Managing Behavior in the Preschool Classroom (Guest blogger: Dr. Emily Sartini)

Preschool teachers in Illinois are often expected to accommodate students with a range of problem behaviors, including aggressive behaviors such as hitting and kicking. What can we do to ensure young children with problem behaviors can remain in preschool settings? How can we meet the needs of children with significant problem behaviors while ensuring other students remain safe in the classroom?

Positive behavior supports (PBS) have a growing amount of support in the early childhood literature and have led to success in preschool classrooms (Stanton-Chapman, Walker, Vorhees, & Snell, 2016). PBS involves the use of assessment, individualized behavior plans, and instruction in pro-social behaviors, as well as the establishment a structured environment, clear expectations, and positive reinforcement for appropriate behavior (Carter & Van Norman, 2010).

For preschool children with severe problem behaviors, such as aggression, Functional Behavioral Assessment can be conducted that includes assessment to determine the function of the problem behavior. Behavioral function refers to the reasons why behaviors occur, such as to obtain attention, access to a desired item, or escape from an undesired activity (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). Once the team has identified the function, they can design an intervention that teaches the child to achieve that function more appropriately (e.g., asking for a break from an undesired activity, saying a peer’s name to receive attention). The team then implements and takes data on the effectiveness of the plan (Stanton-Chapman et al., 2016).

There are some general techniques that can benefit all preschool students in the classroom. Carter and Van Norman (2010) investigated a variety of strategies that can be implemented class-wide to facilitate success for all students. They found that these strategies resulted in high rates of academic engagement in preschool classrooms. The following techniques can be implemented with entire classes in the preschool setting to increase academic engagement and minimize problem behavior:

  • Posting 3-5 positively phrased rules with picture cues
  • A picture schedule
  • Development of behavioral expectations across multiple classroom routines (e.g., washing hands, walking in the hallway)
  • Using a transition signal with visual as well as a verbal cue
  • Provide notice of transitions before they occur
  • Reminding students of appropriate behaviors before the transition
  • Praising appropriate behaviors with specific, positive praise at a ratio of 4 positive statements to 1 corrective statement
  • Preschool teachers should plan to implement the above strategies for the entire class to create a positive learning environment that minimizes the occurrence of behavioral issues (Carter & Van Norman, 2010). While children with more extreme behavioral needs will require individualize behavioral intervention, most children can benefit from class-wide strategies that increase positivity and clarify expectations.


Carter, D.R., & Van Norman, R.K. (2010). Class-wide positive behavior support in preschool: Improving teacher implementation through consultation. Early Childhood Education Journal, 38, 279-288.

Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W.L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NI: Pearson.

Stanton-Chapman, T.L., Walker, V.L., Vorhees, M.D., & Snell, M.E. (2016). The evaluation of a three-tier model of positive behavior interventions and supports for preschoolers in Head Start. Remedial and Special Education, 37, 333-344.

Dr. Emily Sartini is Assistant Professor of Special Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Western Illinois University. Her research interests include Applied Behavior Analysis, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and access to core content for students with Intellectual Disability.

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