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Addressing Challenging Behavior in Challenging Times: Empowering Early Childhood Educators Through Reflective Practice

Posted on 10.09.2020

Briefly

  • The California Inclusion and Behavioral Consultation (CIBC) Network provides technical support to build the capacity of early childhood educators.
  • CIBC helps early educators foster inclusive classrooms that enable young children with challenging behavior, disabilities, and/or other special needs to thrive alongside their peers.
  • CIBC focuses on building early educators’ skills and their capacity to reflect on their own practice.

As a child care provider since 2008, Michelle Melendez has coped with a wide variety of toddler and preschool behaviors. But one situation became particularly challenging.

The three-year-old daughter of a part-time assistant at Melendez’s family child care program in Santa Clara, California, was continually having outbursts. She would get upset whenever her mother attended to other children — “She would be very verbal about it: ‘Put that baby down!’” recalls Melendez. The daughter would also burst into tears whenever her mother had to leave to go to another part-time job. There was “nonstop screaming,” Melendez says, and having the mother try to go straight to work upon arriving at the program was not helping.

At a loss for what to do, Melendez requested support from the California Inclusion and Behavioral Consultation (CIBC) Network. Coordinated by WestEd, CIBC leads a network of experienced consultants who provide technical support to build the capacity of early childhood educators. CIBC helps early educators to foster engaging and inclusive classrooms that enable young children (ages 0–5) with challenging behavior, disabilities, and/or other special needs to thrive alongside their peers. CIBC’s work, which began in 2009, is aligned with California’s social-emotional learning foundations for infants, toddlers, and preschool-age children, which WestEd helped develop. Using a teacher-focused, relationship-based approach, CIBC helps early educators reflect on their classroom practices in order to develop problem-solving skills and expand their capacity to support the development and early learning of all children in their care.

Working with CIBC consultant Amy Kaiser, Melendez was prompted to reflect on possible underlying causes of the three-year-old’s frequent outbursts. Realizing that separation anxiety was likely playing a role, they decided to have Melendez’s assistant try a smoother transition upon arriving at work, having the mother spend some time reading a book with her daughter before taking care of her other duties. Then, they worked on helping the daughter share her mother with the other children. One strategy was to give the daughter responsibilities, such as helping to feed the babies or read them a book. They also tried setting a timer so the daughter would know when it was her time to play with her mother.

The daughter began to pick up on the routines and, with Kaiser’s help, the providers also learned that the child did better with smaller groups of children.

Preventing suspension and expulsion

While Melendez was able to respond constructively to challenging behavior and keep the three-year-old in her program, it’s not uncommon for early educators to ask parents to remove a child from an early care or preschool program who is behaving in a way that staff find challenging — a reality that the public became more aware of with the release of a 2005 study showing that expulsion rates among preschoolers exceeded those among students at the K–12 level. More recently, an analysis of national data from 2016 showed that across all types of early learning settings, about 250 preschoolers are suspended or expelled every day, and that children of color and boys are more likely to be suspended and excluded from care.

Being removed from early care and learning programs is particularly problematic, as research indicates that experiences during children’s early years shape the developing brain. Consistent, nurturing, responsive relationships with adults and engaging learning experiences are critical to supporting later success in school and life.

Increasingly, federal and state mandates are being put in place to prevent young children from being removed from preschool. For instance, in 2017, California adopted legislation (AB 752) to prohibit California state preschool programs from expelling or unenrolling a child due to behavior, unless reasonable steps had been taken to maintain the child’s safe participation in the program.

Research has also shown that preschool expulsion rates can be significantly reduced when teachers have access to mental health consultation — like the support provided by CIBC consultants — which can help them in managing difficult child behavior. 1 Early childhood mental health consultation has also emerged as an effective strategy for helping early learning and care providers support young children’s social and emotional development, bolster their school readiness, and prepare them to transition to kindergarten. 2

Empowering early educators through reflective practice

With approximately 100 consultants across the state who visit and observe in classrooms, CIBC is able to offer quick-turnaround support when teachers need it most. In 2019–20 alone, CIBC consultants carried out nearly 400 visits to program sites, impacting more than 2,400 children.

