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Read the full transcript of our podcast with Barb O’Neil on how you can use improv techniques in your preschool below.
Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early-childhood education”.
One of the most common issues I hear from educators is handling challenging behavior in the classroom. Studies have found that 10 to 30 percent of children can display challenging behavior. Working with children isn’t always fun and games and can sometimes be frustrating. And even though challenging behavior is one of the top things that teachers struggle with, it’s sometimes hard to admit that. The reality is this behavior can be a sign of issues at home or special developmental needs, and often root causes are unclear.
Our guest Barb O’Neill has developed a fun and easy approach that uses improv to connect with challenging children. Applying improv to engage children by saying “Yes, and…” is a positive approach to working with tough behaviors. Working with children is never straightforward, and before this conversation I didn’t realize how important following a child’s lead was, rather than trying to correct the child that’s acting out.
Barb, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.
Hi, thank you. So glad to be here.
Let’s start off the conversation just learning a little bit more about you and your background.
Okay, sure. Let’s see… I have been in the field of early-childhood for about 23 years, and I started out working as a floater aid in a child care center. And I since then have worked as a preschool teacher, special ed. teacher. I went on to get my masters in early-childhood special ed. and then I got my doctorate in early childhood. And so I worked as an early-childhood professor for about eight years, and part of that time I was also a campus center director. And now I’m doing consulting and training with early-childhood programs around behavior and helping teachers and directors with children’s behavior.
And why have you chosen that specific area of children’s behavior, versus the many other directions you could have taken in your career with that background that you have?
That’s a great question. I think I’ve always been very oriented towards helping those children who seem to be struggling in the classroom, and that’s part of why I decided to study special education as well as early-childhood. And I worked for a little while as a – in New York –what we call a SIAT, which stands for Special Education Itinerant Teacher. So I would go to different Head Start programs, private preschools, childcare centers, supporting children who qualified for special-education services. And I noticed that in some way the teachers that I was working to support, and the children I was supporting, that the teachers struggled the most with the children who also had behavioral concerns. So if you think of like concentric circles like the Venn diagram, there [are] children with disabilities or special needs and there [are] children who are presenting behavioral challenges. And then there’s this area of overlap, and it just seemed that in some ways the behavioral issues were the bigger struggle.
And when I was a professor and I was researching different methods for fostering inclusion of children with disabilities, what I discovered was the methods that I was studying to support the inclusion of children with disabilities also could be helpful for children with presented behavioral challenges. So I just decided that was really the bigger focus that I wanted to focus on, and it’s just a huge, huge issue in the field. I mean I don’t meet a center director or teacher who says, “I never struggle with behavior.”
Yeah, It’s certainly a consistent challenge, I think, across all childcare and early-learning programs, for sure. And it’s such a complicated subject, I think, as well, which makes it also so difficult to tackle.
So I read up a little bit about some of your work. And one of the methods that you are quite supportive of and teach through your consultancy work is improv-based play support. Can you tell us what that means?
Sure, absolutely. This is something that I’m super-passionate about, so I’m so happy to get the chance to speak with you about it and to share it with your listeners. I about 10 or 15 years ago I had the opportunity to study at the East Side Institute in New York City, which is a place that trains professionals not just in early-childhood at all but really across different fields in a method that they call social therapeutics. And it’s a methodology that has at the heart of it one of the pieces is studying theater improvisation as a tool to promote development. And so as a special education teacher I took those ideas into my teaching and just found them to have really a huge and positive impact in my work.
And so basically the main idea in improv, we say, “Anything anyone says or does is an offer.” And so in children’s play that could be banging blocks together; that could be rocking a baby; that could be saying, “Are you hungry?”, in dramatic play. So anything anyone says or does is an offer, and the job of the improviser is to say “Yes, and…” to offers. So that doesn’t mean that we’re going to let children do whatever they want or climb on the tables. But as an improviser around always trying to find ways to say “Yes” and build on children’s offers, so that anything they initiate in play – their interests, their strengths – I’m trying to creatively build on those to support their play.
