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Environmental Supports for Guidance

There are many features of the classroom or program environment that help prevent challenging behavior. You must help staff members learn to build supportive relationships, develop effective schedules and routines, and design learning spaces for engagement. This lesson will provide an overview of several observation tools and will help you provide feedback on staff members’ use of environmental strategies.

  • Describe features of the environment that prevent challenging behavior and promote social development: supportive relationships, schedules and routines, and environmental design.
  • Identify tools and strategies for assessing the environment and how it influences children’s behavior.
  • Observe and provide feedback on environmental arrangements in child development and school-age programs.



Close your eyes and imagine the following scene: You enter a crowded airport that you have never visited before. People push past you from every direction. The cars in the drop-off zone behind you honk their horns and jockey for positions. There are signs overhead directing you to a dizzying number of airline counters. As you stop to get your bearings, fellow travelers brush against you and seem upset that you are blocking their way. You finally recognize your airline’s counter and make your way toward it. Hundreds of people stand in several different lines that snake across the lobby. Signs seem to give conflicting information, and you are not sure what applies to you: “Drop bags here,” “Please see ticket agent,” “All passengers this way,” “Premier passengers only.” You walk one way only to be told that the end of the line is the other direction. When you get in that line, an employee informs you that you need to get your boarding pass before joining that line. He directs you back in the other direction. The minutes are ticking away, and you begin to worry that you have not planned enough time to make it through this line and security.

How does this scenario make you feel? Did you feel a sense of stress or anxiety? What might have made this scenario less stressful? What do good airports do to minimize the stress and confusion? If you look at the scenario again closely, you might notice that the source of much of the stress is environmental. You and hundreds of fellow passengers are in a vast open space with very little information about how to navigate it successfully. The lack of information in the environment leads to frustration: you feel like you waste valuable time and energy. People become short with one another and “bad” behavior might arise. Perhaps a customer becomes angry with an agent at the counter, children begin to cry, or employees become impatient with all the questions they receive. Simple changes can make a big difference. Clear entries and exits for each airline minimize the number of people gathering in one spot. Entries funnel you directly to the counter you need, and exits funnel you close to the security checkpoint you need. Rope barriers clearly mark where lines should form, and lines do not extend past the barriers. Signage overhead, on the floor, and at eye level give you consistent messages about where you should be and how to meet your needs. A sufficient number of agents are available to keep lines moving quickly. Lines move at a consistent pace, so you can estimate how long you will be in line and budget your time appropriately. You have options for meeting your needs independently, like clearly marked “self check-in” kiosks that are operable and easy to use.

Now translate this airport scenario to one that children can relate to. A child enters a new classroom or school-age program for the first time. The space appears massive to the child. She does not know where to go or what to do first. Other children move quickly around her. The new noises and sights overwhelm her. She moves toward something that interests her and is quickly told she should be doing something else (taking off her coat, washing her hands, or engaging in some other part of the check-in routine that she does not understand). Perhaps she becomes frustrated, frightened, disappointed, embarrassed, or angry. Perhaps she becomes quiet, withdrawn, and timid clinging to her family member. Perhaps she flits frantically from one spot to another as she explores the space without adult direction. Just like in an airport, a well-designed classroom or program space can help a child feel independent, secure, and confident. This minimizes frustration and leads to more cooperative behavior. This lesson will focus on ways you can help staff members provide these kinds of spaces.

Positive Relationships with Children, Families, and Staff Members

The first and most important strategy for preventing challenging behavior is developing positive relationships with children, families, and staff members. All guidance occurs in the context of this relationship: children and adults understand one another, value one another, and respect one another. Programs that actively work on relationship-building are likely to have fewer instances of misbehavior because children understand that adults are there to help rather than to hinder their success. If a child frequently acts out in the presence of a particular adult, their interactions should be examined to determine where improvements could be made. As a trainer or coach, your goal is to guide the adult, not to criticize.

