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This What Works Brief is part of a continuing series of short, easy-to-read, “how to” information packets on a variety of evidence-based practices, strategies, and intervention procedures. The Briefs are designed for in-service providers and others who conduct staff development activities. Those who are responsible for professional development should find them useful in sharing information with professionals and parents to help teachers and other caregivers support young children’s social and emotional development. The Briefs include examples and vignettes that illustrate how practical strategies might be used in a variety of early childhood settings and home environments.The strategies described in the Briefs are most successful when used in the context of ongoing positive relationships and supportive environments. The strategies are most successful for an individual child when developed based on observation and assessment of the child including information from the family, teacher, and other caregivers.

Four-year-old Gregory is an avid block builder. At free play, he has busied himself with an elaborate construction of a zoo. To complete his masterpiece, he needs an elusive Y-shaped block. As he searches the room in vain for the last, crucial piece, his initial calm hunt becomes more hurried and disorganized. He begins to yell and disrupt other children’s play. Gregory sees that his classmate Malik has the piece he wants. Gregory aggressively approaches Malik, who looks frightened. His teacher approaches in the nick of time and asks, “What’s the matter?” Gregory screams that Malik has his block and then swiftly turns away to go after the piece. Gregory’s teacher stops him from grabbing the block, whereupon Gregory launches into a major tantrum. The tantrum persists even though his teacher repeatedly tells him to “calm down.”

Keisha is 4 years old and loves to play at the computer. The computer area is her first choice at center time, just about every day. Today, Keisha is getting nervous because her teacher has called upon most of the boys and girls to decide where they would like to play first and Keisha notices that there is just one space left at the computers. She starts to bounce a little with her hand extended in the air and tries her best not to call out to the teacher, “Me next!” When Keisha finally gets called on to make her choice, she sees that the computer area is full. Keisha crosses her arms across her chest and frowns. Her teacher asks, “Keisha, what is the matter?” Keisha says, “I wanted to play on the computer.” Her teacher replies, “Hmmm… they look full.” Keisha replies, “Yeah, I’m frustrated and a little mad.” Her teacher responds, “You feel frustrated and a little mad, huh? Well, that is a problem.” Keisha begins to take some deep breaths and then proclaims, “I will go play at the block corner until Bahta is done. Can you come tell me when he is finished?” Her teacher replies, “I am so proud of you for staying so calm and figuring out a solution to your problem. Why don’t you ask Bahta to let you know when it is your turn?” Keisha smiles at the suggestion and skips off to make the request of Bahta.

What Is Emotional Literacy?

Emotional literacy is the ability to identify, understand, and respond to emotions in oneself and others in a healthy manner. Children who have a strong foundation in emotional literacy tolerate frustration better, get into fewer fights, and engage in
less self-destructive behavior than children who do not have a strong foundation. These children are also healthier, less lonely, less impulsive, more focused, and they have greater academic achievement. The focus of this What Works Brief is on building an emotional vocabulary. The development of a feeling word vocabulary is considered to be of critical importance in a child’s emotional development because it makes it possible for children to better understand their emotional experiences. The ability to name a feeling allows children to discuss and reflect with others about their personal experience of the world. The larger a child’s emotional vocabulary, the finer discriminations they can make
between feelings and the better they can communicate with others about their feelings. Children who are able to label their emotions are on their way to becoming emotionally competent. In the above two scenarios,
great variation can be noted in the children’s skills in labeling emotions. Gregory is unable to label his feeling of frustration, and at the same time, he is unable to read his peer’s frightened expression and calm himself down. Keisha, on the other hand, is able to correctly identify her feelings, control her impulses to yell out, regulate her disappointment in a healthy way, and solve an interpersonal problem with some support from her teacher.

What Accounts for Variations in Children’s Abilities to Label Emotions?

The ability to label emotions is a developmental skill that is not present at birth—it must be learned. And just as there is wide variation in the point at which children start to demonstrate appropriate use of books, begin writing, and recognize letters,
some children’s ability to identify, understand, and label their emotions develops at a slower rate than others. Three variables can underlie a child’s growing ability to label emotions: (1) the child’s temperament and developmental status, (2) parental
socialization and environmental support, and (3) the teacher and child care providers’ emphasis on emotional literacy. Indeed, differences in the way adults talk to and teach children about feelings and problem solving are related to children’s abilities to
label emotions.

What Can Adults Do?

