2.3: Support providers/teachers to implement evidence-based practices for supporting positive social-emotional development

Social-emotional development icon

Supporting providers/teachers to implement evidence-based practices to support all children’s positive social-emotional development has been shown to prevent and reduce challenging behaviors. Just like teaching reading and literacy skills, children need supports and guidance to develop positive social-emotional skills. Supporting positive social-emotional development provides children with the foundational skills and tools to manage and express their behavior and emotions in appropriate ways. Preventing challenging behaviors before they become chronic and more severe ultimately reduces providers’/teachers’ stress. When teachers are less stressed, they are less likely to feel the need to resort to exclusionary discipline practices. This recommendation focuses on supporting providers/teachers to increase opportunities and activities for building foundational social-emotional skills, including emotional literacy, positive peer social interactions, self-regulation and self-management, and social problem solving.

How do I do this?

Step 1. Discuss and reflect. Talk to your providers/teachers about the importance of instructional practices to promote children’s positive social-emotional development and how such practices are related to preventing the challenging behaviors that lead to suspensions and expulsion.

  • 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 teaching strategies to help children increase their self-regulation and self-management skills?
    • Are my expectations of children’s behavior appropriate for the age and individual needs and abilities of my children?
    • To help stimulate reflection, see this ZERO TO THREE Tuning In: Self-Control infographic about beliefs vs. evidence of when children develop self-control.
  • Help your providers/teachers understand what promoting children’s positive social-emotional development looks like by establishing a comprehensive list of practices that should be in place in preschool classrooms. You can start with a preexisting one, such as the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning’s (CSEFEL) Inventory of Practices, and adapt it to meet your needs.
  • 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 social-emotional teaching strategies. 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 instructional practices to promote children’s positive social-emotional development, how such practices might reduce challenging behavior and the need to remove children from the classroom or have them leave early. The staff list instructional practices that promote children’s social-emotional development, including emotional literacy, positive peer social interactions, self-regulation and self-management, and social problem solving. 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 and embedding social-emotional instructional practices in their daily interactions with children.

Vignette 2: Shooting Stars Child Development Center is a small, private child care center. There are two children in the center that have significant challenging behavior, 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 focus on three areas to start: responsive provider/teacher-child interactions with children (see Recommendation 2.2), emotional literacy by promoting identification and labeling of emotions, and self-regulation by encouraging autonomy.

Step 2. Identify training needs. After establishing a list of practices and priorities, it is important to work with 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 teachers meet their goals. Where does training need to be targeted? Do staff have specific training requests?

Vignette 1: Samantha thinks promoting children’s social problem solving should be a priority for change in her classroom, because a lot of challenging behavior happens between children during free play periods. Jonelle helps Samantha develop the following goal: I will create a planned approach for problem solving processes for children in my classroom. Jonelle and Samantha then discuss what Samantha needs to help make that happen. They decide that Samantha needs help brainstorming ideas for teaching problem solving steps. She would also like Jonelle to observer her classroom to help identify natural opportunities for “problematizing” situations throughout the day to allow children to generate solutions.

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 promoting the identification and labeling of emotions and encouraging autonomy, as well as a space to write down practices the provider would like to do more or learn more about. Randi uses these planning forms to guide her in identifying what resources and support to provide to staff.

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 social problem-solving goal. First, Jonelle and Samantha decide to get ideas from other teachers for teaching problem-solving steps 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 teach children problem-solving steps!” 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. Create a problem-solving steps poster to put up in the room and use with kids:
    1. Think: What is my problem?
    2. Solve: What are some solutions?
    3. Plan: What would happen next?
    4. Check: Try it out!
  2. Reinforce children’s problem-solving efforts by handing out “gotchas.” Place gotchas with children’s names on them into a box and each week, have a drawing. The child whose name is selected gets first choice of activity.
  3. Create a “What can I do?” social problem-solving pinwheel with an appropriate solution to social conflicts in each wedge, along with a picture. Bring the wheel with you when you see conflicts between two kids and have them spin the wheel to talk about if it might be a good solution and try it out:
  4. problem_solving_wheel

Vignette 2: Randi helps each provider set a goal around promoting emotional literacy. Marcus’s provider decides to focus on increasing Marcus’s ability to identify and label his emotions and identify appropriate ways to express them, as well as making sure to continue to increase opportunities for all children to self-identify and label their emotions and those of others. Danielle’s provider decides to focus on increasing opportunities for Danielle to make choices and complete tasks independently before stepping in during routines (e.g., bathroom, circle, lunch). Randi brainstorms with both providers ways they can promote emotional literacy and encourage autonomy and creates a list of ideas they can draw from, in addition to finding in-the-moment opportunities, including:

  • Sing songs and read stories with new feeling words.
  • Take photographs of the children making different emotion expressions (happy, mad, sad, scared, shy, excited, worried) to put up in the room. In the morning, have children “check in” by picking a feeling face that best represents their morning mood. At the end of the day, have children pick again and talk about why they feel the same or different.
  • Create a set of puppets with different emotion expressions that children can use in dramatic play. Prompt children to talk about how the puppet feels and why when playing.
  • Use validating statements to acknowledge and label how children are feeling (“I can see you are really excited about going outside today! It made Maria happy when you asked her to play with you.”).
  • When children are feeling upset or frustrated, label how they are feeling and provide an action statement for an appropriate way they can express or cope with their feelings, such as “I see that you are feeling frustrated. Let’s take a few belly breaths to help calm down.”
  • Select a routine or activity to teach children to self-manage and lay out each step with pictures on a laminated chart, such as what to do when it is clean-up time: stop playing, pick up toys, put them back on their shelf, and take a seat in the circle area.
  • For children with challenging behaviors, offer choices among two or more types of materials of activities during meals, chores, centers, routines, and play, such as choosing materials during an activity, choosing what activity will come next, and choosing a friend to sit with at lunch.

