Impact Impact: Feature Issue on Early Childhood Education and Children with Disabilities

Faith, Tenderness and the Pyramid:
Inclusion at Palma Ceia Presbyterian Preschool

The Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church (PCPC) Preschool is a nationally-recognized, award-winning, inclusive early childhood education program located in Tampa, Florida, on a pretty, tree-lined street in a residential neighborhood. From its founding, the clear mandate of the preschool has been to support the learning needs of children with developmental delays and disabilities (about a third of its enrollment), to provide high quality early childhood care and education to all children, and to do so in natural learning environments that include children with and without disabilities.

The school operated for years as an adult community of learners confident in our ability to research and utilize strategies that supported children at risk for different reasons and with different labels. It has always been the program's goal to base its operation on evidence-based practices in both early childhood education and special education. As children with lower frequency disabilities were included, the staff attended training and sought community resources to provide support. This strategy has generally been successful. The supports offered to children with special needs include Individual Education Plans, Family Support Plans, and speech and occupational therapy. Classrooms are small, and ratios are optimal.

However, at a certain point in our history, the staff found that it was ill-equipped to deal effectively with children with extreme challenging behavior. The staff never wavered from our commitment to our mission, but the stability and joy of our program were at risk. The promise of inclusive programs, after all, is not just to children with special needs, but also to all children. Parents of all children have every right to expect that each child's tenure at school will be not only educational, but also safe. The challenging behaviors of some children were more than a distraction – they were dangerous.

Seeking help, we found that the assistance available from community experts was often in conflict each with the other. Further, such assistance was not easily integrated philosophically with the preschool curriculum. Technical assistance offered was not always grounded in developmental theory, was sometimes less than respectful of the child, and was sometimes incompatible with the needs of the group. It was a frustrating and chaotic period as our school struggled to find a school-wide approach consistent with developmentally appropriate practice, and meaningful in a faith-based environment.

PCPC Preschool was founded on an abundance of faith and tenderness. We visualized the end product of that faith and tenderness, but we needed courage to achieve it at a vulnerable moment in our history. We found that courage in the Pyramid Model through our rich collaboration with Dr. Lise Fox at the University of South Florida.

The Pyramid Model (Fox, 2009) has the following levels of response that support social-emotional development, and prevent and address challenging behavior, for children in early education programs:

  • Provision of nurturing and responsive caregiving relationships, and high quality supportive environments, for all children.
  • Targeted social-emotional supports for children who may be at risk for behavior challenges.
  • Intensive individualized interventions for use with young children with severe and persistent challenging behaviors.

The endurance of our mission, our model, and our gifts to children now rest on the layers of the Pyramid Model and its teaching practices promoting the social-emotional competence of all children within our program.

Until our adoption of the Pyramid Model we had insufficient strategies. Without strategies, we lacked confidence. Without confidence, we had no cogent defense for inclusion of children with extreme behavior. The Pyramid Model has equipped us not just to believe in the power of inclusion, but also to capably utilize a research base to provide a high quality, joyful program for all children. It has supplied the courage to act out of our faith and tenderness.

Consider the story of "Joey," a 3-year-old who enrolled in our program after being expelled from another program. Joey was welcomed to our school. However, his behavior immediately put other children at risk. Both he and his parents wore expressionless masks of anxiety. Joey reported every day to his mother, "I hurt my friends today," unleashing her tears. With the Pyramid Model, we knew how to proceed. First, we began immediate assessment of learning environments and their possible influence on Joey's behavior. We began to gather data and form hypotheses regarding the function of his behavior. We took immediate action to make the other children safe. Second, and perhaps most importantly, we made the truthful representation to families that we had the situation under control and the knowledge base to address it. This confidence was the result of collaboration and continuing staff development in the Pyramid Model, and its careful application. Ultimately, we were able to support this child. Joey was able to reveal his probable giftedness, and form warm attachments with us, as we do now with him.

Early childhood education programs operate in many different cultures. One of the gifts of the Pyramid Model is its genuine applicability to the diverse manifestations of care provision and education. Evidence-based practice is critically important to our children, our ability to retain staff, and to the expression of our core values. Because of our use of the Pyramid Model, my teachers no longer threaten to leave unless children with challenging behavior are expelled, and I am no longer reduced to telling them, "At PCPC Preschool, children don't leave, but teachers may have to." Best of all, it has supplied us with the courage needed to act on the tenderness of our faith.

  • Fox, L. (2009). Promoting the social competence of young children with disabilities. Impact: Feature Issue on Early Childhood Education and Children with Disabilities, 22(1), 14–15.