Staff can encourage positive social interactions by demonstrating respect toward children. This includes modeling respectful forms of communication, respecting the decisions children make, and respecting overall differences in others. You encourage these positive interactions by modeling them yourself. Respect each and every staff member, including your manager, and show this respect in your words and actions.

Appropriate Expectations for Behavior

A set of positive expectations can set the tone for guidance in your program. These expectations must be age-appropriate for the children in the program, but they should also be broad enough to apply to the adults. For example, it is appropriate to have an expectation to “Be safe” for even the youngest infant rooms; this expectation guides the work of the adults in the room. Staff members might say, “Let’s keep you safe and make sure you’re buckled into the stroller” before taking infants on a walk. They might use the expectation when helping children interact with each other or objects: “Let’s be safe with the rattle. Let me help you shake it in front of Miller’s body instead of near her head.” As children get older, more complex expectations like respect, teamwork, or responsibility become appropriate. Preschool and school-age programs can benefit from having a set of three to five positively stated expectations that guide all interactions in the program. You must help staff members understand these expectations, teach them to children, and talk about them throughout the program day. For example, you might help the school-age program team brainstorm ways to involve children in developing their program expectations. Then you would follow through as the staff members work with children to develop the expectations, design posters, and remind one another of the expectations. The Safety course has examples of expectations. Here is another example from a school-age program.

First Aid for Getting Along: Our Expectations

C - Caring
Go the extra mile to help. Reach out to others and take care of one another.
P - Peaceful
Stop and think. Seek solutions.
R - Respectful
Use kind language and actions. Respect peers, adults, and yourself.
S - Safe
Keep yourself and others physically and emotionally safe.

Schedules and Routines

Managing time and the sequence of events that occur each day is an important part of positive guidance. A regular schedule can prevent behavioral outbursts and reduce anxiety in children, especially those who are resistant to change or surprises. Providing structure and predictability helps everyone know what is to be expected throughout the day. This is best achieved by posting a daily schedule.

A daily schedule should be displayed and followed closely. Higher-interest activities (e.g., such as free choice or outside time) should be scheduled after lower-interest activities (e.g., whole group time) to ensure the children’s interest and motivation. Of course, the children’s physical needs should always come first. This includes meals, bathroom breaks, safety, and opportunities to rest throughout the day.

example of a visual daily schedule

Example of a Before and After School Daily Schedule

Using Visual Schedules

Watch how some staff members communicate schedules and routines

Once children have learned the daily schedule, changes can cause discomfort and confusion. Special care must be taken to inform children of any changes to the schedule. Warning should be given well in advance for weather interruptions, special guests, and special events.

Transitions between activities should be minimized. The daily schedule should be examined, and any unnecessary transitions should be eliminated. For example, compare the two early-childhood schedules below from the Head Start National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning Front Porch Broadcast Call series (Artman-Meeker & Kinder, May 2014; Notice how the unnecessary transitions, limited time for children to engage in activities, and inappropriate expectations for waiting and group time in the first example can be eliminated so that the schedule is more supportive to children.

Fantastic Frogs Classroom Schedule


8:15 - 8:25 | Arrival, Hand Washing
8:25 - 8:35 | Free Play
8:35 - 9:30 | Attendance, name game, calendar, weather, book, shape, and color ID
9:30 - 10:15 | Small Group Rotations

Children rotate every 15 minutes between three small group activities or play in an assigned center

10-:15 - 10:45 | Bathroom, Handwashing & Snack

When they finish the last activity they use the bathroom and wash their hands, then sit at the table until all have arrived at the snack table

10:45 - 11:00 | Music

Children dismissed at the same time to get their coats and line up

11:00 - 11:30 | Playground
11:30 | Lunch


8:15 - 8:45 | Arrival, Hand Washing, Table Toys
  • Children play with manipulatives, crayons and paper, or other activity at the tables.
  • No other centers are open, but the children have a choice of activities - just limited.

Predictable, structured entry with limited choices allows for more time to transition into the classroom.

8:45 - 9:00 | Circle Time
  • Hello song, weather, calendar, and introduction of what is happening in Center Time

Shortened large group time is more aligned with children's ability to attend and allows for more activity exploration.