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 social problem solving, she sees a gradual change in children’s ability to self-identify solutions to conflicts with their peers. Jonelle is able to confirm this with her weekly data collection, noting fewer conflicts during free play. The data also show that there are fewer challenging behaviors overall during free play. With Samantha’s permission, Jonelle creates a simple graph showing the improvements in transition times and challenging behaviors. 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” promoting emotional literacy or self-regulation 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 staff meet their goals and as staff change. This helps to celebrate success and identify new areas of focus or needs, and revise strategies if needed.

Vignette 1: After a few months of work around social problem solving 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 strategies for teaching social problem solving continue to be used.

Vignette 2: In Shooting Stars Child Development Center, all the providers made significant progress around emotional literacy and self-regulation. They then revisit their list of practices and decide to focus on the next priority, which is increasing teaching strategies for promoting friendship skills and positive peer social interactions. In a staff meeting, they also reflect on their progress with emotional literacy and self-regulation and commit to maintaining those practices even as they focus on new practices.

Evidence Supporting Specific Practices
Specific practices related to the promoting children’s positive social-emotional development 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 intervention.

All the practices listed are based on theoretical support and expert opinion, but the specific research supporting each practice varies.Looking for resources for selecting evidence-based social-emotional curricula? See the following guides:

Theoretical/ expert opinion
Empirical evidence for specific practice
Empirical evidence as part of broader approach
Emotional Literacy Instruction
Friendship skills instruction/Positive peer social interaction
Social problem-solving instruction/Conflict resolution
Self-regulation/Self-management instruction

What Barriers Might I Run Into and What Are Solutions?

Potential Barrier: I need resources for providing training and professional development on practices for supporting positive social-emotional development.
Solution: There are several free online training modules that you can use with your staff:

Potential Barrier:My program doesn’t have the resources or funding.
Solution: Your local Child Care Resource and Referral agency can help you find local free and low-cost training opportunities. They can also help you find grants for additional funding and resources.You can locate Child Care Resource and Referral agencies in your area through Child Care Aware’s search tool. Its State by State Resource Map can point you in the right direction for local resources on child care, health and social services, financial assistance, support for children with special needs, and more.

Potential Barrier: My staff are resistant to adopting new practices.
Solution: Engaging staff in exploration and decision-making processes promotes buy-in and makes it more likely that all interested parties—staff and families—will be committed to the ultimate decision.

Potential Barrier: We’ve tried adopting evidence-based practices or curricula for supporting social-emotional development before, but it doesn’t last.
Solution: Support the ongoing implementation of practices. Evidence shows that providing a one-time training without follow-up implementation supports is not effective. It is also crucial to integrate practices into everyday activities and build them into the daily schedule.

Where do I go for more resources?


Bodrova E., & Leong, D. J. (2012). Tools of the mind: Vygotskian approach to early childhood education. In J. L. Roopnarine & J. Jones, Approaches to early childhood education (6th ed., pp. 241-260). Columbus, OH: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Bovey, T. & Strain, P. Promoting positive peer social interactions. What Works Briefs, Center on the Social Emotional Foundations for Early Learning. Accessed from http://csefel.vanderbilt.edu/briefs/wwb8.pdf

Fox, L. & Garrison, S. Helping children learn to manage their own behavior. What Works Briefs. Center on the Social Emotional Foundations for Early Learning.

Joseph, G. E., & Strain, P. S. (2003). Comprehensive Evidence-Based Social—Emotional Curricula for Young Children An Analysis of Efficacious Adoption Potential. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 23(2), 62-73.

Joseph, G., Strain, P. & Ostrosky, M. M. (2005). Fostering emotional literacy in young children: Labeling emotions. What Works Briefs, Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning. Accessed from http://csefel.vanderbilt.edu/briefs/wwb21.pdf

Nix, R. L., Bierman, K. L., Domitrovich, C. E., & Gill, S. (2013). Promoting children’s social-emotional skills in preschool can enhance academic and behavioral functioning in kindergarten: Findings from Head Start REDI. Early Education & Development, 24(7), 1000-1019.

Trentacosta, C. J., & Fine, S. E. (2010). Emotion knowledge, social competence, and behavior problems in childhood and adolescence: A meta‐analytic review. Social Development, 19(1), 1-29.

ZERO TO THREE (2010). Tips for promoting social and emotional development. Washington, DC. Accessed from https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/225-tips-for-promoting-social-emotional-development

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