Research shows many early childhood educators feel ill-equipped to meet the needs of children who display problem behaviors (Fox & Smith, 2007; Kaufmann & Wischmann, 1999; Perry et al., 2011). They describe aggressive behaviors as one of the greatest barriers they encounter in providing quality instruction and emphasize the need for training on how to deal with aggressive behaviors as one of their highest priorities.
While teachers grapple with this challenge, principals, supervisors, and the public focus tend to focus on the ability to prevent and manage aggressive behaviors when assessing effective teachers (Zuckerman, 2007).
Let’s dig deeper.
Remedies for these behaviors often localize the issue within the individual child (Buyse et al., 2008; Sameroff & Mackenzie, 2003). Although it might be tempting to attribute the occurrence of these behaviors to the children themselves, aggressive behavior does not occur in a vacuum. After all, behavior is a result of both the external environment and internal characteristics working together (Bijou & Baer, 1978; Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1994; Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998). In order to gain a meaningful understanding of student behavior, there also must be a meaningful understanding of adult behavior and the context in which all of these behaviors occur.
Based on these considerations, a study was conducted to understand the relationship between the CLASS domains and incident reports used to track aggressive behavior in preschool Head Start classrooms in Chicago. The study used existing archival CLASS and incident report data from four Head Start programs from the 2014-2015 school year.
What were the results?
A correlational analysis was conducted to examine the data. The analysis of 28 classrooms showed that there was evidence (small yet statistically significant) that classrooms with higher CLASS Emotional Support and Classroom Organization scores had lower incident reports.
No statistical significance was realized in the domain of Instructional Support. However, when the scores of Emotional Support and Classroom Organization were lower, the number of aggressive incidents increased.
Results from this study were consistent with a body of evidence demonstrating how student behavior was largely dependent on teacher behavior (Buyse et al., 2008; Curby et al., 2013; Curby et al., 2014; DiLalla & Mullineaux, 2008; Vitiello et al., 2012; Williford et al., 2013). This study looked at each domain separately, at the broadest level.
However, if each domain is broken down into dimensions, then further into indicators, and lastly into behavioral markers, those behavioral markers isolate specific patterns of adult behavior that collectively improve student behavior. These patterns can also provide insight into specific interventions that might eliminate aggressive behaviors.
Besides the CLASS for preschool, there are other versions of the observational tool for infant, toddler, and K-12 classrooms, making the CLASS domains common across all developmental and grade levels from infancy to 12th grade. Because the underlying process of quality teaching stays the same, using a common measurement potentially could provide a cohesive, coherent, and consistent set of interventions that can be carried across grade levels. It also could provide a consistent language for discourse among educators.
These findings are particularly relevant for students in poverty or foster care because Head Start enrolls students at or below the federal poverty level.
There are many reasons why students engage in disruptive behaviors in the classroom, such as violent communities, poverty, or parent apathy, but the quality of teacher/child interactions and classroom characteristics are two variables a teacher can actually influence.
What can we do with this information?
The conclusions of this study are intended to influence the expansion of remediation strategies for aggressive behavior beyond the child. It provides a more complex, multidisciplinary, and contextual understanding of human behavior.
In short, when crafting interventions, it’s just as important to observe and understand the behaviors of the adult as it is of the child. We need to remember that removing a challenging child does not remove the classroom characteristics that potentially led to the challenging behavior. The CLASS quantifies the domains, dimensions, and behavioral markers required from adults to lower aggressive behaviors in children.
These current results might further identify a need for remediation related directly to adult behavior. This study suggests that schools interested in reducing aggressive behaviors should prioritize classroom practices and shift focus toward adult behaviors, which might be easier to analyze and manipulate.
Dr. Angela Searcy, is an Adjunct Online Faculty and Continuing Education Instructor at Erikson Institute, the owner and founder of Simple Solutions Educational Services, a professional development company, and author of the study Excluded From The Dream: An Investigation Of Brain-Based Learning and Behavior in Illinois Head Start Classrooms.