Adults can play a major role in children’s ability to identify, understand, and express emotions in a healthy way. The following strategies are key in fostering emotional literacy in young children:

Express Your Own Feelings. One way to help children learn to label their emotions is to have healthy emotional expression modeled for them by the adults in their lives. For example, a teacher who knocked over all the glitter can say, “Oh boy, is that frustrating. Oh well, I’d better take a deep breath and figure out how to clean it up.” Or a parent who just got word that she got a promotion at work can say, “Wow! I am so excited about this! I feel proud of myself for working so hard.” Parents, teachers, and child care providers can make a point to talk out loud about their feelings as they experience them throughout the day.

Label Children’s Feelings. As adults provide feeling names for children’s emotional expressions, a child’s feeling vocabulary grows. Throughout the day, adults can attend to children’s emotional moments and label feelings for the children. For example, as a child runs for a swing, another child reaches it and gets on. The first child begins to frown. The teacher approaches her and says, “You look a little disappointed about that swing.” Or a boy’s grandmother surprises him by picking him up at child care. The boy screams, “Grandma!” and runs up to hug her. The child care provider says, “Oh boy, you look so happy and surprised that your grandma is here!” As children’s feeling vocabulary develops, their ability to correctly identify feelings in themselves and others also progresses.

Play Games, Sing Songs, and Read Stories with New Feeling Words. Adults can enhance children’s feeling vocabularies by introducing games, songs, and storybooks featuring new feeling words. Teachers and other caregivers can adapt songs such as “If you’re happy and you know it” with verses such as “If you’re frustrated and you know it, take a breath”; “If you’re disappointed and you know it, tell a friend”; or “If you’re proud and you know it, say ‘I did it!’” The following are some examples of games young children can play.

• Adults can cut out pictures that represent various feeling faces and place them in a container that is passed around the circle as music plays. When the music stops, the child holding the container can select a picture designating an emotion and identify it, show how they look when they feel that way, or describe a time when he or she felt that way. To extend this fun activity, give the children handheld mirrors that they can use to look at their own feeling faces.

• Children can look through magazines to find various feeling faces. They can cut them out and make a feeling face collage. Adults can help the children label the different feeling faces.

• Children and adults can play “feeling face charades” by freezing a certain emotional expression and then letting others guess what the feeling is. To extend this activity, ask the children to think of a time that they felt that way.

• In the mornings, have children “check in” by selecting a feeling face that best represents their morning mood. At the end of the day, have children select again, and then talk about why their feeling changed or stayed the same.

• Finally, the teacher can put feeling face pictures around the room. Children can be given child-size magnifying glasses and told to walk around looking for different feeling faces. When they find one, they can label it and tell about a time they felt that way. With a little creativity, teachers and other caregivers can play, adapt, or develop new games, songs, and stories to teach feeling words.

regory’s teacher, Miss Antoinette, realized that Gregory and some of his classmates needed help to develop skills in labeling emotions. She started making a conscious effort to label her feelings, as well as the feelings of children in her class throughout the day—every day. She encouraged the other adults in the room to do the same. She also planned at least one feeling game, song, or story a day to introduce new and more complex feeling words. She also taught the children some strategies for regulating their emotions such as taking deep breaths, relaxing their muscles, and thinking of “happy places.” When she saw Gregory get upset, she would move in to ask him how he was feeling and help him use some of the strategies for calming down. Over time, Miss Antoinette noticed a significant difference in Gregory and his peers’ behavior. The children would tell each other how they felt instead of fighting and would help each other when in distress. Miss Antoinette noticed that the children no longer needed her to intervene to solve problems as often—but instead would solve them on their own. She noticed that even for children like Keisha, who had a strong foundation in labeling emotions, positive changes were occurring. Miss Antoinette felt a sense of calm in her room and was happy that she would be sending her children onto kindergarten with a strong foundation in emotional literacy.

Who Are the Children Who Have Participated in This Intervention?

The children who have participated in research on emotional literacy include preschoolers who exhibit a range of disabilities including ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, speech and language delays, challenging behavior, and deafness and hard of hearing. Studies have included preschoolers from low-income families. The importance of keeping in mind the cultural backgrounds and beliefs of the children and families in a teacher’s care cannot be overstated when teaching young children to identify, understand, and respond to emotions.

Where Do I Find More Information on Implementing This Practice?

Practical information on helping children develop emotional literacy can be found in journals such as Young Children and Young Exceptional Children. See the following resources for ideas on how to teach young children to identify, understand, and express emotions in a healthy way: Joseph, G. E., & Strain, P. S. (2003). Enhancing emotional vocabulary in young children. Young Exceptional Children, 6(4), 18-26.

