Secondary tabs

    • Understand how to use the Pyramid Model’s bottom-up approach 
    • Identify supports needed for an effective workforce 
    • Explain what responsive interactions look like
    • Describe a high-quality learning environment




    The Pyramid Model

    The 5 tier pyramid model starts with tier 1 as the base of the pyramid.  The base three tiers are considered the grouped foundation of the pyramid called Universal Supports.  Tier 1 is labeled Effective Workforce and colored yellow.  Tier 2 is labeled Nurturing and Responsive Relationships and colored dark-blue.  Tier 3 is labeled High-Quality Supportive Environments and colored light-blue. Tier 4 is labeled Targeted Supports and colored green.  The top of the pyramid is tier 5 and is labeled Intensive Intervention and colored red.
    Adapted from: The Pyramid Model - PBIS for Early Childhood Settings

    The Pyramid Model for Promoting Young Children’s Social-Emotional Competence is the framework of evidence-based practices we use to promote social-emotional development and prevent challenging behavior. Within the Pyramid Model framework, challenging behavior is identified as behavior that is repeated, disrupts children’s learning and interactions with others, and is unresponsive to typical, developmentally appropriate guidance strategies. Challenging behavior in children is complex, and understanding the causes and creating action plans involves thinking about many factors including: the individual child’s development, family culture, learning environments, the knowledge and well-being of staff, and the support provided by trainers, coaches, and administrators (Fox, Dunlap, Joseph, & Strain, 2003).

    The Pyramid Model is a bottom-up approach; think about the bottom tiers before you consider the middle and top tiers. For example, when problem-solving ways to support a child with challenging behavior, program staff will reflect on how they respond to a child’s communication (i.e., the tier that relates to Nurturing and Responsive Relationships) before working with a specialist to create a behavior intervention plan (i.e., the top tier, or Intensive Intervention). Lesson Three of the Positive Guidance Course in the Management track has an overview of each tier, and in this lesson you will learn about universal support: an effective workforce, nurturing and responsive relationships, and high-quality supportive environments. The remaining two tiers of the Pyramid Model, Targeted Social Emotional Supports and Intensive Interventions, will be addressed in depth in Lesson 4 and Lesson 5 of this course.

    Universal Supports

    The foundations of the pyramid in this model.

    An Effective Workforce

    If you have other professional experience, think about how you and your coworkers were supported. Who did you turn to if you had a question or needed advice? Did you have resources to expand your knowledge and practice? Your program’s workforce is made up of direct care staff, coaches, trainers, and administrators. While direct care staff, with the support of coaches and trainers, are children’s primary caregivers within the program, it is the administrator’s role to make sure that staff members have the time and resources to grow their practice and maintain their well-being. Think about how your program’s policies and procedures aid in your and your coworkers’ abilities to provide high-quality care for children and to support families. Lesson Eight in this course provides specific recommendations on policies and procedures to support programs in maintaining an effective workforce.

    Nurturing and Responsive Relationships

    What does it mean to nurture? How do you nurture something or someone? Think about how you nurture a plant to grow. It needs water, air, sunlight, and soil to thrive. Not all plants require the same formula though; each has unique needs, and those needs may change over time. Over time, continual nurturing produces a healthy plant that is more resilient when faced with challenges such as an unexpected frost. Nurturing responsive relationships with children is similar in that we honor each child’s development, interests, and culture; but all children need responsive interactions in order to develop nurturing relationships.

    The Nurturing and Responsive Relationships tier (dark blue in the chart above) is another universal support of the Pyramid Model, and there are foundational strategies you can use to nurture responsive relationships with all children. Responsive means that you quickly attend to a child’s needs. What do you already know about nurturing responsive relationships? How do responsive relationships impact resilience? Several lessons throughout the Virtual Lab School address these questions. You can refer to Lesson Five in the Social & Emotional Development courses to review how caregivers can create responsive relationships with children. The Social Emotional Learning for Teachers (SELF-T) course gives you strategies to maintain your own well-being and resilience, and Lesson Five in the Family Engagement course speaks to your role in building resilience and responsive relationships with families.

    What are some important relationships in your life? How did those relationships develop? Whether you are thinking about a relationship with a family member you’ve known your entire life or a friendship that you developed as an adult, ongoing positive interactions over time build your trust, affection, and a feeling of safety with others. Responsive relationships develop after repeated interactions that include predictable patterns of responses and an emotional connection. Consistently responding to bids for communication from children in a warm and loving way gives them a sense of comfort and provides adults with opportunities to engage in child-directed interests and respond to child-directed needs.

