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

Promoting the Social Competence of Young Children With Disabilities


Lise Fox is Director of the Florida Center for Inclusive Communities, University of South Florida, Tampa

The early childhood years are a critical period for the development of social competence. During the first five years of life, the young child develops the foundational skills needed to regulate and express emotion, interact and form relationships with others, and express needs and wants. These foundational skills impact the child's success in communication and language development, peer relationships, social adjustment, school success, and quality of life as an adult. Social and behavioral competence in young children is highly predictive of a child's academic performance when entering into school.

The Pyramid Model

Recent research has validated the critical importance of ensuring that young children have access to the environments and interactions that will optimize social development. Moreover there is persuasive evidence that the early years are a pivotal time for providing effective interventions to address challenging behavior (Dunlap et al., 2006). If challenging behavior is not effectively addressed early in a child's development, the child is at an increased risk of continuing to have behavioral difficulties. In this article, a model for the promotion of young children's social development, the prevention of behavior challenges, and effective interventions for addressing challenging behavior is presented along with a description of essential practices for families and early educators to consider as they support children with disabilities.

The Pyramid Model provides guidance to early educators and families regarding the needs and practices associated with promoting young children's social-emotional development, preventing challenging behavior, and ensuring readiness for school. The model helps early educators and families understand the full range of evidence-based practices that should be provided by early education programs to support the social-emotional needs ofall young childrenand their families. It includes universal practices that are needed to support and promote healthy social development, secondary strategies that are designed to prevent social-emotional and behavioral problems for children who might be at risk of developing behavior challenges, and tertiary strategies to provide individualized intervention to young children with severe and persistent challenging behavior (Fox, Dunlap, Hemmeter, Joseph, & Strain, 2003). The adoption of the Pyramid Model provides early education programs with the educational practices and interventions that ensure that the social-emotional needs of all children, including children with disabilities, can be effectively met within inclusive programs.

Pyramid Level 1: Universal Promotion

The first level of the Pyramid Model – Universal Promotion – focuses on the importance of nurturing and responsive relationships and high quality environments. These universal practices are essential to the promotion of a child's social development and include practices such as providing unconditional nurturance to the child, responding to and expanding upon the child's social and communicative efforts, actively supporting children's play, responding to children's conversations, and providing specific praise to encourage appropriate behavior. The relationships level of the Pyramid also includes the critical importance of providing families with information and support in their role as parents, and establishing collaborative partnerships with families when providing group early education and care services. Finally, the relationships level of the Pyramid Model also includes an emphasis on the importance of teaming among professionals in their service to children and families, and the provision of early intervention and early education services that are supportive of the child and family needs.

The second aspect of the Universal Promotion level of the Pyramid Model that is essential to all children is the provision of a high quality early education environment. A high quality environment is one that meets the program standards and guidelines of recommended practices in the field. These have been defined for young children in general (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2007) and guidance for early intervention and early childhood special education services has been described by the Division for Early Childhood of the Council for Exceptional Children (Sandall, Hemmeter, Smith, & McLean, 2005). Meeting these program recommendations ensures that the early education program has the classroom structure, curriculum, materials, and teaching interactions to promote social development.

Pyramid Level 2: Secondary Prevention

The Secondary Prevention level of the Pyramid Model includes the practices needed to ensure that children with social-emotional delays receive intentional intervention to prevent the development of challenging behavior and to foster the acquisition of pivotal social skills. The skills that are targeted for instruction at this level of the Pyramid include identifying and expressing emotions, self-regulation, social problem solving, initiating and maintaining interactions, cooperative responding, strategies for handling disappointment and anger, and friendship skills (e.g., being helpful, taking turns, giving compliments). The identification of skills to teach is determined through early childhood social-emotional assessments and by observing the child in interaction with other children and adults. The process of assessment and observation leads to the identification of the critical skills needed to express and regulate emotion, build relationships with others, and communicate wants and needs effectively. Once key skills are identified, an instructional plan and progress monitoring approach is developed and implemented by all of the child's caregivers within natural routines and activities. The instruction in social-emotional skills occurs using a systematic instructional approach embedded into everyday routines, activities, and interactions with family members, other adults, and peers.

Pyramid Level 3: Tertiary Intervention

The top level of the Pyramid Model – Tertiary Intervention – is the provision of a team-based process that results in an assessment-based, comprehensive behavior support plan for those children who have persistent challenging behavior. It is designed for implementation by the child's natural caregivers. The approach used in this model is to: 1) conduct the process of functional assessment to examine the relationship between the child's challenging behavior and environment, and identify the function or purpose of the challenging behavior; and 2) to develop a behavior support plan that is focused on the prevention of challenging behavior, the instruction of replacement skills, and the use of responses to behavior that promote appropriate behavior. This is followed by frequently monitoring the plan implementation and child response, and revising the plan as needed.


There are two national technical assistance centers that are working in partnership with parent and professional associations to promote the adoption of the Pyramid Model across all early education settings (i.e., child care, Head Start, early childhood special education, preschool programs):

They offer a variety of resources to assist professionals, parents, programs, and states to adopt the Pyramid Model.

When early education and care and early intervention programs implement the Pyramid Model they have a system for ensuring that the social-emotional needs of all children can be effectively supported. The practices in this model can provide early education programs with both the confidence and competence to provide effective interventions that result in meaningful outcomes for children and their families.

  • Using reflective practice to examine and continuously improve the process and progress of relationship-based professional development

  • Dunlap, G., Strain, P. S., Fox, L., Carta, J., Conroy, M., Smith, B., … Sowell, S. (2006). Prevention and intervention with young children’s challenging behavior: A summary of current knowledge. Behavioral Disorders, 32, 29–45.

  • Fox, L., Dunlap, G., Hemmeter, M. L., Joseph, G. E., & Strain, P. S. (2003). The teaching pyramid: A model for supporting social competence and preventing challenging behavior in young children. Young Children, 58, 48–52.

  • National Association for the Education of Young Children. (2007). NAEYC early childhood program standards and accreditation criteria: The mark of quality in early childhood education. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

  • Sandall, S., Hemmeter, M. L., Smith, B. J., & McLean, M. E. (2005). DEC recommended practices: A comprehensive guide for practical application in early intervention/early childhood special education. Missoula, MO: Division for Early Childhood.