Pyramid Model keeps behavior problems to a minimum — and kids in school

Mary Louise Hemmeter (Joe Howell/Vanderbilt)

by Jane Sevier

When 4-year-old Antonio felt frustrated at home or at school, he used to bite. And hit. And kick. In many schools, that behavior would get him sent home. 

But Antonio is lucky. He attends Cambridge Early Learning Center, a Nashville pre-K center grounded in the principles of the Pyramid Model for Supporting Social Emotional Competence in Infants and Young Children, supported by a $1 million federal grant for preschool development. At Cambridge, Antonio is learning how to communicate his emotions appropriately, engage in social problem-solving and look for solutions other than aggression to get what he wants.

Click on image to expand.

Mary Louise (“M.L.”) Hemmeter, MEd’87, PhD’91, professor of special education at Peabody, was instrumental in developing the Pyramid Model and is part of a team that received $14 million in federal grants last year alone to promote its use. She currently helms a series of projects funded by the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Health and Human Services, and has spent two decades studying effective instruction, social-emotional development and challenging behavior, as well as coaching teachers.
“We have to create environments that make children want to be there, where they’re happy and engaged,” Hemmeter says. “If we develop a plan around a child with behavior challenges, the strategies that we use are embedded and used throughout the day. That child is getting individualized support, but it won’t look like discipline in any way.”

Suspensions are commonly used in K–12 settings when behavior problems arise. But they are also common at the preschool level, and unfortunately, developmental and racial disparities exist in these practices. What’s more, expulsions early in a child’s life predict later expulsions and suspensions, which make the child 10 times more likely to drop out of high school, fail academically, feel negatively about school and face incarceration than those who were never suspended or expelled. This discipline gap is a driving influence for Hemmeter. 

“After we have worked with teachers and supported them around the Pyramid Model, they have the strategies and tools that they need,” Hemmeter says. “In the Pyramid Model training, we don’t encourage strategies like ‘time out’ or sending a child to the office. Those strategies don’t teach the child the skills they need; rather they remove the child from the context where they are likely to learn how to get along with others and communicate their emotions.”

Teachers and staff at Cambridge are trained to use the Pyramid Model practices to promote healthy social and emotional development by teaching emotional literacy, positive problem-solving and friendship skills. The model includes three tiers of intervention practice—universal promotion for all children, secondary preventions for children at risk of social-emotional delays, and tertiary interventions for children with persistent challenges. Each tier builds on the preceding tier.

“If we develop a plan around a child with behavior challenges, the strategies that we use are embedded and used throughout the day.”

—M.L. Hemmeter

The Pyramid Model’s first and foundational level is built on nurturing and responsive caregiving for the child. This includes partnerships with families and collaboration among interventionists and classroom teachers. These relationships enable young children to learn healthy social-emotional growth and develop strong, positive relationships with adults and peers. 

“We speak the language all the time,” Cambridge principal DeeAnne Miree says. “It’s not children hearing it just from the classroom teachers; it’s my secretary, it’s the cafeteria and the kitchen staff. Everyone in our building uses positive language with the children. We’re reminding them of our expectations all the time. Those are things that are conducive to helping the students grow and thrive.”

Solution Cards provide options for frustrated children to express themselves and avoid negative behaviors. Click image to enlarge.

One tool used at Cambridge is “solution cards,” which help children choose positive responses to situations that might otherwise lead to disruptive behavior. For example, if Antonio wants to play with a toy that another child has, he knows he can look at the cards and decide to ask the other child nicely to share the toy, suggest they play together, or offer to trade toys.

If another child is acting out, the cards offer solutions like saying “please stop” or getting a teacher to help. Cambridge students are schooled in positive and productive responses continually. 

“If you have positive teacher-child interactions; clear, consistent, predictable and engaging environments; and good instruction around social-emotional skills, you prevent most problem behavior in pre-K classrooms,” Hemmeter says.

Some children will need more concentrated instruction in identifying and expressing emotions, regulating their responses, solving social problems, initiating and maintaining interactions, responding cooperatively, handling disappointment and anger, and developing friendship skills. This is where the second tier comes in. The child’s teacher might guide and coach families on how to promote targeted social and emotional skills. Families of infants and young toddlers might need support to help their children regulate emotions of stress and understand others’ emotions. 

Each month, Cambridge counselor Ashley Lofties holds sessions for families to teach them how to use positive solutions at home. Maggie Gerges, whose son Kevin was enrolled at the school, says what she learned has changed her relationship with her child.

“I was having a problem with my child not listening or following directions,” Maggie says. “It was very frustrating for me and his dad. I sat down with the counselor, and we spoke about his behavior.”

Working with Lofties, Gerges understood how important routine was for Kevin and how to channel his energy into positive behavior like putting away his toys or going for a walk. Now, she says, Kevin is much better at listening. 

The Pyramid Model enables teachers to manage behavior problems and keep children in the classroom. (iStock)

At Cambridge, principal DeeAnne Miree says the Pyramid Model approach is embedded in all communications by teachers and staff members to reinforce positive behaviors cohesively.

Miree credits the Pyramid Model with transforming not only the lives of the children at her school but also her life as an educator and the lives of her teachers and staff. 

“It frees teachers to concentrate on academics instead of behavior issues,” she says. 

Hemmeter oversees training for a $7.7 million Department of Education grant that Metro Nashville Public Schools received to expand the Pyramid Model in pre-K and kindergarten classes district-wide. Along with colleagues from two other universities, she works with MNPS to develop materials and strategies to guide teachers in instituting the model. 

“These projects collectively involve faculty and staff from universities across the country,” Hemmeter says. “They provide an important training opportunity for master’s students here at Peabody who will be future teachers and for doctoral students who will be the next generation of Pyramid Model researchers.”

Through the National Center on Pyramid Model Innovations, Hemmeter supports educators across the country in implementing the Pyramid Model. She and Erin Barton, PhD’07, associate professor of special education at Peabody, are among researchers who provide technical assistance to states as they adopt and scale up sustainable Pyramid Model use within early intervention and early education programs for children from birth to age 5. 

“It frees teachers to concentrate on academics instead of behavior issues.”

—Cambridge principal DeeAnne Miree

Hemmeter also is a co-principal investigator for the first-of-its-kind Infant-Toddler Pyramid Practices project, which will adapt the Pyramid Model for that age range. Research will be carried out in 24 infant-toddler classrooms in Kansas and Tennessee. The Institute of Education Sciences provided a $1.4 million grant to fund the project in collaboration with the University of Kansas.

“We now have research grants testing the Pyramid Model in infant-toddler programs, pre-K programs and kindergarten,” Hemmeter says. “What you do in an infant classroom around Pyramid looks different from what you do in a toddler classroom or in pre-K and kindergarten. It’ll be an interesting test of merging social, emotional and academic skills.”

In three years, the researchers will have collected data around teacher implementation and how well the Pyramid Model works for each age group. 

“I can’t think of another model that has been tested across the whole birth-to-kindergarten range. Most focus more on a specific age range,” Hemmeter says. “We could potentially have a model that is very tightly connected across ages and still protects what’s different about each.”