9:00 - 10:15 | Center Time
  • All centers are open with engaging activities planned.
  • Children rotate on their own or with visual systems.
  • Snack is offered as a choice, children wash hands when they arrive at table.
  • Toileting happens according to need rather than at an assigned time.

Embedding small group activities and routines during center time allows for more autonomy, choice, and time to engage in activities.

10:15 - 11:00 | Music and Story Time
  • Active music and movement activities are alternated with story time.
  • Shape and color ID is addressed through songs and stories rather than in rote circle routine.
  • Children are dismissed to get coat and line up in small clusters while others still singing.

Dismissing children in small groups reduces wait time and keeps children engaged.

11:00 - 11:30 | Playground then Lunch

The remaining transitions should be made as calmly and orderly as possible. There are a number of ways to add structure to transitions. For example, in toddler or preschool programs, children could be called to line up based on the color of their shirt or hair. Or a song could be sung or played with the expectation that children are where they need to be by the end of the song. For school-age programs, group transitions should be minimized and children should be encouraged to transition to new areas or experiences independently. When a group transition is necessary (e.g., when preparing to get on the bus for a field trip), you should help staff members prepare before the transition so children do not need to wait. Make sure they have all materials ready; the bus is parked out front, etc., before they begin the transition. Help staff consider leadership roles for children (can a child be responsible for distributing program t-shirts?) and ways to involve the children in the transition (children count themselves out loud as they line up).

Engaging Experiences

Children are constantly learning and should be provided materials and opportunities to explore and investigate. Staff members should always strive for intellectually challenging and stimulating activities to prevent children from getting bored. When productive activity is encouraged, there is little time for unproductive behaviors, according to Fields, Meritt, Fields, and Perry’s Constructive Guidance and Discipline (2014). Staff members should limit the number of activities that have a specific right or wrong answer. These are known as closed-ended activities. There are times when a definite right or wrong answer is appropriate, such as using materials safely. Oftentimes, however, activities with no right or wrong answer are more appropriate. These are known as open-ended activities. Environments that rely on open-ended activities encourage children to use their strengths and are discouraging of failure. Children are more likely to feel included, be engaged, and be willing to try new things when the fear of failure is removed.

Physical Design

There are several design principles that support positive behavior across age groups. These include:

  • Eliminating large open spaces where children feel overwhelmed or will run. In all age groups, furniture should be used to help define spaces and encourage safe traffic patterns. Low shelves provide safe boundaries for play and movement while providing visibility.
  • Providing clearly defined spaces for play, learning, and personal needs. Infant spaces might have distinct spaces for calm activities, such as feeding and rocking children to sleep, and for more active exploration. Calm spaces are part of the room and have visibility to and from all other spaces, but they are visibly set apart by carpeting, soft furnishings, or comfortable seating for adults. Active spaces might feature soft climbers, infant gyms, or low shelves with active toys. For toddlers and preschool children, providing clearly defined spaces might mean having distinct interest areas or learning centers, such as dramatic play, blocks, sensory play, or library. School-age programs might have separate rooms for distinct activities (homework, construction, snack, science, etc.), or they might organize the space for different purposes. For example, a set of couches are used to define the video game or lounge space; a stage defines the dramatic play space.
  • Providing adequate materials. Work with staff members to inventory their classrooms or programs and to make sure they have the materials they need. There should be sufficient materials to provide children with a variety of choices each day. The materials should be chosen with the interests and cultures of the children in mind. All materials must be safe, engaging, and developmentally appropriate.
  • Defining the boundaries on the number of children in an area. Some spaces can accommodate larger numbers of children than others. Help staff members consider the needs of children in a space. For example, does a block area become overwhelming when more than four children build at the same time? Does challenging behavior (arguments) or disengagement (children sitting with no materials or nothing to do) happen when a certain number of children try to play in the art area? Can the school-age science area accommodate a limited number of children safely? Or can you safely expand certain areas that are of high interest?

Here are additional considerations for each age group.