And actually it’s something that… you can take that paradigm, like looking at where children are doing and what’s happening in the classroom, through the lens of improv. And this idea of “Yes, and…”, you can do that all day long. So I’ve had teachers who I’ve trained in the approach who say… , this one teacher I have in mind said, “I always knew I needed to be a responsive teacher and be responsive to what children put out there but I didn’t really understand how to do that or have a method for it until I started to study improv with you.” So we do games job to develop those muscles of saying “Yes, and…”, creatively building on your co-players’ offers.
Can you give us an example of something – activities in a classroom, for example – where you would apply this “Yes, and…” method?
Yeah, absolutely. You can really apply it in any activity. I mean, activities that are more child-directed. Well, I don’t even want to say that because actually in circle time or a teacher-director activity you can apply it, too, it just looks a little differently. But my favorite is dramatic play, just because in dramatic play we really have a great opportunity to help children start to interact with their peers and develop in the preschool years those co-operative pretend-play skills.
So I’ll give an example of a little girl that I worked with, where… this was actually when I was working as a center director. I was working to teach some of the teachers I was supervising this method because they wanted to learn it from me. And there was a little girl who mostly played by herself, and she was playing in dramatic play. And so when I went over to play with her she was playing with a baby. And so I went and sat near her and I took out a baby also. And then she actually got up and left and went to the library area of the classroom. And so I share this example because it’s an example where that was not the offer I was looking for, right? And I was, like, “Okay.” And I’m supposed to be teaching the teachers how to do this. And I was, like, “Wow, how do I do that?” But I just said to myself, “Okay, you have to stick to the method. So how do I say ‘Yes, and…’ to that offer, even when it’s not the offer I was looking for?”
And so I gave her a few minutes, and she had taken the baby with her to the library. And I know some classes are very strict about, “You have to stay in your area.” But that was not the way this classroom ran, so it was okay that she went over there. And I followed her with my baby and lo and behold – you might see where this is going – she got up and then she went back to the dramatic play area. So I had to really be creative. So I would wait a little bit, and I didn’t want to crowd her or force her to play with me. And so I went back over to dramatic play and this time I sat a little bit further away, and I kind of put my back to her, actually, to be like, “No, I’m not here for you.”
And it took several back-and-forth’s but eventually she went back to the library and she had this time on a blanket and a baby doll with her. So I just mirrored what she was doing; I mirrored the materials choices. So I took the blanket and the baby doll and when I got there I saw she had put her baby doll down, so I put mine down. And then she started waving her blanket and kind of shaking it out, like as you might do if you’re setting up at the beach. So I did that as well. And much to my amazement she didn’t run off. And she put her blanket down so I narrowed that and put mine down. And then she ended up laying down on her blanket. And so I laid down on mine. And we were facing each other and she looked at me and she smiled and giggled a little bit.
And so that was a really magical moment for me of connecting with a child who was really slow to warm up. But I was really following her lead there. And we worked with her doing this improv-based play support over many months and really saw her develop as a leader in the play at times. And one time her father came in and saw she was kind of leading this little dress-up parade around the classroom. And so that father thought, “Okay, this is a child who doesn’t always connect socially with the other children, but there she is, they’re following her.” And we eventually saw her to go on to be interactive with her peers in dramatic play.
But to form the basis for it I had to first follow her lead, as opposed to insist to her, “Okay,. It’s time to do some cooking,” or, “Let’s put the babies to bed.” That came later, where I would initiate some things and her teachers worked with her in a similar way, following her lead and then making suggestions to her.
Yeah, that’s a really phenomenal example and a very interesting and fascinating one. And it occurs to me that patience seems to be a really key factor with this example specifically, but I imagine in a lot of other scenarios as well.
Yeah, for sure yeah. I always say when I’m teaching teachers this improv-based play support you can’t evaluate the… it’s not an activity where you have, like, a lesson plan with a very clear objective for of you’re teaching that day. So also when I teach this method I teach on the different skills children need during play, and the sequence for dramatic play from solitary to parallel, associative and then uncooperative. But you have to know which level that child’s at and continue to make offers to help them develop new play skills.
But you can’t evaluate whether you are successful on any one day. You have to really make a commitment: “I’m going to play with this child. And it can just be 20 minutes, 15-to-20 minutes playing with that child and others in the area. “I’m going to do this once a week for X weeks or whatever it is,” because I know teachers are juggling so many different things. But later you may see evidence of something that child learned from the experience and see them initiate with a peer something that you did with them weeks later. So you really can’t evaluate it in the short run a lot of times.
