Pyramid Building: It’s not just for the Egyptians!

**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**

A guest post by Dr. Chad G. Malcolm

Social Learning Theory, developed by Bandura (1971) states, that human behavior is learned as individuals interact with their environment; that problem behaviors are maintained by positive or negative reinforcement; that conditioning and modeling may be used to both foster desirable behaviors and decrease undesirable behaviors; and that individual thoughts and cognitions influence both behavior and perceptions of self-efficacy.

Early childhood education (ECE) has worked under this theory in order to develop students socially, emotionally, and academically. For many children, the entrance into a preschool or kindergarten classroom may be the first time they are away from their parents or in a setting with multiple children. This transition can be hard on children and the development of social-emotional skills (SES) is imperative. Social-emotional skills are defined as, knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

System 1-2-3, a Pittsburgh based organization, is leading the way in helping teachers understand, develop, and grew SES within their classrooms. System 1-2-3 was co-founded by Dan Richason, and has been working with local schools and intermediate units for over 20 developing strategies to improve SES and classroom learning environments. Pyramid Building is the key to system 1-2-3.

Richason shares, “We work from a three Tiered approach.” This approach is being seen more and more in education over the last few years, Response to Intervention uses it as well. Tier 1 focuses on, what ALL students need us to do. For example, create an environment of respect and rapport. Developing a classroom that focuses on the respect of and for all learners, as well as the development of a strong rapport will go a long way in helping students transition and feel safe which will in turn allow them to grew socially, emotionally, and academically. Tier 2 starts after Tier 1 interventions are strongly in place. What MOST students need us to do, extends and deepens the work of Tier 1 interventions. Develop self-awareness and self-management skills is a Tier 2 intervention. These interventions help to strengthen the Tier 1 and help focus most students on better choices and behaviors. Tier 3: What a FEW students need us to do, are directed small group or individual interventions to develop better choice, redirect undesired behaviors, and reinforce desired expectations. Tier 3 interventions include developing positive behavior plans.

Richason shared an intervention that their Pyramid Building facilitator’s utilize. One of the most utilized Tier 1 interventions in ECE classrooms are called Pickle Problems. Richason says, “Pickle Problems can be used by classroom teachers to model, teach, and reinforce appropriate behaviors in certain situations.” In order for a classroom teacher to develop Pickle Problems they must first define the child-based problems they wish to discuss.

For example, “I didn’t get what I want.” or “I don’t want to clean up.” Most teachers approach classroom issues from the adult-based problem scenarios, such as physical aggression, non-compliance, or tantrums. The teacher and facilitator define a list of 10 most frequently occurring child-based problems within the classroom. After the problem behaviors are listed, they create scenarios around each problem. Once the scenarios are created they are adhered to a pickle shaped cut out and placed in the classroom pickle jar. Routinely, during circle time or another designated time during the school day, the class comes together and a student (teacher helper or pickle picker job) gets to pull a pickle out of the jar. The teacher reads the scenario out loud to the students, and the group shares ways to solve the problem and better ways to behave within the classroom situation. If the students are having a hard time coming up with solutions the teacher could provide multiple choices for them to chose, have students act out the problem and a few solutions so the students can see and vote, or use puppets/characters to show the situation and solutions. Finally, throughout the day when the teacher sees students reacting to problems using the Pickle Problem solution praise (verbally and tangibly) is given to reinforce the better choices and behaviors.

SES development in ECE is a critical piece to student success. By incorporating the Pyramid Building and tiered approach techniques teachers can model and teach SES within current curricula to improve the students in their charge. The early intervention of SES can help to prevent serious psychopathology, and will increase the number of socially competent and emotionally adjusted preschool students who are able to minimize future stress and challenges later in grade school.


Chad G. Malcolm, Ed.D. is an assistant professor of Early Childhood Education at Baldwin Wallace University.

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