Joseph, G. E., & Strain, P. S. (2003). Helping young children control anger and handle disappointment. Young Exceptional Children, 7(1), 21-29.

Kusché, C. A., & Greenberg, M. T. (1994) The PATHS curriculum. Seattle, WA: Developmental Research and Programs.

Shure, M. B. (2000). I can problem solve: An interpersonal cognitive problem-solving program. Champaign, IL: Research Press.

Webster-Stratton, C. (1990). The teachers and children videotape series: Dina dinosaur school. Seattle, WA: The Incredible Years.

Webster-Stratton, C. (1999). How to promote children’s social and emotional competence. London: Paul Chapman.

What is the Scientific Basis for This Practice?

For those wishing to explore this topic further, the following researchers have documented the effects of enhancing emotional literacy in early childhood settings:

Denham, S. A., & Burton, R. (1996). A social-emotional intervention for at-risk 4-year-olds. Journal of School Psychology, 34(3), 225-245.

Domitrovich, C. E., Cortes, R., & Greenberg, M. T. (2002, June). Preschool PATHS: Promoting social and emotional competence in young children. Paper presented at the 6th National Head Start Research Conference, Washington, DC.

Greenberg, M. T., & Kusché, C. A. (1998). Preventive interventions for school-age deaf children: The PATHS curriculum. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 3(1), 49-63.

Moore, B., & Beland, K. (1992). Evaluation of Second Step, preschool-kindergarten: A violence prevention curriculum kit. Summary report. Seattle, WA: Committee for Children.

Webster-Stratton, C., & Hammond, M. (1997). Treating children with early-onset conduct problems: A comparison of child and parent training interventions. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 65(1), 93-109.

This What Works Brief was developed by the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning. Contributors to this Brief were G. Joseph, P. Strain, and M. M. Ostrosky.

This material was developed by the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning with federal funds from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families (Cooperative Agreement N. PHS 90YD0119). The contents of this publication do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nor does mention of trade names, commercial projects, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government. You may reproduce this material for training and information purposes.

This What Works Brief is part of a continuing series of short, easy-to-read, “how to” information packets on a variety of evidence-based practices, strategies, and intervention procedures. The Briefs are designed to help teachers, parents, and other caregivers support young children’s social and emotional development. They include examples and vignettes that illustrate how practical strategies might be used in a variety of early childhood settings and home environments.

“I feel really sad about it, but I think Derek will have to find a different program,” said Ms. Morden, an experienced preschool teacher in a large metropolitan city. “I don’t know how to reach Derek. His behavior is so unpredictable. I can’t have children coming to school and being afraid that they will be hit by Derek,” she told her classroom assistant, Ms. Eacott. Ms. Morden simply did not understand why Derek was so aggressive. Both Ms. Morden and Ms. Eacott had observed Derek hitting and kicking other children on numerous occasions. The problem had become so severe that his peers had begun to avoid him altogether. The time had come to do something for Derek, but what?

What Is Functional Behavioral Assessment?

Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) is used to understand the purpose or function of a specific problem behavior exhibited by a child. FBA is a process for developing an understanding of a child’s problem behavior, and, in particular, how the behavior is influenced by environmental events. FBA should be considered when the behavior is thought to inhibit a child’s performance and participation in daily activities and routines. FBA identifies the environmental factors or events that consistently predict or result from a child’s problem behavior. Once the purpose or function of the problem behavior is understood, support teams can design and use effective interventions that promote success and participation of the child in daily activities and routines. FBA is an essential component of the process of positive behavior support (see What Works Brief #10 on positive behavior support).

“Time to change centers,” said Ms. Morden when the timer went off. Most of the children began to leave their centers and rotate to a new station. Derek stayed in the block area as four children arrived there to play. Ms. Morden redirected him, “Derek, it’s time to go to art center.” “No, I don’t want to!” said Derek, who turned and kicked Amanda in the leg, causing her to cry. “Derek! That’s not OK; kicking hurts,” said Ms. Morden. “You’ve hurt your friend. You have a timeout.” Ms. Eacott took Derek to the other side of the room, where he sat in the timeout chair for four minutes. Once again, Derek had hurt another child. “This is the umpteenth time this week he’s done that. I’ve got to do something about this,” said Ms. Morden. “Sooner or later, someone is really going to get hurt!”

How Does FBA Work?

FBA can be conducted individually or by a team (e.g., parent, teacher, behavior resource person). The process involves collecting information through the use of observation, interviews, and record reviews (e.g., school records, medical records, diagnostic reports). If done as a team, different members of the team might assume different roles (e.g., observing, interviewing, reviewing reports and records). The information gathered is used to understand what happens before the problem behavior, what the problem behavior looks like, and what happens after the problem behavior.