Yeah, and I think oftentimes they’re taking in a lot more information and learnings than you might you might think they are at the time. One thing we always like to cover on the Preschool Podcast as well as the Why behind things, and so maybe you can tell us a little bit more about why this method works, versus other methods…?
Yeah, absolutely. I think, again, I sort of work in these overlapping areas of including children with disabilities and with children who are presenting challenging behavior. And so one of the things I’m always mindful of is that we definitely have research that shows for children who do have disabilities, whether that’s – in many cases in early-childhood they’re not even diagnosed yet, or if it’s a developmental delay – teachers may suspect it but children aren’t receiving services. But with the special education research tells us that if we want to have inclusive classrooms we can’t just plop children in there and expect them to excel. The recommendations really are that teachers need to support children’s play to help them engage with materials in the classroom and to help them to develop those social connections.
And I think teachers don’t always… again, they’re juggling so many things. And also we have these and early-childhood a lot of times that we do want children to initiate their play. And so sometimes that can go to that extreme to feel that we shouldn’t interrupt it. But for children who… a lot of teachers tell me, “Oh, I’m really struggling with Michael here. He won’t stay focused on an activity. He’s just flitting around the classroom and then he gets into trouble. He’s climbing on the shelf, or he’s throwing things.” So again, it doesn’t have to be children who are there in terms of inclusion and because they have a special need. But I think it is a special need to need some help to engage with materials, and then if you’re exhibiting challenging behavior.
So this is a method that teachers can use to build a rapport with children. So if they’re in a negative cycle with the behavior and they’re getting into daily power struggles it helps switch that around if we go into children’s play and follow their lead, where we’re sending the message that their interests are valued and important, and the play is valued. So it builds that rapport.
It also can help them sustain engage meant when the adult goes in and plays with them. And then as time goes on you can make suggestions or offers for interacting with peers, and you can do that to the child who needs the support and where you can suggest that the peer initiate. So you might have someone who’s a more advanced player and is very open to following teacher directions, and you can just make a suggestion, like, “Oh, maybe you can give Brianna a cup of juice,” and then the other child initiating that social.
And what I found is, once those social connections form in the play, a lot of times children they’re just much more engaged during center time, once they make, really, friends. And sometimes I’ve seen where just doing the play support, or even if that wasn’t the time of day – circle time – where we were seeing a problem with behavior, sometimes the behavior challenges at circle time or transitions or lunch decrease or stop for the most part because it’s just changed – I think, this is my theory – the the child’s whole experience of being in the classroom. So if you think for us as adults when we go to a party or a professional event, when we know someone there and we have a friend or colleague who we feel comfortable with, it can change our whole… hopefully we’re not throwing chairs or punching anyone if we’re nervous at an event. But once we make that social connection it can just change our whole experience of the environment, and the event.
And sometimes I’ve even seen – and this goes back to include when I was working as a floating special ed. teacher – I’ve seen children where, when I’ve use this method and they advance in the play, I’ve seen huge language spurts where they go from two to three words they’re using to, once they’re motivated to play, they’re saying, “I want to go to the blocks and play with big trucks with Michael.” They are just busting out with these huge sentences to express themselves, once they’re motivated.
So it almost seems like there’s a lot of indirect benefits that come out of this as well, that aren’t so obvious at the time.
Yeah, I think so. And again, that’s why I say, I think… I have some other methods I teach, like for transitions and circle time that I think are a little more obvious in their short term benefits. And there are things, I definitely feel like… if you read my article on it that could help. If you come to a two-hour training with me, that’s great. But if I’m there coaching teachers week-to-week they’re going to really see the most impact. I do have other things I teach that are much more straightforward in terms of, “You can just change your language a little or add something you’re doing and see a result tomorrow.”
And let me just touch on that point briefly, because it does seem like it is a challenging methodology to implement in a classroom, your example being a perfect one. What are some of the challenges that you see that people face when they try to implement improv-based play support in their classrooms?