Infants and Toddlers:

In a program for infants and toddlers, it is important to engage children with the environment and the people around them. Comfortable furnishings and soft surfaces with interesting patterns provide visual interest and a safe place for young children to explore. Incorporating separate spaces for play, frequently rotating materials, and providing duplicates of toys will help to avoid conflicts, hurt feelings, and tantrums.


Preschoolers need access to materials that encourage dramatic play, construction, writing, art, science exploration, music, and sensory materials. At this developmental stage, it is important to plan activities that incorporate fine- and gross-motor skills both in and out of doors. For example, if a young girl is having difficulty sitting still during story time, it is likely that constantly redirecting her to pay attention will result in a behavioral outburst. Instead, encouraging her to release energy in a tumble area set up in the corner would be an example of developmentally appropriate guidance. Likewise, rather than forcing a reluctant young boy to participate in a game of kickball, it would be more appropriate to encourage him to explore the leaves and insects within the grass beneath him using a magnifying glass. He could then report to others what can be found beneath the grass on which they are playing.


Environments for school-age children should incorporate space for distinct activities. This might include computer/tech labs, homework labs, onsite playgrounds, the integration of sports and fitness, and theme or activity clubs. The activity spaces should be clearly defined with specific boundaries and be designed to promote learning and exploration. The focus of individual activity spaces can incorporate academic subjects like math, science, literacy, or art. Within certain activity areas or for certain projects you could also strategically limit materials helps to encourage collaboration and teamwork, which fosters the development of social skills. For example, a staff member might provide a limited number of tools in the construction area. This encourages school-age children to take turns and to work together. Additionally, school-age children should be instructed on the access, use, and return of materials to ensure that proper engagement and organization of the program areas is maintained.


You set the tone for how the environment is designed in your program. You must value and communicate the importance of the environment in promoting positive behavior. Do this by:

Building strong relationships with staff members: Talk to staff members socially each day; ask how their day is going, ask about their kids, share about yourself. Have an open-door policy, so staff members know they can always come to you with concerns, struggles, or celebrations. Use the communication strategies you have learned in other Virtual Lab School courses.

Building strong relationships with families: Be present in your program; greet families by name as they arrive, and say goodbye as they leave. Provide resources that might interest families; let them know when you get messages about sign-ups for youth sports, provide lunch-time family education events on “hot” topics, like biting, bullying, or bedtime routines, and set out informational pamphlets about issues your community may be facing, such as deployment.

Building strong relationships with children: Make sure children see you as an active member of the program. When you observe in classrooms or program areas, sit down with children and join in the activities with which they are engaged. Learn children’s names. Hold infants, roll a ball with toddlers, sing with preschoolers, or join in a game of checkers with school-agers. These little moments will refresh you and help children feel like they are a part of a larger community of caring adults.

Constantly reflecting on program spaces and schedules: Be the first to examine the environment when there is a problem in your program. For example, work with teams to develop a playground schedule that ensures a safe number of children are on the playground at one time.

Embracing program expectations: Post program expectations in your office. Open meetings with new teams by reminding staff members of the expectations and giving examples of how you should respect one another. Remind children of expectations during observations or while you are in spaces like the hallway or playground.

Engaging adult learners: Practice what you teach; design professional development experiences that capture staff members’ interests and make good use of their time. Keep staff members busy and engaged during professional development. Offer role play, problem-solving discussions, and case examples that help staff members actively participate. Use your knowledge of the staff members to plan professional development that meets their needs.