Interviews are used to collect information about the problem behavior from teachers or family members who are very familiar with the child. Interview questions are used to gain information about: (1) the nature of the behavior (e.g., what the child does, how frequently), (2) events that may predict the behavior, (3) what the child may gain or avoid through problem behavior, (4) how well problem behavior works for the child, and (5) what circumstances are not associated with the behavior. Interviews are helpful in the functional assessment process because they allow you to gather information about the child in multiple settings and from the perspectives of multiple people. Observations are used with the interviews to provide evidence or data on the factors that predict and maintain problem behavior. A popular and easy method for conducting observations is to watch the child and write down the events that immediately precede an occurrence of problem behavior, describe the problem behavior using concrete terms, and write down the events that follow the problem behavior. This information can be written on index cards and collected for later analysis.

Once all the information (interviews, observations, and record review) is collected, the information is analyzed by the team or the individual. This approach is used to determine the purpose of the problem behavior—whether it occurs in order for the child to obtain something (e.g., attention, an object, an activity) or to escape something (e.g., difficult demands). The FBA process is complete when there is enough information that will lead to a hypothesis or summary statement describing the function or purpose of the problem behavior. The hypothesis statement will lead directly to interventions designed to prevent problem behavior and to teach the child new skills that will replace problem behavior (see What Works Briefs #10 on positive behavior support and #11 on functional communication training).

After attending a workshop on FBA and talking with a few colleagues, Ms. Morden contacted Derek’s grandmother to share her concerns. Derek’s grandmother was in full support of finding new ways to help Derek with his behavior. Ms. Morden, Ms. Eacott, and Derek’s grandmother met to discuss the challenges associated with Derek and to talk about the concept of FBA. The team agreed that conducting a FBA would be helpful. Ms. Morden, Ms. Eacott, and Derek’s grandmother used observation cards to gather information about the events surrounding Derek’s problem behavior. The teachers kept track of each time Derek hit or kicked one of his peers, the activity and time of day in which it occurred, the children he was playing with, what happened immediately before the behavior, and what happened after the behavior. Derek’s grandmother also provided several observation cards about problem behavior that Derek had at home. Additionally, Ms. Morden conducted interviews with both Ms. Eacott and Derek’s grandmother to gain their insights about Derek’s challenging behaviors.

After two weeks of collecting information, the team met to discuss Derek’s behavior. Ms. Morden began the discussion by asking the team to share their perceptions after focusing on Derek these past few weeks. Ms. Eacott responded, “I noticed that Derek appeared to have the most difficulty during the learning centers and circle time. Every day that he was asked to go to the art center, he hit or kicked one of his peers, and he was given a timeout. However, when he spent time in the block center, Derek’s behavior was better. In fact, he wasn’t aggressive at all.” Ms. Morden nodded in agreement. “That’s right, Derek loves building with blocks. But he sure doesn’t like to do writing or coloring. I try to get him to color or write his name when the other children are doing their homework, and he starts crying and tears up the paper,” said his grandmother. Derek’s grandmother also shared, “If I give him something else to do that he likes, he can sit with the other children; he just won’t work on writing his name or coloring like the rest of them.” “That brings me to another idea,” said Ms. Morden. “In the interviews, both of you noted that Derek likes to make choices, and the observation cards show that he is less aggressive in activities where he has a lot of choices, like blocks or dramatic play. Derek is much better when he gets to pick the toy or the activity. My observation cards also show that a lot of problem behavior happens in circle time where Derek has to follow the rules of the group. It seems like he is having problem behavior in circle time so that he can leave and go to timeout.”

Based on the functional assessment information, the team agreed that Derek hit or kicked other children in order to escape from difficult tasks or those he doesn’t like, particularly the art center and circle time. They also agreed that Derek was least aggressive during block center and in activities where he had opportunities to make choices such as dramatic play, sensory table, and computer. With those ideas in mind, the team decided that they should try to give Derek more help in the art center and during circle time and give him more opportunities to make choices. To make circle time more interesting, Ms. Morden decided to provide Derek with choices of where to sit, allow him to select the song or story, and to provide more manipulatives within the activities. She also decided to ask Derek if he wanted to leave circle if he became distracted. She decided it would be better to let him leave circle on her terms, rather than after he had caused a disruption. She also restructured the art center so that there were obvious choices of activities (e.g., draw, easel paint, or paste) and made sure that an adult helped Derek get started. She also provided magic markers in the art center as a choice for Derek because he seemed to have problems using crayons or pencils.

