Designing a Sustainable Model to Build Better Behavioral Supports in Early Childhood Education

Statement of Problem

Early childhood education sets the foundation for a child’s future success. High-quality preschool programs improve elementary school readiness and provide important cognitive, academic, social, and emotional skills that are necessary for success in elementary school and beyond. However, more than 5,000 preschool students are expelled each year in the United States – a rate that is more than three times higher than that of K-12 students. Furthermore, recent studies demonstrate that racial disparities exist in rates of expulsions and suspensions; while African American students make up 18 percent of preschool enrollment, they make up 42 percent of preschool suspensions.

PolicyLab investigators conducted a survey in 2016 that showed 37 percent of early childhood programs reported having suspended and 26 percent having expelled at least one child over the course of a year due primarily to behavioral concerns, such as poor emotional regulation and aggression. The rate of expulsion and suspension was the same for those toddlers under three years of age as it was for preschoolers who were between three- and five-years old. This is troubling as preschool programs are known to have substantial impacts in reducing child involvement in the criminal justice system, raising earnings, and promoting education. But without proper support during these early years, a child is more likely to drop out of school, eventually receive welfare benefits, and/or commit a crime. Therefore, it is imperative that early childhood educators, child care centers, and parents be equipped with the knowledge and support to foster social and emotional development in all children to ensure school readiness and future success


In response to the high incidence of behavior challenges and the impact of poor social-emotional skills on school readiness, PolicyLab, Public Health Management Corporation (PHMC) and Community Behavioral Health (CBH) created a pilot program that brought more social-emotional support into Philadelphia’s child care settings and aimed to reduce instances of expulsions, suspensions, and challenging behaviors in the classroom. The pilot utilized the three-tiered model called Positive Behavior Intervention Support (PBIS), which provides school-wide support for all children, classroom-level support, and individualized support for children with greater behavioral challenges. PBIS aims to maximize the effectiveness of previously siloed educational and mental health interventions by designing opportunities for early childhood education, Early Intervention, and early childhood mental health professionals to work together with parents to identify children with behavioral disorders, support social and emotional maturation, and reduce behavioral challenges.

In 2017, we piloted the PBIS program at a child care facility in Philadelphia that services children with a variety of behavioral needs, ranging from typical to significant behavioral disorders, and children with special needs or disabilities. During the pilot period, we utilized PBIS strategies in a child care center and ultimately incorporated a parent nights with teachers, held monthly core team meetings with participation from a parent advocate, and taught all staff how to manage challenging child behaviors. While full implementation of the program is now in place, ultimate changes to the child care center will take three to five years for maximum impact.

Building on the success of the pilot, the research team is currently conducting a study aiming to understand the effectiveness of PBIS in a formalized research trial. The randomized control trial  will compare three child care centers: one using PBIS, one using PBIS in combination with parent training (PriCARE) and one using standard socio-emotional development standards to serve as a control. The study will examine a host of measures including staff stress levels, turnover, and classroom functioning to see if PBIS can ameliorate issues within the child care centers over the course of one year. We are most interested in tracking suspensions, expulsions, and behavioral problems, the reduction of which would greatly improve the educational and emotional progression for Philadelphia children. We are also tracking the process of obtaining services for children who show developmental delays to ensure that the current system adequately supports children who may require additional support. Over the next year, we will continue formal assessment of PBIS in child care centers,after which we will examine which of the three methods facilitate the best environment for young children.

Next Steps

Since the program’s inception, there have been many positive strides in implementation of PBIS at child care centers in Philadelphia. The expansion of preschool services with a goal of universal coverage, beginning in 2017, coincides with a redesign of Philadelphia’s system for assessing center quality. Most importantly, the city now has a formal policy about suspension and expulsion in preschool centers; however, it remains to be seen whether the policy will be enough to discourage the use of suspension or expulsion in managing behavioral problems of young children in preschool and child care settings. 

This project page was last updated in September 2019.

Suggested Citation

Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, PolicyLab. Designing a Sustainable Model to Build Better Behavioral Supports in Early Childhood Education [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: plug in date accessed here].