You have a variety of tools at your disposal to help you observe and assess environments. When you use data-based tools to observe environments, you are better able to provide staff members with meaningful feedback. Here are a few tools that you may consider or that may already be used in your program:

  • Environmental rating scales: Several rating scales are available commercially. The most widely-used rating scales are the Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale-Revised (ITERS-R; Harms, Cryer, & Clifford, 2003), the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale-Revised (ECERS-R; Harms, Clifford, & Cryer, 2004), the Family Child Care Environment Rating Scale-Revised (Harms, Cryer, & Clifford, 2007) and the School-Age Care Environment Rating Scale-Updated Edition (SACERS; Harms, Jacobs, & White, 2013). You should receive training before using an environmental rating scale. It is important that you use the tool to observe consistently and in a manner consistent with the authors’ recommendations. Training videos and materials are available from the publishers of these tools. Consult your supervisor if you need additional training.
  • Inventories of practice: Several organizations have developed inventories of practice related to guidance and social-emotional development. You read about the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) Inventory of Practice in the Social course. You can find that tool, and a school-age adaptation, in the Apply section of this lesson, too.
  • Behavior support observational tools: Several observation tools have been designed specifically to observe for features of the environment that support children’s behavior. Examples include the Teaching Pyramid Observation Tool (Fox, Hemmeter, & Snyder, 2014), the School-wide Evaluation Tool (, and the Preschool-Wide Evaluation Tool (Pre-SET; Steed, Pomerleau, & Horner, 2012). More information on these tools can be gathered from the publishers listed in the References & Resources section of this lesson.

You and your program team can decide on a tool that is appropriate for your needs and follow the authors’ recommendations for training. Regardless of the tools you choose to use, there are some basic principles you can follow to use the data you collect. Here are some tips for using data from these or other observational tools:

  • Use data to identify a classroom or program’s strengths. What is going well? What areas can you build upon as you help staff develop new skills?
  • Talk about data and what it means for staff members. Data is a powerful learning tool. It should not be hidden or secret. These tools can help you open up lines of communication about the specific practices that your program values. Avoid talking only about scores. Rather, discuss the specific practices that make up a score. For example, a classroom team may not understand what a score of 3 on the Program Structure scale of the ITERS-R means. It is up to you to explain how their schedules were scored and to describe areas of strength and areas for growth.
  • Observe regularly. These tools are not one-time events. They can help you quantify professional growth and changes in your program. They also help you document your impact: as you work with staff members on specific strategies, these tools provide evidence that your coaching and professional development efforts are effective.
  • Use data to inform professional development. These tools give you valuable information about staff members’ knowledge and performance. This is information you should use every day to design effective, personalized professional development opportunities. It would be wasteful, for example, to deliver a training on classroom expectations if everyone in your program already has and uses effective expectations. Data helps you avoid “one-size-fits-none” trainings. Instead, you can focus your energies on providing staff with the professional development they need, when they need it. For example, if your observational data suggests that a staff member is struggling with transitions in the program, you can provide materials, resources, training, or coaching on designing effective transitions.

Now let’s try using data to observe and provide feedback to staff members. You will watch videos from each age group and consider items from the Inventory of Practices in the Apply section related to environments.

Infants and Toddlers

As you watch the video below, consider these questions:

  • How do the staff members build meaningful relationships with the infants and toddlers?
  • How do staff members arrange the outdoor space?
  • How do staff members ensure smooth transitions?

Environments that Guide Behavior: Infants and Toddlers

Observe how different environments influence behavior

What you saw:

What you might say:

  • An adult offering a warm greeting/goodbye to a child as part of the transition. The adult uses the child’s name and is friendly and affectionate.
  • An adult assists a child with the transition outdoors.
  • A clearly defined space is set for the small infants to explore outdoors on a hot day.
  • Materials are prepared, and there is no need to wait.
  • You have such strong relationships with the infants and toddlers in the room. You are modeling important relationship skills and building community.
  • You individualized the transition for a child who needed more time and who needed more active play.
  • You were prepared with safe activities for all children.


As you watch this video, consider:

  • How do (or could) staff members prepare children for transitions?
  • How could staff members ensure a smoother transition with less wait time?

Environments that Guide Behavior: Preschool

Observe how different environments influence behavior

What you saw:

What you might say:

  • Adult was playing at the table with a small group of children.
  • A bell rang and another adult said it was time to clean up.
  • Some children began cleaning up. Others continued to play.
  • At least two children sat on the carpet for at least 3 minutes while others cleaned up.
  • I wonder whether the children understood it was time to clean up? What might have helped them realize it was time to clean up today?
  • Several children started cleaning up right away. What might be fun for them to do while the others finish?
  • I noticed several children sitting on the carpet and waiting. What happened next?