Who Are the Children Who Have Participated in Research on FBA?

FBA has been used effectively with individuals from age 2 to adulthood. Researchers have successfully completed FBAs with children and families from a wide variety of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as children who are from at-risk environments, have behavior disorders, or have developmental delays. Researchers have also studied the effects of FBA in a wide variety of settings including Head Start, special education classrooms, early education programs, family homes, and the community.

A month later, Derek’s grandmother visited the classroom. “Derek’s doing so much better!” said Ms. Eacott. “Now that Ms. Morden and I have helped Derek with circle time and art, he’s a different person. He hasn’t hit anyone in two weeks!” “I think the choices have helped too,” said Ms. Morden. “Now that Derek has more opportunities to pick which activities to do, he seems like a happier boy. I’m also realizing that sometimes we were asking Derek to do things that were too difficult for him. I’m going to provide him with a little more one-to-one attention and see if we can help him with some of his learning problems.” Derek’s grandmother asked about his participation in circle time because she was worried that he would not be ready for kindergarten if he could not sit with the group. Ms. Morden reported, “On most days, Derek sits for circle the entire time, he knows that he can ask to leave, but usually he doesn’t want to. Frankly, I think circle time is more interesting for all the children now that we have made the changes for Derek.”

What Changes Might Occur as a Result of FBA?

FBA alone does not change a child’s behavior. However, once a FBA is used to identify the purpose or function of the child’s problem behavior, interventions can be selected that are based on the child’s needs. Interventions that are “assessment-based” or follow the FBA have resulted in significant and rapid changes in children’s problem behavior, as well as the development of age-appropriate and socially appropriate behaviors taught in replacement.

I Find Information on Implementing This Practice?

Practical information on FBA can be found in journals, including the following: Young Children, Teaching Exceptional Children, Young Exceptional Children, and Young Exceptional Children Monograph Series: Practical Ideas for Addressing Challenging Behaviors. See the following Web sites and articles for examples on how to implement aspects of FBA:

OSEP Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) http://www.pbis.org

Online Academy (Sponsored by the University of Kansas and the Office of Special Education Programs) http://onlineacademy.org

Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Positive Behavior Support http://rrtcpbs.fmhi.usf.edu

Janney, R., & Snell, M. E. (2000). Teachers’ guides to inclusive practices: Behavioral support. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes. (Available at http://www.brookespublishing.com.)

Kaiser, B., & Rasminsky, J. S. (1999). Meeting the challenge: Effective strategies for challenging behaviours in early childhood environments. Ottawa, Canada: Canadian Child Care Federation. (Available through NAEYC; see http://www.naeyc.org.)

O’Neill, R. E., Horner, R. H., Albin, R. W., Sprague, J. R., Storey, K., & Newton, J. S. (1997). Functional assessment and program development for problem behavior: A practical handbook. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Tobin, T. J., & von Ravensberg, H. (2001). Parent’s guide to functional assessment and support. Eugene, OR: Educational and Community Supports, University of Oregon. (Available for free at http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~ttobin.)

What Is the Scientific Basis for This Practice?

For those wishing to learn more about the topic, the following resources provide additional information:

Blair, K. C., Umbreit, J., & Bos, C. S. (1999). Using functional assessment and children’s preferences to improve the behavior of young children with behavioral disorders. Behavioral Disorders, 24(2), 151-166.

Dooley, P., Wilczenski, F. L., & Torem, C. (2001). Using an activity schedule to smooth school transitions. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 3(1), 57-61.

Harding, J., Wacker, D. P., Cooper, L. J., Asmus, J., Jensen-Kovalan, P., & Grisolano, L. A. (1999). Combining descriptive and experimental analyses of young children with behavior problems in preschool settings. Behavior Modification, 23(2), 316 333.

Kamps, D. M., Ellis, C., Mancina, C., Wyble, J., & Greene, L. (1995). Case studies using functional analysis for young children with behavior risks. Education and Treatment of Children, 18(3), 243-260.

Kern, L., Ringdahl, J. E., Hilt, A., & Sterling-Turner, H. E. (2001). Linking self-management procedures to functional analysis results. Behavioral Disorders, 26(3), 214-226.

This What Works Brief was developed by the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning. Contributors to this Brief were Lise Fox and Michelle Duda.

This material was developed by the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning with federal funds from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families (Cooperative Agreement N. PHS 90YD0119). The contents of this publication do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nor does mention of trade names, commercial projects, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government. You may reproduce this material for training and information purposes.

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