We focus on the positive, rather than don’t do this, don’t do that. You still have to have plans for those children with those really challenging behaviors. But these help the other kids deal with the children with those really challenging behaviors. You can still be kind to a kid who’s acting out.”
Kim Evans, Preschool teacher, Norman Borlaug Elementary School, Coralville
“When we see one of the kiddos being a good friend, helping someone out, giving a compliment, we’ll say, ‘Come on, you get a bee!’ and they’ll come up to the front of the room and we’ll hand them a little bee, and they ring a bee chime. Then everyone says, ‘Oh, we hear a bee chime and what did they do to earn a bee?’ And all the kids stop and listen. The child with the bee has a little microphone and they can tell the class what they got the bee for. Then they go up to the bee hive and stick the bee on the hive.
“And it’s just contagious. You will have a student who will then turn around and do the exact same thing and then wait for their bee, and I have to say, ‘It doesn’t work like that. You have to come up with it on your own.’ We work up to 25 bees for a class total, and then they decide what the celebration will be. It’s just been really fun. It’s popcorn parties every time!”
Just the BEEginning of a BEEautiful thing. Now breathe!
Classroom popcorn parties are a popular choice amongst preschoolers who achieve great heights in their social-emotional growth. Dance parties, pajama day, hat day, no shoes day, extra recess day, and musical instrument day are also at the top of the list for celebrating their collective gain.
“Not only are the kids being recognized, but they are learning to be reflective on their own behavior, and identify it,” Novak-Cicha said. “They are using the same language, the common language that the teachers are teaching them.
“Children are responding and embracing the whole positive behavior system and pyramid model in the way they are referring to other kid’s behaviors, ‘You’re being safe, you have your feet on the floor!’ Kids are trained to go get a solution kit that contains a pinwheel, so when a peer is having a problem and needs a belly breath, the friend pulls out a pinwheel and says, ‘Now breathe!’”
For the children and adults of the Iowa City Community School District, that is one big breath and something to buzz about. Be safe. Be kind. Be your best!