As you watch the video consider:

  • How does the staff member make sure she has children’s attention before the transition?
  • How does the staff member design activities to promote engagement?

Environments that Guide Behavior: School-Age

Observe how different environments influence behavior

What you saw:

What you say:

  • Adult is playing with a small group of boys in block area.
  • Materials appear interesting and engaging to the boys, and encourage creativity and open-ended play.
  • An off-screen adult gives an attention signal, and all children stop and respond.
  • The adult says, “5 more minutes to play.”
  • What impact do you think it had that you spend time playing with the boys today?
  • When you (off-screen adult) sang the “attention tones”, you had everyone’s attention. You have worked hard on that.
  • Giving the children a 5 minute warning was very respectful of the effort they were putting into their creations. Are there ways children can continue their projects at a later time? How do you support that process?



It can be useful to spend time observing program environments and evaluating how they function. You can use your observations to help staff members reflect on the appropriateness of each space. Using the Observing Environments Activity, spend a brief period of time observing a classroom or program space. In the space provided, make a mark in each area of the room where challenging behavior occurred or where an adult seemed overwhelmed. Share your data with staff members and make a plan to identify reasons why behavior may have occurred in in each setting. Make changes to the environment to prevent challenging behavior.


There are many tools available to help you observe and provide feedback on staff members’ use of positive guidance techniques and environmental arrangements. The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning have developed a series of Inventories of Practice. These Inventories can help you and staff members become aware of strategies that prevent challenging behavior and promote social and emotional development. You can download the Inventory of Practices in the Apply section attachments, or click on the links below for the preschool and infant toddler inventories.

The Inventories contain a wide range of strategies. You can find specific practices related to effective environments in the following locations in each Inventory:

  • Infants and Toddlers: Pages 1-9
  • Preschool: Pages 1-5
  • School-Age: Pages 1-9


A guideline for behavior, like a rule except typically broader and applying to all the settings a child might be in
An event that happens daily like snack, toileting, diapering, arrival, departure, or clean-up
The movement between one activity and the next; usually involves stopping one activity and starting a new one
Visual support:
An object that is used to communicate information to children through pictures, drawings, or images; examples include visual schedules, rule charts, classroom signage


Finish this statement: The most important strategy for preventing challenging behavior is…
True or False? Lots of transitions in a child’s daily schedule help her feel calm and secure.
Which of the following should you use to observe and assess environments?
References & Resources

Fields, M. V., Merritt, P. P., Fields, D. M., & Perry, N. (2014). Constructive Guidance and Discipline: Birth to Age Eight. Pearson Higher Ed.

Fox, L.,  Hemmeter, M., & Snyder, P. (2013). Teaching Pyramid Observation Tool (TPOT) for Preschool Classrooms Manual (Research ed.). Baltimore: Brooks Publishing.

Harms, T., Cryer, D., & Clifford, R. M. (2005). Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (rev. ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

Harms, T., Cryer, D. & Clifford, R. M. (2006). Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale (rev. ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

Harms, T., Cryer, D. & Clifford, R.M. (2007). Family Child Care Environment Rating Scale, revised edition. New York: Teachers College Press.

Harms, T., & Jacobs, E. (2013). School Age Environment Rating Scale. New York: Teachers College Press.

Horner, R., Lewis-Palmer, T., Sugai, G., & Todd, A. (2005). School-wide Evaluation Tool (SET). Retrieved from

Inventory of Practices for Promoting Children’s Social Emotional Competence. (2010). Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning. Retrieved from

Kinder, K., & Meeker, K. (2014). Front Porch Series: Moving Right Along: Planning Transitions to Prevent Challenging Behavior. Retrieved October 12, 2014, from

Pomerleau, T., & Steed, E. (2012). Preschool-Wide Evaluation Tool (PreSET) Manual (Research ed.). Baltimore: Brooks Publishing.