*Social and Emotional Competencies

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"A growing number of children are exhibiting behaviors that require intervention. Aggression in children is appearing at younger ages and at escalating levels". (Bell et al, 2004, p 67).

According to a recent study published from Yale University, many young children in state funded pre-K programs are being asked to leave because of challenging behaviors. (Gilliam 2005). Previous studies on the topic of expulsion rates done in Massachusetts, found that students in early childhood programs had 34 times the rate of expulsions than did students enrolled k-12 and more then 13 times the national average for k12 rates. We know that young children have less of a chance of being successful in kindergarten and grades above if they have difficulties regulating their emotions and behaviors, forming friendships and following adult directive. The Division for Early Childhood's concept paper on identifying and creating interventions for children with challenging behaviors states,

"Dimensions of social-emotional competence do not evolve naturally. The course of social-emotional development—whether healthy or unhealthy—depends on the quality of nurturing attachment and stimulation that a child experiences. Numerous research studies show that a relationship with a consistent, caring and attuned adult who actively promotes the development of these dimensions is essential for healthy social-emotional outcomes in young children. Actively promoting social-emotional competence includes activities such as:

• Creating an environment in which children feel safe to express their emotions
• Being emotionally responsive to children and modeling empathy
• Setting clear expectations and limits (e.g., “People in our family don’t hurt each other.”)
• Separating emotions from actions (e.g., “It’s okay to be angry, but we don’t hit someone when we are angry.”)
• Encouraging and reinforcing social skills such as greeting others and taking turns
• Creating opportunities for children to solve problems (e.g., “What do you think you should do if another child calls you a bad name?”)


The good news related to challenging behaviors and young children is that we know what works in decreasing these behaviors or preventing them from occurring before they even begin. By preventing behaviors from occuring we increase the likelihood of success, build self-esteem and competence (Kazdin,1995). The first thing we can do is to look how we set up our preschool classrooms.

The Physical Environment

The physical environment is a key component to every early childhood classroom. Children are most likely to demonstrate appropriate behaviors and learn when they are in a classroom where they are engaged and active. Problem behaviors are reduced when children are not bored or frustrated and there is a good match between their developmental elementary level and the materials and instruction. Below you will find examples of an inclusive early childhood environment and how it is physically arranged.

picture of green shelf with wooden blocks Centers are well defined areas of a classroom that use furniture to provide boundaries between areas. Centers should be arranged by noise levels and make sure that loud and noisy areas such as blocks and water play are not directly next to quiet centers such as art or book centers.
photo of bookshelf with wooden blocks Keep materials on low open shelves so that they are easily accessible to all children. Make different materials available on a regular basis and ensure that there are duplicates of materials to discourage competition for a favorite material. Another factor in promoting appropriate behavior is to set a given number of children in each center at one time. This decreases the likelihood of arguments and allows enough space for children to interact and play with materials.

photo of early childhood classroom with small round table and low bookshelves

Classrooms that promote appropriate behavior from children have defined areas but also have open areas that allow for more movement and large group activities. 

photo of early childhood classroom with table and housekeeping area

When designing a classroom keep in mind flow patterns. Children should be able to move easily in and between areas. Children who use wheelchairs, walkers or other equipment to help them access the materials may require more space between areas.

photo of student cubbies labeled

Shelves and containers should be labeled allowing children to be independent and have direction as to where materials belong.

photo of object bulletin board

To help children feel a sense of belonging in the classroom, space should be provided for children's work to be displayed.

Design Defined Areas

Blocks, sand and water, dramatic play, fine motor, computer, reading and art areas are recommended areas for the preschool classroom. These "play areas" can be formed by using items such as shelving, cubbies, partitions and even teachers desks to create distinct areas that have boundaries. Children know where to stay and which materials to keep in these areas. Some areas, such as blocks and dramatic play require a larger area so that children can spread out the materials. Too tight a space for the block area may cause children to respond in more aggressive ways, displaying inappropriate behaviors. Use a process that limits the number of children in any one area at a given time. Teach children how to rotate between areas, using a signal from the teacher or a visual means such as a sign. Keep in mind when setting up your preschool environment:

  • Provide boundaries between center areas
  • Arrange noisy areas away from those that are quieter
  • Ensure easy movement within and between areas
  • Set limits on the number of children in each area
  • Have a clear process for rotating between areas

