2.2 Classroom Environment

2.2: Support teachers/providers to modify the classroom environment to prevent challenging behaviors

Preventing challenging behaviors icon

The first steps to addressing challenging behavior is to ensure that the classroom environment is developmentally appropriate, the teacher has reasonable expectations for the child, and the environment supports the child in understanding the expectations and how to meet them. Children ages 3 to 5 should not be treated like older children—they have different developmental needs and abilities. That means classrooms should be designed to match the age, cultural, and individual needs of children. When the environment is high quality, challenging behavior decreases, with the results that teacher stress decreases and fewer children are removed from the classroom or asked to leave the program. Practices related to a high-quality environment include:

“You want to set the stage for your children to come in your classroom and know that they have a safe, loving environment.” – Anonymous provider

How do I do this?

Step 1. Discuss and reflect. Talk to your providers/teachers about the importance of implementing high-quality environmental practices and how that is related to preventing the challenging behaviors that lead to suspensions and expulsions.

  • Support your providers/teachers as they reflect on their own practices. Ask providers/teachers to ask themselves questions, such as:
    • What can I add to or change about my classroom environment to help children understand classroom expectations?
    • Are my classroom expectations appropriate for the age and individual needs and abilities of my children?
  • Help your providers/teachers understand what high-quality classroom environments look like by establishing a comprehensive list of practices that should be in place in early childhood classrooms.
  • Work with providers/teachers to prioritize specific practices to avoid overwhelming them. In CSEFEL’s Inventory of Practices, there are a variety of skills and indicators related to high-quality environments—building supportive relationships and designing supportive environments. Of the selected practices, discuss and reflect on the extent to which they may or may not be present.

Vignette 1: Jonelle is the center director of a state-funded preschool center called Harris Early Learning Center. She leads a staff meeting where they discuss the importance of having a high-quality classroom environment and how that might reduce challenging behavior and the need to remove children from the classroom or have them leave early. The staff list practices that support a high-quality environment. Jonelle challenges each teacher to reflect on her or his own teaching practices and think about what might be a good starting point for improving the classroom environment.

Vignette 2: Shooting Stars Child Development Center is a small, private child care center. There are two children in the center who have significant challenging behaviors, Marcus and Danielle. Marcus’s provider has a strong relationship with Marcus and his family, but Danielle’s provider struggles to build a relationship with Danielle and her family. In fact, Danielle’s provider has asked Randi, the director of the center, to tell Danielle’s family to find a new care arrangement. Randi is committed to ensuring that all children can be successful in her center. She finds the CSEFEL Inventory of Practices online and decides to use it to focus on preventing challenging behavior. After one-on-one discussions with the staff at Shooting Stars, Randi decides, with the providers’ input, to first focus on having responsive interactions with children.

Step 2. Identify training needs. After establishing a list of practices and priorities, it is important to work with providers/teachers to identify goals and opportunities for growth to implement the practices consistently. Discuss what types of professional development and support are needed to help the providers/teachers meet their goals. Where does training need to be targeted? Do staff have specific training requests?

  • Looking for a provider/teacher goal planning form to adapt? See this editable template from TACSEI.

Vignette 1: Samantha thinks transitions should be a priority for change in her classroom, because a lot of challenging behavior happens during transitions. Jonelle helps Samantha develop the following goal: I will create opportunities for children to be ready for and engaged in transitions. Jonelle and Samantha then discuss what Samantha needs to help make that happen. They decide that Samantha needs help brainstorming ideas for making her transitions active. She also could use another pair of eyes in the classroom during her hardest transition, which is moving from centers to lunch.

Vignette 2: Randi gives each provider a planning form. The planning form has a space to write down what the provider feels s/he is doing already around responsive interactions, as well as a space to write down practices the teacher would like to do more or learn more about. Randi uses these planning forms to guide her in providing resources and support to providers around responsive interactions and positive relationships.

Step 3. Plan a course of action. After identifying goals and professional development and support needs, you should work with your providers/teachers to decide how they can meet their goals.

