Educators understand that early childhood development has a wide range of “normal,” with children growing physically, cognitively, emotionally and socially on their own schedule. However, even accounting for this diversity of pace, there are cases when delays must be addressed. In these instances, early intervention is critical to future accomplishment in school and beyond.
Today, the need for early childhood education interventions may be even greater, as the upcoming cohort of students spent crucial developmental windows with limited interaction from playdates, childcare and other social settings. Absent these relationships, their caregivers may be even more uncertain about common trajectories for age-appropriate milestones.
Fortunately, sensitive and thoughtful assessments can help detect developmental delays, providing early childhood educators and student families with the information they need to make informed decisions about how to best help the student. It is important to remember that educators aren’t without allies in their quest to make a child’s learning the best it can be — a multidisciplinary team approach that includes the student’s home support system can deliver the best results.
The importance of early intervention
Positive early learning experiences set the stage for a lifetime of academic achievement, and unidentified needs can negatively color those first impressions. Therefore, the earlier you can understand a student and provide them with practical supports, the better.
An early assessment provides a baseline for establishing where a child is to help inform their journey. “It allows us to drill down into component parts and find out their strengths, along with gaps we can target with specific interventions,” explains Shelley Hughes, OTR (registered occupational therapist) and director of portfolio management and delivery for Pearson Clinical Assessment. For example, Pearson’s PLS™-5 identifies the risk of a speech or language disorder in infants, toddlers and young children, while the BSRA-4™ is a quick and easy child development assessment to help establish school readiness.
Early intervention will lead to improved long-term outcomes, but it can also help promote better mental health and family dynamics. One relatively simple fix is discussing sensory processing and the home environment.
“We talk to caregivers about how they process sensory input and how their child’s needs may differ. Often that creates an ‘aha moment’ as caregivers realize the massive impact they might see through minor adjustments that take into account a child’s unique situation,” Hughes says.
Taking time to talk with families and caregivers
Connecting with caregivers should be the first step in beginning the assessment process because they are likely to be anxious even when they suspect a possible delay.
One key consideration is where the referral is coming from, notes Kathleen Woodward, nationally certified school psychologist and senior assessment consultant for Pearson. “They may be completely unaware of concerns because they aren’t familiar with typical development. They may be hearing this information for the first time, so it’s important to build a relationship empathetically.”
Before introducing the process, seek to understand the caregiver’s perspective, suggests Becky Whalen, speech-language pathologist and Pearson assessment consultant. “Some might be aware of the behavior and aiming to learn why it’s happening, along with tips and tricks to help address it, while others might be seeking an assessment because their clinician or classroom teacher recommended it, and they’re reluctantly conducting their due diligence.”
Any conversation with a caregiver should begin with the positives — highlight the student’s strengths and adopt a growth mindset, says Hughes. “There’s nothing harder for a caregiver than to hear something negative about their child, so connect with them in a way that will help build a relationship and boost engagement.”
Once you’ve established the connection, you can share the purpose of the assessment as a tool to gain a better understanding of potential concerns, with an ultimate outcome of implementing relevant interventions or supports. Underscore that the caregiver will be an important part of the process and discuss a few impactful goals or milestones you’ll be working to achieve.
Adopting a team approach for successful assessments
Since younger children are typically unable to take assessment “tests,” most early childhood educators will employ play-based assessments, such as providing a set of blocks and letting the child use them however they’d like. The way a child acts and interacts during the play session offers a wealth of insight — from whether they understand counting and colors to their coordination in building a tower to the language they’re using as they explain their movements.
Assessments are most advantageous when a multidisciplinary team is involved, with participants such as the classroom teacher, speech-language pathologist, physical therapist, occupational therapist and psychologist all playing a role.
“During the evaluation, we’re looking at a wide variety of components: cognition, communication, social-emotional development, physical development and adaptive behavior, to name a few,” Woodward says. “Although it might appear that the child is just sitting there playing with blocks, we’re gathering valuable data as we witness their interaction and watching to see what they understand and how they react.”
Requirements for special education testing
Providing these interventions isn’t just helpful: It’s the law.
The “Child Find” requirement, which is part of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), states that school districts are obligated to identify, locate and evaluate all resident children whom they suspect might have a disability or need special education services. Following assessment, they must offer appropriate academic and behavioral supports.
“Districts need to proactively and consistently educate communities about their rights,” says Woodward. “We need to provide those services to the child as early as possible and make sure they’re getting adequate access to resources they’re entitled to, including transportation, as needed.”
In addition, early childhood educators should become familiar with the federal regulations around developmental delays and their state-specific guidelines, which can vary.
Assessments are a powerful tool for early childhood education success
A robust assessment model can help ensure that all students receive the services they need. “The role of an assessment is to understand the root cause of why the child performs the way they do, so we can better anticipate how they will perform in the future and optimize outcomes,” Whalen says.
Assessments, augmented by open, constructive conversations, lay the groundwork for thoughtful interventions when needed. The ultimate goal is to understand the child’s abilities and challenges holistically so the entire team can advocate in a way that will bolster future learning and confidence.
For more resources on supporting students during early childhood, visit Pearson’s Early Childhood Development Resource Center.