Boy sits at desk with hands over his years. Graphic letters are behind him.

Education Researcher Offers New Strategies for Managing Behavior in Preschool

New ways to communicate could keep preschoolers with challenging behaviors in classrooms, a UVA researcher says.

Audrey Breen

Mandy Rispoli is on a mission to keep children with disabilities in their preschool classrooms through training and understanding.  In partnership with the Supporting Transformative Autism Research (STAR) initiative, the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development professor has developed a program to give preschool teachers strategies to effectively include toddlers and preschoolers with disabilities at community-based early learning centers. 

Mandy Rispoli
Quantitative Foundation Bicentennial Professor Mandy Rispoli

“One in six children with autism is expelled from preschool in the United States,” Rispoli, the Quantitative Foundation Bicentennial Professor and 2002 College of Arts & Sciences graduate, said.

Challenging behavior is a leading factor in children’s removal from preschool. Rispoli said what is more important is what the children are trying to express through the disruptive behavior.

“I operate on the premise that behavior is communication,” Rispoli said. “Individuals are communicating what they want, what they need, and what they don’t want through whatever means they have available to them.”

Often challenging behavior helps the child get what they want or need. But the behavior could be better addressed if caretakers could translate what was motivating it and then help the child learn a more effective means of communicating.

Keeping Students In Class

The first step in this type of strategy is identifying what the behavior is communicating. To accomplish this, Rispoli employs something called a “functional behavior assessment.” With recent funding from the 4-VA initiative, she is working with early childhood educators to effectively adapt and apply this method in preschools.

“We define ‘challenging behavior’ as any sort of behavior that is interfering with learning; that limits opportunities for inclusion, or employment; that impacts relationships in a negative way; or causes or poses a risk of harm to the individual or to others,” Rispoli said.

The functional behavior assessment begins with enlisting the help of a team of adults close to the child, including caretakers or parents, teachers, an administrator, and someone with expertise in challenging behavior, such as a school psychologist or a behavior analyst. 

The team’s first task, identifying what the child is trying to communicate, is not easy. Generally, challenging behavior occurs for a variety of issues. 

“And that is why a team is so important to for a functional behavior assessment,” Rispoli said. “Sometimes we see different forms of behavior that kind of occur as a package. So, the different behaviors all are communicating the same thing. In that case, we can have one intervention that addresses multiple behaviors. 

“Other times, we have different behaviors, and they're all communicating different things.”

Once the team identifies the behavior and a possible cause or causes, the next goal is to make changes to the child’s environment and provide the child with new ways to communicate. 

“So, if we think the child is screaming in order to get more attention, our intervention is going to focus on how the environment might be structured so they seek out less attention and also give them some skills to be able to ask for attention appropriately,” Rispoli said. 

Rispoli’s research team is piloting the effort in Charlottesville and Norfolk schools.

“If teachers have this tool accessible, they don't have to wait for behavior to get worse before taking action,” Rispoli said. “Instead, they can use this process earlier, as a preventative approach. That may be farther into the future. But that is the ultimate hope.”

Expanding Teachers’ Skills 

In a related project, Rispoli also hopes to expand preschool teachers’ understanding and skills in working with children with autism by developing and testing a teacher training program for community-based early childhood educators.

Because children with disabilities, including autism, are expelled from early childhood centers at high rates, families often struggle to find new child care for children with autism or children who need consistent, predictable environments. Bouncing in and out of schools and centers can be especially disruptive to their growth and development.

With funding from the Jefferson Trust at UVA, the team has developed a program to provide preschool teachers with additional training and children with the consistency they need. 

“We do not want, nor expect, these teachers to replace specialized instruction or special education or early intervention. Instead, our goal is to support community child care providers and teachers to help young children [stay in classes],” she said. “We also hope to reduce some of that bounce-around.”

Rispoli and her team are currently testing the curriculum with preschool teachers in Charlottesville and Lynchburg. 

News Information

Media Contact

Audrey Breen