  • Looking for an action plan template that you can adapt to use with your staff? See this editable template from TACSEI.

Vignette 1: Jonelle and Samantha decide on some concrete steps to reach Samantha’s transition goal. First, Jonelle and Samantha decide to get ideas from other teachers about how to make transitions active by posting a large piece of construction paper in the staff break room, with the following prompt: “Fellow teachers, please share your ideas for helping children be engaged and active in transitions!” They leave markers near the posted paper and encourage teachers to share their ideas. After collecting different ideas, Jonelle and Samantha decide to do three things:

  1. Provide 5-minute and 1-minute warnings before each transition.
  2. For the transition to lunch, designate a “clean-up captain” each week, whose job it is to walk around the room during the transition to remind other children to clean up centers. Then, as they move to the sink to wash their hands, Samantha will help them take turns and will lead the children waiting in line in a fingerplay, song, or other engaging activity. To increase child engagement, she will let individual children suggest ideas (e.g., “Let’s count as high as we can!” or “Can we sing ‘Down by the Bay’?”) The assistant teacher will receive children at the mealtime tables and will enlist their help in setting out utensils, napkins, etc.
  3. Jonelle will visit the classroom during this transition for several Thursdays in a row and will note how long the transition lasts and the amount of challenging behavior that occurs. Then Jonelle and Samantha will look at the data to see whether there are improvements and determine whether further steps are needed.

Vignette 2: Randi helps each provider set a goal around responsive interactions. Marcus’s provider decides to focus on increasing the number of responsive interactions she has with Marcus, as well as making sure to continue to have responsive interactions with all children. Danielle’s provider decides to focus on having at least one responsive interaction with Danielle during each routine of the day (e.g., bathroom, circle, lunch). Randi brainstorms with both providers ways they can have responsive interactions and creates a list of ideas they can draw from, in addition to finding in-the-moment opportunities. Their list of ideas includes the following:

  • Greet children when they arrive for the day.
  • Have conversations with children at mealtimes (e.g., “Marcus, what did you do after school yesterday?”).
  • Encourage children to talk to one another during mealtimes, supporting their conversations as needed.
  • Respond to children’s comments during circle/book reading.
  • Join in children’s play in centers and outside, following the children’s lead.
  • Have extended conversations with children about their interests.
  • Use behavior, affective, and paraphrase reflections rather than questions to encourage children to share their thoughts and feelings (e.g., Behavior reflection: “You are using a lot of brown in your painting;” Affective reflection: “You seem frustrated that the dramatic play center is closed;” Paraphrase reflection: Child says, “I am going to go to the park and swing on the swings and play in the sandbox and then we are going to get ice cream!” Teacher responds with, “You are going to do a lot of fun activities at the park and even have a snack!”).

Step 4. Acknowledge progress. Recognize providers/teachers as they make progress and demonstrate exemplary implementation. Encourage teachers to acknowledge one another, as well. This creates a culture of support and recognition.

Vignette 1: As Samantha implements new practices around transition, she sees a gradual change in how long each transition lasts. Jonelle is able to confirm this with her weekly data collection during the transition to lunch. The data also show that there are fewer challenging behaviors in this transition. With Samantha’s permission, Jonelle creates a simple graph showing the improvements in transition times and challenging behavior. She displays it in the staff break room to recognize Jonelle’s hard work, thank other teachers for their ideas, and inspire other teachers to set goals for themselves.

Vignette 2: At Shooting Stars Child Development Center, Randi wants to encourage providers to meet their goals and recognize their progress, so she gives each provider a sticky notepad shaped like a star for them to acknowledge one another when they are “caught” having a responsive interaction with a child. The staff decide to put the stars on the doors of one another’s classrooms.

Step 5. Assess progress and new needs. It is important to remember that improving provider/teacher practices is a continuous cycle that should be repeated as teachers meet their goals and as staff change. This repetition helps to celebrate success, identify new areas of focus or needs, and revise strategies if needed.

