Logo for the Association for Positive Behavior Support

Early Childhood: Description and Links

Brief Overview

Early childhood positive behavior support strategies address the growing concern that young children who engage in challenging behavior are more likely to be excluded from preschool and early childhood settings. In fact, a report by Gilliam & Shabar (2006) indicated that expulsion rates are higher for preschool age children than they are for school-age children. Behaviors such as biting, pulling hair, tantrums, and noncompliance that do not decrease naturally over time in preschool settings may set the stage for children engaging in these behaviors to experience increasingly negative outcomes as they grow older.

Two toddler girls in front of a plastic bin full of toys sharing a toy truck

In the past, reactive strategies tended to be the predominant response to the occurrence of challenging behavior. Increasingly, however, family members, researchers, and preschool teachers have been seeking prevention-based and early-intervention strategies for creating proactive and positive environments for social grown and emotional regulation in young children.

A young boy and girl sitting together on a chair - the boy is holding a teddy bear listening while the girl reads from a book.

A comprehensive, systems-wide approach for preventing problem behavior in young children includes three levels of prevention with intervention addressing the needs of all children within a preschool or early childhood setting. Interventions at the primary prevention level involve creating predictable, enriched, and safe settings for young children.

The three-tiered prevention triangle: A three colored triangle - The words 'tertiary prevention' are connected to the top or point of the triange by an arrow. Two bullet points under the words 'tertiary prevention' read: 1) Intensive, Individual Interventions 2) Assessment-based.  The words 'secondary prevention' are connected to the middle section of the triange by an arrow.  Under the words 'secondary prevention' three bullet points read: 1) Targeted group interventions 2) Some children (at risk) 3) High efficiency.  The words 'primary prevention' are connected to the base section of the triange by an arrow.  Under the words 'primaryy prevention' four bullet points read: 1) System-wide interventions 2) All Children 3) Preventative, proactive 4) Broad community focus.

A focus at the Primary Prevention level is on establishing positive social relationships between children, and with children and adults. Staff members also place an emphasis on building positive relationships with parents to create a setting where adults are working together to ensure children are receiving the support they need for social and emotional growth. Social skills are identified and taught with opportunities for children to practice new behaviors and receive positive reinforcement for behavior. Adults work together to respond to problem behavior in a consistent manner and in ways that naturally decrease challenging behavior.

A smiling, supine woman resting on her elbow looking up, smiling at a toddler who is handing her an orange.

The Secondary Prevention level of support identifies children at risk for engaging in challenging behavior with early interventions established that provide additional time for these children to work on relationships with others, practice important skills, and receive reinforcement for using new skills in everyday settings. Small group interventions, peer buddy programs and other teacher-implemented interventions are implemented at the Secondary Prevention level.

Two toddlers, a boy and girl, sitting together on a rocking-horse.

Tertiary Prevention strategies include individualized and intensive positive behavior support plans for children who engage in chronic and severe problem behavior. Person-centered strategies are used to support young children and empower family members within a team-based context. The person-centered process provides a vision for improving quality of life for the young child and helps set the stage for the next step, a functional behavioral assessment.

The functional behavioral assessment is used to identify the underlying reasons, or function, that maintains a child’s challenging behavior. In some cases, a child may be seeking to escape from a nonpreferred person activity or event. In other situations, challenging behavior may be communicating that the child wants a toy, activity, or person he prefers. At times, a child will engage in challenging behavior in order to obtain attention form adults or peers. These are all examples of challenging behavior occurring as a form of social communication. Although in many cases, a child may engage in challenging behavior in order to seek out or escape from a social outcome, there are times when behaviors are maintained by physiological or biochemical reasons.

Two toddlers sitting outside on a sunny day fighting over a juice cup.  One of the toddlers is crying.

For instance, ear infections, allergies and other illnesses are associated with challenging behavior in young children. Ruling out physical illness or other physiological factors is an important first step in any problem-solving process. The functional behavioral assessment process involves gathering direct observation, record reviews, and indirect assessment information (via surveys, interviews and other types of information). Teams use this information to confirm a hypothesis outlining the function maintaining the child’s challenging behavior.

A young, crying toddler

The hypothesis is then used to brainstorm individualized interventions that will replace challenging behavior with a new social and communication skill. Changes are made to everyday routines and settings in order to decrease the likelihood that challenging behaviors will occur. At the tertiary prevention level, data are gathered for each positive behavior support plan and used to evaluate how well the interventions are working. It is also important to assess how well the positive behavior support plan addresses the values, skills and resources of the child’s family and team.

A growing number of preschool settings and other early childhood organizations are now using this three-tiered prevention model in order to establish prevention-focused systems change efforts. Moving away from primarily reactive strategies has contributed to positive outcomes that include happier children, better communication with families, and improved quality of life for staff members within the organization as well.

Training Modules Promoting Social and Emotional Competence for Preschool and Infant Toddlers

Pyramid Model for Promoting the Social and Emotional Development of Infants and Young Children (video)

Implementing PBS in Schools

Benedict, E. A., Horner, R. H., & Squires, J. K. (2007). Assessment and implementation of positive behavior support in preschools. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 27(3), 174-192. DOI: 10.1177/02711214070270030801

Example of a PBS Plan

Aaron's PBS Plan: http://www.apbs.org/Aaron.htm

Tertiary Prevention: PBS Practices from the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center

PBS Practices are brief fact sheets that describe effective practices in Positive Behavior Support. Each Practice includes a rationale, overview, examples, issues and needs, and frequently-asked questions on a designated topic. The purpose of the series on PBS Practices is to provide information about important elements of positive behavior support. PBS Practices are not specific recommendations for implementation, and they should always be considered within the larger context of planning, assessment and comprehensive support.

  • Methods of Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) PDF
  • Collaborative Teaming in PBS PDF
  • Proactive Support Strategies PDF
  • Positive Consequence Strategies PDF
  • Teaching Replacement Skills PDF
  • Systems Change in Positive Behavior Support PDF
  • Competing Behavior Model PDF
  • Group Action Planning and PBS PDF
  • Addressing Cultural and Economic Diversity in PBS PDF

Research-based Case Study Summaries

The following vignettes come from peer-reviewed research articles or chapters found in the literature related to providing behavior interventions for individuals with challenging behavior. These summaries are intended to provide ideas for validated intervention strategies that are implemented in the field. While these vignettes are helpful in learning more about positive behavior support and behavior intervention strategies, they are only intended to be examples. All PBS plans should start with person-centered planning and functional behavioral assessment. The functional behavioral assessment is used to identify interventions that are based on the function maintaining the behavior and that are individualized for the person receiving support. Please gather valuable information from these vignettes, while being cautious not to over-generalize to all children who engage in challenging behavior.

Intervention Case Study 1: http://www.apbs.org/Files/replacingaggressive.doc

Barry, L. M., and Singer, G. H. S. (2001). A family in crisis: Replacing the aggressive behavior of a child with autism toward an infant sibling. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 3(1), 28-38.

Intervention Case Study 2: http://kipbsmodules.org/Word-PDF-PPT/casestudy2.pdf

Dunlap, G. and Fox, Lise (1999). A demonstration of behavioral support for young children with autism. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 1, 77-87.

PBS Glossary: http://apbs.org/new_apbs/files/glossary.pdf

SWPBS References: http://apbs.org/new_apbs/early-childhood-references.html

Learn more about Positive Behavior Support by becoming a member.

Visit the Member's Area

Get involved in a local APBS Network