When a young child misbehaves or acts out, teachers must choose how to respond. One response strategy, called Emotionally Responsive Practices (ERP), responds to the child in a manner that addresses the behavior, validates the emotion behind it, and promotes an environment that helps reduce future behavior concerns and helps the child feel safe for self-expression. This type of response, called an Emotionally Responsive Practice (ERP), is at heart of a collaborative study by Dr. Kim Hale, Senior Associate Dean and Director of the Center of Excellence in Early Childhood Learning and Development; Dr. Pamela Mims, Associate Dean for Research and Grants; faculty at Bank Street College of Education, and teachers and administrative team members at the Verner Center for Early Learning in Asheville.
During the spring 2018 semester, Drs. Hale and Mims, along with their Verner colleagues, conducted a pilot study at Verner that focused on training early head start teachers to exhibit emotionally responsive behaviors. In preparation for this study, Dr. Hale, Dr. Mims, and the administrative team from Verner spent four days at Bank Street College of Education in New York City training with Leslie Koplow, the Director of the Center for Emotionally Responsive Practices. According to Koplow, ERP builds on the connection between emotional wellbeing and learning potential of young children, including those with developmental and intellectual disability. ERP classrooms use a deep knowledge of development and children’s experiences to create classroom climates that support emotional well-being, learning, and development (Koplow, 1999).
“Let’s say for example a child is upset because their cat died,” illustrates Dr. Hale. “Some might respond by trying to distract the child from talking or thinking about it. But a teacher practicing ERP strategies would ask the child to talk about it or draw a picture of their cat. It’s all about validating and addressing toddler’s emotions.”
Historically, teachers of young children have had little training on how to create emotionally responsive classroom environments, and even less opportunity for training has been available for early childhood teachers in potentially complex environments, such as early head start classrooms. “To date, the only work that has been done is qualitative,” says Dr. Mims, who served as the methodologist for the study. “No one has done an empirical study. This study served as a ground breaking pilot study that ultimately showed that early childhood teachers were able to be trained to implement ERP strategies with fidelity."
Drs. Hale, Mims, the Verner team, and experts from Bank Street curated a measure for ERP, then adapted it for toddlers. They used this tool to collect a baseline data across four classrooms, then trained teachers how to use emotionally responsive behavior and languages and continued to collect data on their use of ERP. As indicated above, this is first quantitative study on ERP with toddlers at risk or identified with disability; students in the targeted classrooms included 58% who had a developmental and/or intellectual disability. Results (reflecting 3 out of 4 dyads; teacher and teacher assistant) indicated that there is a functional relation between the independent variable, the training, plus coaching and the dependent variable, targeted emotionally responsive teacher behaviors in the inclusive toddler classrooms.
Drs. Hale and Mims are passionate about their work with this study, as they are confident it can have a tremendous impact on teachers. “I’m not sure if our society realizes what dynamic people toddlers are, whether they’re four years-old, two years-old, or even 18 months,” says Dr. Hale. “So often, people focus on physical needs like changing diapers and forget that toddlers have very real, valid emotions. Emotionally responsive practices are important because they look beyond solely physical needs.”
ERP can help toddlers as they go through major developmental milestones. “Trama doesn’t discriminate,” says Dr. Hale. “You can’t assume that because they’re young, toddlers have not experienced trauma. ERP provides specific language and practices that teachers can use every day to help toddlers coping with trauma.”
Drs. Hale and Mims call the study a true collaboration between themselves and the Verner administration as researchers and the teachers as participants in the study. “We’re really grateful for the teachers who volunteered to do this study,” says Dr. Hale. “If they had not invited us, we would not have had a study.”
“The study wasn’t just us coming in as researchers,” agrees Dr. Mims. “It was a result of working as a team with the Verner Center.”
Drs. Hale and Mims will present the results of their study at the 20th Annual Division on Autism and Developmental Disabilities Conference in Maui, Hawaii in January. Dr. Hale recently submitted a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration federal grant to continue and expand the work to measure student outcomes.
“We’re driven to do more with this study and to get ERP information out to people,” concludes Dr. Hale. “I’ve seen what learning ERP can do for teachers, and I know that there are many childcare professionals, and teachers who can benefit from it.”