Vignette 1: After a few months of work around transitions and steady progress, Samantha goes on maternity leave. A long-term substitute teacher fills in for her. Jonelle makes a plan to work with the substitute, as well as the teaching assistant in the classroom, to ensure that appropriate transition practices continue to be used.

Vignette 2: In Shooting Stars Child Development Center, all the providers made significant progress around responsive interactions with children. They then revisit their list of practices and decide to focus on the next priority, which is increasing the amount of descriptive praise and encouragement they provide to children. In a staff meeting, they also reflect on their progress with responsive interactions and commit to maintaining those practices even as they focus on new practices.

Evidence Supporting Specific Practices

Specific practices related to the classroom environment were listed and defined above. It is important to consider the evidence for using these practices. In the table below, the evidence for each practice is noted as being:

  • theoretical or based on expert opinion,
  • based on research around the individual use of a specific practice, and
  • based on research around the use of a practice as part of a broader approach.

All the practices listed are based on theoretical support and expert opinion, but the specific research supporting each practice varies.

Theoretical/ expert opinion
Empirical evidence for specific practice
Empirical evidence as part of broader approach
Responsive adult-child interactions and nurturing relationships
Predictable schedules and routines and visual schedules
Appropriate transitions and transition warnings
Descriptive praise and encouragement
Developmentally appropriate classroom rules

What Barriers Might I Run Into and What Are Solutions?

Potential Barrier: It’s difficult to develop positive relationships with children who are absent often.
Solutions: Talk with the parents about the importance of regular attendance. Try to determine the reason for the child’s absences to better understand the family circumstances and, if needed and possible, connect the family to addition services. If the child continues to miss school, encourage the child’s teacher(s) to think of ways to acknowledge the child when s/he is there. The teacher(s) could have the class write a letter or make a piece of art for the child to let her/him know s/he was missed.

Potential Barrier: It’s difficult to access resources to create visuals.
Solutions: Be creative! Consider using free clip art from the Internet, photographs of the children in your center, or even hand drawings. Check out Teaching Tools for Young Children with Challenging Behavior for premade visuals and tips for using them.

Potential Barrier: The classroom schedule changes often, so it is difficult to have a predictable schedule.
Solutions: Encourage teachers to establish a predictable schedule, as that is essential in helping children feel secure in their environment. At minimum, teachers should be able to know the schedule for the current day. Sometimes changes to the schedule are inevitable; when that is the case, use a visual schedule that can be moved around and manipulated to fit the current schedule of the classroom. Encourage teachers to use the visual schedule to tell children about changes to the schedule so children are prepared.

Potential Barrier: It isn’t possible to reduce the number of transitions.
Solutions: Even if the number of transitions can’t be reduced, there are still things teachers can do to make sure children are engaged. Assign staff so that someone is always there to “receive” children (e.g., if children are moving from centers to line up to go outside, make sure an adult is at the door). Use transition strategies like songs and other activities to minimize “down time” when children are not engaged (e.g., standing in line, waiting for other kids to finish washing their hands). Additionally, transition warnings should always be used, and the number and type of warnings should be individualized to meet children’s needs.

Potential Barrier: Teachers are resistant to change.
Solutions: Following the guidelines listed (e.g., engaging teacher in the process of generating practices, doing a needs assessment, developing goals) will promote teacher buy-in and openness to change.

Where do I go for more resources?


Hemmeter, M. L., Fox, L., & Hardy, J. K. (2016). Supporting the implementation of tiered models of behavior support in early childhood settings. In B. R. Reichow, B. Boyd, E. Barton, & S. Odom (Eds.), Handbook of early childhood education. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.

Kauffman, J. M. (1999). How we prevent the prevention of emotional and behavioral disorders. Exceptional Children, 65, 448-468.

NAEYC (2009). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8: A position statement of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Washington, D.C.: NAEYC.

Smith, B., & Fox, L. (2003). Systems of service delivery: A synthesis of evidence relevant to young children at risk of or who have challenging behavior. Tampa, FL: Center for Evidence-Based Practice: Young Children with Challenging Behavior, University of South Florida.

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