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

Supporting Healthy Social-Emotional Development:
St. Paul's ECSE Program


Ruth Paisley is ECSE Supervisor in the St. Paul Public Schools, St. Paul, Minnesota

The St. Paul (Minnesota) Public Schools' Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) program serves over 1000 children yearly in a variety of settings including home, regular preschool programs, and ECSE classrooms. In the past, teachers have expressed frustration in working with children with challenging behavior, reporting that they felt unsupported by administration in dealing with behavior, and often asking to have children placed in other educational settings. Then in 2005 we implemented the Early Childhood Positive Behavior Support (ECPBS) model, and began to improve our ability to support children and families to experience healthy social, emotional and behavioral development.

Starting Out

Current implementation practices for ECPBS recommend starting with a leadership team, providing professional development, and having buy-in from staff and administrationbeforebeginning to implement the framework. We were unaware of any of those components defined for early childhood and targeted the most pressing need – supporting children with severe and persistent challenging behavior.

Because the critical need was helping teachers support children with the most challenging behaviors, the ECSE leadership joined with the Early Childhood Behavior Project at the University of Minnesota in developing a technical assistance team, the B-Team. The B-Team is a multidisciplinary group of staff who are released from other duties a few hours a week to participate in the B-Team. The B-Team created an action plan process for teachers involving the components of functional analysis and positive behavior support planning. The purpose of this process was to help teachers in determining what and how to teach social skills and replacement behaviors, look at adapting environments for proactive strategies to support children, and collect data on the child's progress. When teachers determine a need for behavioral technical assistance, a referral to the B-Team starts the technical assistance process.

In 2004 we learned of the Teaching Pyramid framework (Fox, Dunlap, Hemmeter, Joseph, & Strain, 2003) and incorporated it into our model. In our adaptation of the Teaching Pyramid (see Figure 1), are four levels of response to the social-emotional development of children. This model, combined with the previous ECSE program work, gave us an evidence base and working framework for looking at the universal and secondary components of the ECSE program. The Teaching Pyramid encourages us to look at and improve our relationships with children, parents, and our colleagues, and gives us a common language for professional development, program planning, and program committee projects.

Making Progress

Since ECPBS was implemented less systematically than recommended, progress has followed a similar path. B-Team procedures are revisited for ease in following the process. Staff buy-in and fidelity in intervention has been uneven across the program and steadily increasing. As a large program, staff are frequently hired and need professional development. While all of these factors have been challenges, they encourage our leadership to persistently renew its commitment to ECPBS and problem-solve so our children have successful early childhood experiences. Progress data show an increased number of teaching action plans completed, increased referrals for B-Team technical assistance, improved behavioral outcomes when technical assistance is provided, and a decrease in changes in educational setting for students with challenging behavior.

One of our strongest partners is the school district's pre-kindergarten, the 4-year-old program. In the 2008-2009 school year, ECSE and pre-kindergarten developed a collaborative system of providing positive behavioral supports to all preschool-age ECSE children and 4-year-olds in the pre-kindergarten classes. This collaboration created a way for early childhood general and special education to work together to promote healthy social-emotional-behavioral development and support to our preschool-age children.

Supporting Families

Our program values parent involvement, and we inform, invite, and include parents in individual positive behavior support plans. Parents have choice in their level of involvement. Parent training and support is offered through "Parenting with Positive Behavior Support" classes to parents and caregivers of children in the pre-kindergarten classes and the ECSE program. The curricular focus of the class sessions emphasizes parent self-care, having developmentally-appropriate expectations for children, identifying challenging behavior and exploring the purpose or function of the behavior, and making a plan and practicing positive behavioral strategies at home. We also offer a variety of parent support groups for families of children with disabilities. Through these groups parents have access to parent-to-parent support, information, and other community resources specific to their priorities.

Next Steps

Our Early Childhood Positive Behavior Support model continues to develop as our children, families, staff/leadership, and the field presents new ideas, research, and challenges for growth. The early childhood programs in our district are at a turning point in implementing ECPBS. Currently, an ECPBS Leadership Team is being formed to help guide growth and improvement. While the work of the team is currently being defined, some likely next steps are:

  • Increase partnership among preschool programs within St. Paul, including early childhood special education, pre-kindergarten, early childhood family education, Head Start, and the childcare community.
  • Collaborative professional development resulting in a common understanding of ECPBS.
  • Explore infant/toddler, home-based approaches, and enhancing parent education with a cultural focus.
  • Support transitions and alignment with K-12 education.
  • Data collection and systematic demonstration of the outcomes of the ECPBS system.

  • 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.