A central component of the CIBC approach is reflective practice, notes Jennifer Miller, the Project Director of CIBC. While reflective practice has been a cornerstone of mental health consultation, she says, it’s a still a relatively new practice for early care and education staff. CIBC’s reflective consultation differs from directive coaching or training in that CIBC consultants begin by hearing the perspective of the teachers, understanding the nature of their concerns, and considering influences on their experience. That information directs the focus of the consultation.

90 percent of center-based staff reported greater confidence in their ability to support children with challenging behaviors and special needs after receiving CIBC consultation services.

“We’re not coming in with a prescribed curriculum,” says Miller. “We focus on building teachers’ skills and their capacity to be reflective about their own practice.”

In addition, CIBC puts relationships at the center of the work — relationships between teacher and child, parent and child, teacher and parent, and consultant and teacher. That relationship-based approach helps consultants and teachers devise appropriate, context-specific strategies for creating engaging, inclusive classrooms and responding effectively to challenging behavior.

Kaiser notes that although Melendez and her assistant were “laser-focused” at the time on solving the problem with the three-year-old girl, the ultimate goal is for providers, through ongoing reflection, to see how they can apply strategies to other challenging situations.

By all accounts, CIBC’s approach appears to be working. In 2019–20, 92 percent of center-based staff and 100 percent of family child care providers reported that thinking about their practice through the reflective process during consultation helped them understand their needs and determine actions. And 90 percent of center-based staff and 100 percent of family child care providers reported having greater confidence in their ability to support children with challenging behaviors and special needs after receiving CIBC consultation services.

Supporting providers through the pandemic

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has reverberated throughout the state, and the world. Many of California’s family child care and center-based programs remained open to serve essential workers and their families through onsite child care, notes Miller, “and we knew that early care and learning providers would need support — probably more than ever.”

In a world rattled by the pandemic, there are a whole host of new challenges to address, says Miller, including “staff, children, and families experiencing anxiety about transitioning back into early care, and providers needing support to nurture children’s resilience and buffer against new forms of stress and trauma.”

As it quickly became clear that site visits would not be possible for some time, CIBC scrambled to revamp how it provided technical assistance. In May 2020, CIBC launched fully virtual consultation to support the social and emotional health of children, families, and staff during the pandemic. CIBC also organized a series of webinars to provide timely guidance and strategies, including an August 2020 webinar, Supporting Children and Families as They Transition Back into Care. Of particular importance as the pandemic has worn on, says Miller, is “offering caregivers support and strategies for their own self-care to manage compassion fatigue, minimize burnout, and respond to the myriad needs of children and their families.” Accordingly, an October webinar will focus on Stress and Coping: Supporting Children and Families During the Pandemic.

As Kaiser expected, Melendez and the assistant did make a shift toward applying the strategies that they had devised to additional situations. Without prompting, the assistant and her husband began using many of the same practices at home. They also began previewing for the daughter what would happen when she arrived at the child care setting, so she could be more prepared.

“It didn’t just work here in the program, it worked at the child’s home as well,” Melendez says, adding that she has used the techniques with other children in her program who are having a hard time with separation. “I even use these strategies with my own children.”

1
Gilliam, W. S., & Shahar, G. (2006). Preschool and child care expulsion and suspension: Rates and predictors in one state. Infants & Young Children, 19(3), 228–245.
Hoover, S. D., Kubicek, L. F., Rosenberg, C. R., Zundel, C., & Rosenberg, S. A. (2012). Influence of behavioral concerns and early childhood expulsions on the development of early childhood mental health consultation in Colorado. Infant Mental Health Journal, 33(3), 246–255.
Perry, D. F., Dunne, M. C., McFadden, L., & Campbell, D. (2008). Reducing the risk for preschool expulsion: Mental health consultation for young children with challenging behaviors. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 17(1), 44–54.

2
Duran, F., Hepburn, K., Irvine, M., Kaufmann, R., Anthony, B., Horen, N., & Perry, D. (2009). What works? A study of effective early childhood mental health consultation programs. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development.
Gilliam & Shahar (2006).