    High-Quality Supportive Environments

    “When environments are structured such that children feel safe and supported and know what to do, when to do it, and what is expected of them, children may be less likely to engage in challenging behavior.” — Hemmeter, Ostrosky, Corso, 2012

    What do you already know about creating a safe and engaging learning environment that promotes social-emotional development and prevents challenging behavior? How will the learning environment be different for infants and toddlers, preschoolers, and school-age children? How do you create a learning environment that accommodates learners of all abilities? If you have completed all the VLS Foundational Courses within a track, you can answer these questions! All of the lessons in the Virtual Lab School Safe Environments and Learning Environments courses, Lesson Three in Social & Emotional Development, and Lesson Three in the Positive Guidance courses provide a wealth of information and resources that line up with the Pyramid Model’s definition of high-quality supportive environments. You can refer to those courses and lessons to review this information.

    As you reflect on what you’ve learned about high-quality learning environments, think about challenging behaviors and healthy social-emotional behaviors in relation to the effects on the learning environment. People, practices, activities, culture, biases, design, routines, and rules all make up the learning environment.

    The Foundational Courses mentioned above outline points on creating high-quality learning environments. Review those points here:

    1. Physical Design
      • Child-friendly furnishings
      • Soothing colors, décor, and lights
      • Engaging materials
      • Accessible to diverse learners
    2. Environmental Cues
      • Reminders of what to do, when to do it, and how to do it
    3. Schedule and Routines
      • Create structure and predictability
      • Help to prepare for unexpected events or occurrences
    4. Transitions
      • Use support to prepare
      • Minimize the number of and length
      • Incorporate learning activities into transitions
    1. Group Activities
      • Peer support
      • Skill building
    2. Rules and Expectations
      • Teaching expectations and desired behavior
      • Establishing clear expectations and rules on touch
      • Creating reminders in the environment
    3. Ongoing Monitoring and Positive Attention
      • Acknowledge the positive in children
      • Awareness of your promotion of positive behavior


    Child Care programs need systematic support to foster social-emotional development and prevent challenging behaviors. By providing universal support, you meet the needs of all children and identify the children who need help beyond the first tier of the Pyramid model. As you watch these videos, reflect on the ways your program fosters an effective workforce and ensures children and youth have nurturing and responsive relationships.

    Universal Support

    Listen as experts speak about the universal support tier of the Pyramid Model.

    Nurturing and Responsive Relationships

    Watch an example of a responsive interaction between a child and a caregiver.


    Responsive Interactions

    Read about the sequence of strategies below to learn how caregivers create nurturing and responsive interactions. These strategies can be generalized, meaning you can use this sequence when caring for children of all ages and abilities during any setting or activity.

    • Observe

      The first step to provide nurturing and responsive interactions is to observe. What do you see, hear, feel, and even sometimes smell in the learning environment that allows you to be aware of what children are trying to communicate?

    • Analyze

      The next step is to think about or analyze the actions, words, sounds, and cues you observed. What do your observations tell you? If you did not observe spoken communication, what would the child say if they could talk?

    • Respond

      Now that you have thought about the meaning of the child’s communication, respond in a way that meets the child’s expectation and is developmentally appropriate. Even if you cannot directly address or give the child what they want, still respond in a way that lets the child know you are aware of the request or need.

    • Wait

      Once you have responded, wait, and see how the child responds and if there is an opportunity for you to continue interacting. Continuing the ping-pong effect or back-and-forth interaction is a way to help grow children’s ability to engage in longer and more complex relational exchanges.



    Review the Serve and Return handout for examples of responsive interactions.



    Read the What Works Brief by Bovey and Strain titled, Using Environmental Strategies to Promote Positive Social Interactions. Then complete the How My Environment Supports Prosocial Behavior handout.


    Evidence-based practices “Practices that are informed by research, in which the characteristics and consequences of environmental variables are empirically established and the relationship directly informs what a practitioner can do to produce a desired outcome” (Dunst, Trivette, Cutspec, 2002).




    Complete the sentence. The Pyramid Model is a. . .


    True or false? Nurturing and responsive relationships are not part of the Pyramid Model.


    Select the scenario that best represents a nurturing and responsive interaction.

    References & Resources

    Bovey, T & Strain, P. (n.d.). Using Environmental Strategies to Promote Positive Social Interactions. Center on the Social Emotional Foundations for Early Learning. Retrieved from

    Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. (2017). Three Principles to Improve Outcomes for Children and Families. Retrieved from

    Division for Early Childhood. (2017). Position Statement on Challenging Behavior and Young Children. Retrieved from

    Hemmeter, M.L., Ostrosky, M. M., Corso, R. M. (2012). Preventing and Addressing Challenging Behavior: Common Questions and Practical Strategies. Young Exceptional Children, 15(2), 32-46.

    Hunter, A. & Hemmeter, M. L. (2009). Addressing Challenging Behavior in Infants and Toddlers: The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning. Zero to Three, 29(3), 5-12. Retrieved from

    Mincic, M., Smith, B. J., & Strain, P. (2009). Administrator Strategies that Support High Fidelity of the Pyramid Model for Promoting Social-Emotional Competence & Addressing Challenging Behavior. Tampa, FL: University of South Florida. Retrieved from