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V.6 #1- Social-Emotional Development - Using the Teaching Pyramid as an Instructional Guide for the

Brought to you by Learning Disabilities Worldwide (LDW®) through the generosity of Saint Joseph's University. There are numerous ways for teachers to manage the development of social competence in children, however many educators feel at a loss when forced to choose what intervention they should implement. In an effort to inform the process, a developmental progression has been identified to standardize teacher’s actions. A framework developed by Fox, Dunlap, Hammeter, Joseph and Strain (2003), known as The Teaching Pyramid, aimed to guide educators in how to address the social-emotional development of children. Although researchers have adopted and adapted the Teaching Pyramid model to suit a variety of needs (Kostelnik, Gregory, Soderman, & Whiren, 2012), the leveled approach to the social-emotional education of all students remains the “best practice” model.

Like the Response-to-Intervention and Positive Behavior Support approaches, the Teaching Pyramid represents a hierarchical structure that directs educators through four successive levels of strategies. Educators work their way through the first three levels of the teaching pyramid to provide all children in a classroom, those with and without disabilities, the tools necessary for the development of social competence. When a child experiences a higher level of behavioral difficulty, the individualized approach of the fourth level provides the appropriate guidance. (Note: Teaching Pyramid image taken from

Positive Relationships Relationships form the base on which all other interventions are built. The first step in promoting social competence is creating positive relationships; between teachers and children, teachers and families, and between teachers and the other professionals in the school. Positive relationships allow children to feel safe and secure. Throughout the process of learning, children will make mistakes and experience setbacks; knowing that the teacher will accept the child’s efforts frees the child to engage in the process of learning. In an educational setting, feeling secure allows children of all abilities to open up to new experiences. Strategies for building positive relationships include those listed below (Taken from Fox, Dunlap, Hemmeter, Joseph, & Strain, 2003):

  • Play, following the child’s lead

  • Greet children at the door by name

  • Have a conversation when breaking for a snack

  • Offer praise and encouragement

  • Send positive notes home

  • Have families complete interest surveys

  • Encourage children to bring in and share family photos and other family memorabilia

Supportive Environments

The second level of the Teaching Pyramid encourages teachers to create environments for children that are both physically and verbally supportive. In the production of a supportive physical environment, teachers account for “…environmental elements such as color, light, materials, room arrangement, sounds and routines” (Kostelnik, Gregory, Soderman, & Whiren, 2012, p.24). Teachers are well aware that classroom design supports the development of, and engagement with appropriate behavior. Furthermore, the manner in which adults speak, listen and interact with children enhances the environment. Verbal and non-verbal interactions between teacher and child foster self-awareness, providing the messages from others that signal to children how they should feel about themselves. For example, when Ms. Smith, the teacher, catches a child appropriately engaging in their academic work and smiles, the child thinks to herself, “Ms. Smith likes the way I am doing my work.” This brief interaction strengthens the already established relationship between the pair; making it more likely that the child will repeat the behavior in the future. Social-emotional Strategies

The third level and final phase provided routinely to all the children in the classroom setting, is the explicit instruction of social skills, emotional understanding and behavioral controls. Adults provide continuous support to children through “…discussing, modeling, instructing on the spot, redirecting, reminding, reinforcing, implementing consequences, and following through” (Kostelnik, Gregory, Soderman, & Whiren, 2012, p.24). Teaching social-emotional strategies requires planning, individualization, opportunities for children to engage in learning opportunities, and careful attention paid to students as they engage in socially competent behavior. When a teacher reminds a child, “It’s Johnny’s turn to play with the truck, you must wait to take a turn when he finishes” the teacher is directly instructing the child about turn –taking, impulse control and behavioral expectations. Individualized Interventions

When the three levels of the Teaching Pyramid are consistently presented in a classroom and school setting, the majority of children achieve the adequate levels of social-emotional competence. However a small percentage of children will continue to demonstrate challenging behaviors. These children may have learning or emotional disabilities that require a more intensive approach to instruction. The children who continue to struggle benefit from a Positive Behavior Support (PBS) plan. PBS employs a team approach drawing on the cumulative expertise of teachers, parents and other school-based professionals in an effort to identify the specific area(s) of difficulty experienced by the child. A functional assessment of behavior starts the PBS process and is compiled utilizing child observations, interviews of relevant individuals, a review of the child’s records, and an analysis of the purpose the behavior serves for the particular child. Once the behavioral analysis is complete, the team implements the selected intervention and monitors behavioral progress throughout the intervention’s implementation. (For a further discussion of the PBS model, see SSL articles Benhar, 2012,Vol. 5(5); Benhar, 2009, Vol 3(2)). Final Words

Educators and other school professionals who care about children can utilize the Teaching Pyramid to consciously construct the various environments in which children are engaged. Remembering that the Teaching Pyramid is a developmental progression that is grounded in warm, caring relationships, supportive environments and explicit teaching will guide interactions with children in the formation of their social competence. Children of all ages and all ability levels benefit when the teachers in their lives implement the Teaching Pyramid model. For concerns about how to implement the Teaching Pyramid in your classroom, consult your schools educational mentor, the school psychologist or mental health practitioner in your school district. References

Fox, L., Dunlap, G., Hemmeter, M.L., Joseph, G.E., & Strain, P.S. (2003, July). The teaching pyramid. Young Children, retrieved from

Kostelnik, M.J., Gregory, K.M., Soderman, A.K., & Whiren, A.P. (2012). Guiding children’s social development and learning, Seventh Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning. Micheline Malow, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. She teaches courses in the Foundations of Special Education, Research in Special Education, and Child Development. In addition, Dr. Malow has presented at numerous professional conferences and has published articles on friendship, students with disabilities, and effective strategies for students with disabilities. Additionally, Dr. Malow has co-authored a book about adolescent risk taking behavior from Greenwood Press, Adolescents and Risk. Contact Dr. Malow at

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