I think the biggest thing is getting stuck when they went to teachers what I would call a bad offer, when a child does something they don’t want them to do or it doesn’t go well. But I would take the example of children banging blocks. And so one of the little boys that I did this directly with, he would go to the block area and he wouldn’t necessarily build with blocks most of the time; he would bang them. And so rather than trying to get him immediately to build the blocks I just went in and mirrored that and banged the box. And then I tried banging the blocks in a very small pattern of doing two bangs and then a pause, and he followed me. And so from there I could do, “Bang the blocks, stack the blocks.” But that wasn’t what I wanted, right? I wanted him to build with the blocks.
And one example I will give you is, I had a teacher that I was supervising. Actually she was the same teacher who said this method taught her to be responsive. I learned so much from working with her. She had said she had a little boy who was one of these who really didn’t engage during center time. So she was, like, “How can I how can I use this method if he won’t even stay in one area?” And then she had a lot of terrariums in her class of different animals – it’s kind of amazing, actually, I really admired that; I would not be able to keep up with that myself. But she said all he wanted to do, the only thing he would stay with was go to observe some of the animals. And so what we decided together with that she would kind of really play with that. And so she got out a special hat and clipboard and magnifying glasses, and she said, “Let’s go observe the animals.” And he just loved it immediately.
And so that was originally… she felt stuck. She couldn’t even get him into one of the centers. But I was like, “No, no, that’s a center in and of itself. We’ll build with that.” And so they made a really nice connection, and he started following her lead more on as soon as she started doing that. And then he would get the hat as a way to initiate that play with her.
What I really like about some of these examples as well is, first of all they really bring it to life. But also I think it really emphasizes as well in the skills that early-childhood educators apply with creativity and using their energy and patience to work with children in these situations. It’s really phenomenal. And it really creates that inclusive and responsive environment that you’ve mentioned. So it really sounds like an excellent, excellent method.
If I’m listening to the podcast now and I want to go learn more information about this method or about your work, where would I go to do that?
Well you can definitely go to my website, which is TransformChallengingBehavior.com and read a little bit more about it there. And if you go to my publications page there’s a link, or actually you can Google “improvisational play interventions”, and I have an article that I publish through the Journal of Young Children. And so the article does come up if you Google… I used to call it “improvisational play interventions” as kind of a little more special ed. sounding name, but then as the years went on I started calling it improv-based play support.
Got it. And I also noticed on your website that you have a “challenging behavior cheat sheet”, which sounds like a really useful tool as well.
Yeah, and there’s a little bit about the play support method in there, but it also includes tips for teachers that they can use during transitions and circle time. So one thing that I really promote is this idea of using the word “Lets” and talking to children, for example. A lot of times and we might tell them what to do, or of course we want to offer them choices. But sometimes I see – and I’ve found this to myself – of saying to children, “Are you ready to clean up?” It’s, like, “No, it’s cleanup time. You’ve got to clean up.” So using “Let’s”, or, “Let’s wash our hands so we can see what we have for lunch,” rather than just telling them what to do because for the most part most of us don’t really like being told what to do.
And then also during circle time I studied two different methods of interactive oral storytelling when I was doing my research. And I learned just the word “Let’s” is a really great way to invite children to participate in circle time. And so I recommend finding ways to say to children, “Let’s all say that and let’s all do that,” which I learned from a colleague of mine, Helen Wheelock at the Creative Arts Team in New York. She trains teachers in storytelling. And it’s a very interactive method, and it’s a great way for teachers who are struggling during circle time with children’s behavior. Obviously I can’t in my cheat sheet teach them how to do interactive oral storytelling but I’m borrowing some of those strategies that teachers can use. .
Sounds like some awesome resources online on your site, and also some great strategies and tactics and tools and tips right here on this podcast. So thanks so much for coming on the show and sharing all that with us, Barb.
Yeah, you’re welcome. It’s really a pleasure. And I want to just mention I also have a resource for directors on my website, if anyone’s listening and is interested on assessing what kind of help you might need with challenging behavior in terms of prioritizing professional development for your teachers. So that’s another resource I have.
And also super important if you’re an administrator is professional development of your team. So TransformChallengingBehavior.com, I definitely encourage listeners to check it out. Barb, thanks again for coming on the show.
Thank you so much, Ron, it’s really been a pleasure talking to you.