Creating an Interesting Environment

Children are more likely to learn when they are in a classroom where they are engaged and active. Interesting and plentiful materials should be available to reduce opportunities for children to argue over them. Supplies, toys and other materials should match the developmental level of the children: not too easy, not too hard. Problem behaviors are reduced when children are not bored or frustrated and there is a good match between their developmental level and the materials and instruction. All materials should be clearly labeled for access and clean-up. It helps to let them know what is expected and contributes to heir feeling of security, which is important because a sense of insecurity can be the reason for misbehavior. Keep in mind:

  • Provide interesting activities
  • Keep material on low, open shelves
  • Label shelves and containers
  • Make available different materials on a regular basis

Program Environment

Develop a schedule/routine

A classroom schedule that is well designed and consistently implemented may be the singe most important fact to promoting children's engagement in the learning environment, this contributing to the prevention of challenging behaviors (Hemmeter, 2002). Programs that are highly structured do not give young children the opportunities to establish self control. On the other hand, too little structure may lead to inappropriate behaviors. This can be especially true for students with autism and those that have non verbal learning disabilities. These students benefit form visual supports such as picture schedules and social stories.

Assist children to:

  • Follow the daily routine using a visual schedule
  • Communicate wants, needs and desires
  • Follow adult directions (e.g. steps in washing hands, toileting) with the use of visual cues
  • Foster friendships through the use of social scripting (e.g. Social Stories)
  • Use visuals to aid in transitions from one activity to the next or one place to the next

In addition, the daily schedule should take into account a balance exists between teacher directed and children initiated activities. A minimum of one hour per day should be devoted to activities that children have some choice in. A balance should also exist between large and small group activities and transitions should be well planned across the day.

Monitor problem areas

Certain areas in the classroom such as blocks, dramatic play and sand and water may require more teacher support for young children. It is inevitable that there will be conflict in a preschool classroom. You can use conflict to teach children problem solving skills, anger management skills and communication skills.

Assist children in:

  • Identifying the problem
  • Identifying the consequences
  • Asking a "what can you do" question
  • Remembering the rules
  • Determining a solution
  • Following up as needed

Many child care providers and professionals indicate the need for more training opportunities. The good news is that the T/TAC at VCU conducted training from the Fall of 2013 through the Spring of 2014, within Regions 1 and 8, using the Social and Emotional Competency materials developed through the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations of Early Learning.

Expulsion accomplishes nothing for the young child with challenging behaviors. While out of a program or classroom the child and family lose access to the acquisition of the skills needed to be successful later in life. We can also be assured, unless the family moves to another county that the child will show up for kindergarten, possibly displaying the same behaviors that were challenging to those in the pre-K program. The chances of the behaviors going away are very low. Research shows that, if we want to help young children with challenging behaviors to be successful in school and later in life, early interventions is the key. If we as professionals view behaviors as attempts to communicate and opportunities to teach then we are on the right path.

Please contact our library at the VDOE T/TAC at VCU to check out the following resources related to supporting young children’s behavior.

Library Resources

  • Bell, S. H., Carr, V., Denno, D., Johnson, L. J., Phillips, L. R. (2004). Challenging behaviors in early childhood settings: creating a place for all children. In Phillips, L.R., Hensler, J., Diesel, M., & Cefalo, A. Seeing the Challenge more clearly. (p67). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
  • Brault, L., Carta, J., Hemmeter, M.L., McEvovy, M., Neilson, S., Rous, B., Smith, B., Strain, P., & Timm, M., (1999) Division of Early Childhood (DEC) concept papter on the identification and intervention with challenging behavior. In S. Sandall & M. Ostrosky (Eds), Young exceptional children: Practical ideas for addressing challenging behaviors (Monograph Series1, pp. 63-70). Denver, Co: Division for Early Childhood of the Council for Exceptional Children
  • Brown, W., Odom, S., McConnell, S. (2007). Social Competence of Young Children: Risk, Disability, and Intervention, Scholastic.
  • Gartrell, D. (2003). Power of Guidance: Teaching Social Emotional Skills in Early Childhood Classrooms. NAEYC
  • Gilliam, W. (2005). Prekindergarteners left behind: expulsion rates in state prekindergarten systems.
  • Kaiser,B. & Rasminsky, J. (2012). “Challenging Behaviors in young children: Understanding, Preventing and Responding Effectively”. Boston: A & B.
  • Kazdin, A.E. (1995). Conduct disorders in childhood and adolescence (2nd ed.) Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Nefertiti, B., Cairone, K. (2011). Socially Strong, Emotionally Secure Children: 50 Activities to Promote Resilience in Young Children. Devereux Center for Resilient Children.
  • Porter, L. (2008). Young Children’s Behavior: Practical Approaches for Caregivers and Teachers, 3rd edition. Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

Web Resources

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