Mirell O’Brien remembers visiting a preschool class in which a small group of boys were regularly darting around the room and yelling, distracting their classmates. As the classroom felt increasingly chaotic, the frustrated teacher focused more and more of her attention on trying to keep the boys in line.

O’Brien is a consultant with the California Inclusion and Behavior Consultation (CIBC) Network, which takes a unique teacher-focused, reflection-based approach to helping early childhood educators build the skills needed to create an engaging and inclusive classroom that enables infants and young children with behavioral problems, special needs, or disabilities to thrive alongside their peers.

“While many early childhood social-emotional support programs work directly with the child to provide a diagnosis and appropriate services,” says Virginia Reynolds, Director of the Center for Prevention and Intervention at WestEd, “the CIBC approach is markedly different because it offers support directly to the teacher — providing him or her with an opportunity to reflect on how to effectively engage all students in the classroom.” This teacher-focused approach is reinforced by the fact that almost all requests for assistance come directly from individual teachers.

Harking back to the group of young boys she saw racing around one classroom, O’Brien notes that “addressing these types of behavioral challenges can be very difficult and draining for teachers, but consultants suggesting short-term solutions are unlikely to help a teacher build sustainable teaching and classroom management skills.”

Instead, O’Brien and her fellow consultants with the CIBC Network — which is operated by WestEd — introduce teachers to an approach called reflective practice. In doing so, they provide practitioners a powerful tool that enables teachers to access and apply the knowledge and skills they already have to address challenging behavior. “We help the teacher shift toward proactively responding to problem situations rather than reacting to them in the moment,” O’Brien says.

Problem solving through reflection

O’Brien believes CIBC’s reflective approach to problem solving helped the preschool teacher who was getting bogged down by constantly reacting to the challenging behavior of a small group of students, to the detriment of the rest of her class. After hearing the teacher’s understandable frustrations, O’Brien prompted her to track the times and situations each day in which the boys’ behavior was a problem, then reexamine those behavioral patterns over the course of a week: When are they the loudest and most unruly? At what points do they seem to be the most engaged? What might they be telling us with this behavior?

“Through observing and reflecting on children’s patterns, teachers can better understand the root of the problem and design ways to address it,” says CIBC Network Coordinator Sue Bollig of WestEd. “The intent isn’t to blame the teacher, but to help the teacher choose an approach that might work better. The ultimate goal is to help teachers develop a sustainable, inclusive plan of action that will benefit all students.”

The teacher in question determined that the boys were the most unruly during transitions between activities — particularly from outdoor to indoor activities, when they were likely over-stimulated and had trouble calming down. In reflecting on her classroom practices, the teacher realized she needed to structure some transition from outside to inside the classroom — one that could provide the children adequate time and space to settle down. To achieve a more orderly and accommodating environment, she and her two classroom assistants each took a group of 8 students back into the classroom and got them settled one group at a time, rather than having all 24 students crowding back indoors together, feeding off each other’s energy.

The teacher also recognized that, instead of focusing so much attention on the children when they were not following directions, she could draw students back into the group by focusing the attention of all the children on engaging activities that awaited them indoors. “She was then in a position to reinforce children’s positive interactions rather than getting stuck on distracting behavior,” says O’Brien.

When O’Brien later followed up with the teacher, she found that, through a few strategic changes, the teacher had improved the classroom atmosphere dramatically.

I love seeing the look in teachers’ eyes when their students are engaged in learning and the teachers themselves are enjoying their jobs again.

Although the idea of reflective practice may seem straightforward, it’s not widely taught in programs that prepare preschool-level teachers. While teachers in the K–12 system may learn some form of reflective practice during their teacher training programs, staff professional development, or department meetings, the preschool system has not traditionally sponsored formalized professional learning opportunities with this focus.

“By introducing teachers to reflective practice, you help them realize that they have the skills to assess the situation themselves and make a change,” says O’Brien. “It was clear that the teacher in the classroom I just described knew what she had to do to keep children engaged in the classroom activities — she just needed to think a bit differently about some of the reasons behind the boys’ behavior.”

Creating inclusive learning environments

Research indicates that experiences during children’s early years shape the developing brain. Stable, nurturing relationships with adults and high-quality interactions and learning experiences are integral to supporting later success in school and life. So helping teachers reflect on their practice in order to create engaging, inclusive classrooms and to respond constructively to challenging behavior — the goals of all of CIBC’s work — is critical to the healthy development of all the young children who spend at least a portion of their day in early care and education.

Reflective teachers who actively support all different types of students are especially important for those children who may, themselves, be the source of classroom challenges. Many children whose behavior is considered a problem are asked to leave early care and education programs. Being pushed out of general education environments so early in their schooling puts these children at an immediate disadvantage; academically and socially, a successful transition to kindergarten and beyond becomes more difficult and unlikely.

In addition, for many young children with developmental disabilities and special needs, being part of a general education classroom is invaluable to their development. “Inclusion really benefits all children,” says CIBC consultant Janel Astor. “Modeling social behaviors is very powerful — being with peers who do things differently helps children with special needs develop by seeing other children’s behavior and interactions and learning various ways to communicate. And for children without developmental issues, inclusion offers an important chance to see development in different ways, and to understand and respect individual differences.”

By empowering teachers to thoughtfully implement strategies to engage all students, CIBC’s approach helps teachers create inclusive classroom environments in which students with challenging behaviors or developmental disabilities can flourish.

Teacher-centered support

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. As part of its management and oversight of CIBC, WestEd recruits and works closely with the network’s highly experienced consultants — all of whom have a background in early childhood education and most of whom have graduate degrees in early childhood special education, early childhood education, or infant and early childhood mental health. With a growing network of over 114 consultants across the state who visit and observe in classrooms, CIBC is able to offer quick-turnaround support when teachers need it most.

Over the last year, CIBC worked with over 550 educators, who, collectively, served some 3,000 young children — many of whom are from low-income neighborhoods — in 157 state-contracted programs throughout California. Consultants typically visit each teacher about three or four times, focusing not just on addressing teachers’ immediate classroom issues, but on helping teachers sustain a reflective approach to teaching and caregiving by incorporating the practice into their everyday routine. Bollig notes that setting an explicit goal as seemingly simple as spending five minutes at the end of each day thinking about what worked well, what didn’t, and how to improve the classroom can have a significant impact on a teacher’s practice and on children’s classroom experience.

In a 2014 evaluation of the program, over 95 percent of teachers reported that the CIBC consultant met their needs and 95 percent of teachers reported that they had applied information and insights gained from the consultation to their work.

“I’ve worked in the field a long time, and I’m just so impressed with this program,” says O’Brien. “There’s something very rewarding about working closely with teachers and helping them tap more deeply into the strategies they have begun to master. I love seeing the look in their eyes when their students are engaged in learning and the teachers themselves are enjoying their jobs again.”