How Can We Capture What Kids Really Know?

Personalizing Your Assessment Techniques

Today’s post from the 2019 MN Early Intervention Summer Institute draws on Flipping Your Assessment Practices from Standardized to Personalized. This session was presented by Kristie Pretti-Frontczak, PhD. Pretti-Frontczak is an author, speaker and educational consultant. She offers a blog and podcast with resources for early childhood professionals.

Pretti-Frontczak argues that even in an age of accountability, it’s essential to be playful and let the child take the lead in assessments. Not only does this make for a more enjoyable experience for everyone, but it also produces authentic results. According to Pretti-Frontczak, there are three key components to authentic assessment.

  1. Familiarity: The assessment should consist of familiar activities using familiar objects in a familiar setting with familiar people.
  2. Accuracy: Have you ever heard comments like the following? “That’s not all she can do!” “He was doing it yesterday!” Those comments are an indication that the assessment is less than accurate. The assessment activities and results should resonate with those who know the child best.
  3. Play: Assessment should look just like play, and the child’s own inclinations should steer the activity.

Check out Preschooler Movement and Brain Development and other online courses from CEED that allow you to earn clock hours where and when you want.

A child plays with a row of multicolored lumps of clay
Assessment in early childhood should look like play, and the child should take the lead.

Pretti-Frontczak recommends taking plenty of time to do an assessment. It can be difficult to slow down and match your pace and attention to a child’s when you have a packed agenda. Ultimately, though, you’ll get better results if you engage in organic play and conversation with the child, rather than checking items off a list.

That core strategy—connecting with a child on his or her level—is at the heart of what Pretti-Frontczak calls personalized assessment. Her blog post Five Ways to Flip Your Assessment Practices from Standardized to Personalized delves more deeply into the topic.

Thanks to our presenter, participants, and volunteer Jess Moen, and to the Minnesota Department of Education’s Division of Early Childhood Special Education—sponsors of the Summer Institute for the past 36 years!

A Holistic Approach to Challenging Behaviors

Understanding Why Children Act the Way They Do with Tools from Education, Mental Health, and Neuroscience

We’re back with another installment from the 2019 MN Early Intervention Summer Institute! Today’s post recaps Understanding and Responding to Challenging Behavior Using a Holistic Approach, presented by Sally Hansen, MA, MFT. Hansen is an early childhood special education professional development facilitator with the Minnesota Centers of Excellence for Young Children with Disabilities.

Hansen explained that, like the proverbial tip of an iceberg, children’s behavior provides some clues as to what’s going on under the surface, but it doesn’t tell us the whole story. So she shared ideas from different evidence-based disciplines to help professionals dig deeper. Participants took a look at challenging behaviors through a behavioral or education lens, a mental health lens, and a neuroscience lens.

Photo of an iceberg
Photo by Paolo Nicolello on Unsplash

From a behavioral or education perspective, every behavior has a purpose or “function.” In essence, a behavior’s function is either to obtain something or to escape something.

We can add complexity to this basic breakdown using a mental health lens. We may ask questions like:

  • Why is the behavior happening?
  • Is the child trying to communicate an emotional need?
  • Does this behavior help the child organize, regulate, and calm him/herself?
  • Has the child experienced trauma, toxic stress, or abuse/neglect? How might that knowledge impact the way you view the behavior and plan supports for the child?

We can also take into account genetic and environmental influences on a child’s behavior. We know that a child’s genes and environment combine to shape his or her body, brain and nervous system. These factors also impact the child’s development of executive function skills.

Learn what executive function is and why it’s so important in an all-new class from CEED!

Photo of four large sheets of paper headed with "Ways I am a behaviorist," "Ways I am a bonder," "Ways I use info and neuro-science to support kids," "resources, videos, etc." and covered with post-it notes
Summer Institute participants explored new practices for addressing challenging behaviors and categorized those they were already using.

From a neuroscience perspective, then, behaviors result from children’s neurological and biological processes. They can also be an adaptation to a child’s history and present circumstances. 

Each discipline sheds light on a different aspect of challenging behaviors. The various disciplines also offer different solutions for such behaviors.

  • Put your educator cap on, and add some behavioral solutions to your toolkit:
    • Teach children a replacement skill to substitute for a challenging behavior.
    • Embed instruction into routines.
  • From a mental health perspective, support social and emotional development through play and social stories.
  • Neuroscience tells us that adults can best encourage children’s development of executive function skills through activities like imaginary play, storytelling, movement challenges (such as songs and games), puzzles, cooking, and matching and sorting games.

Child psychologist and educator Ann Gearity, PhD, LICSW, writes, “Before you try to change a behavior, admire it. It represents the child’s best effort to communicate.” That’s good advice, but sometimes, it’s easier said than done. Hansen shared pro tips for when children’s behaviors start pushing our buttons.

  • Be calm (regulate yourself).
  • Be quiet (give time for child to calm).
  • Be with (keep the child company; use your calm, quiet body to help him/her regulate).
  • Be kind and empathetic (remind yourself that the child is asking for help).
  • Repair (new learning). 

Anne Gearity writes, “Repair happens through interactions, repeated again and again.” (Her Developmental Repair: A Training Manual is a valuable guide to working with young children who have experienced complex trauma.)

Recognizing that managing challenging behaviors takes a toll on early childhood professionals themselves, Hansen built information on self-care into the session. What practices might professionals use to “put their own oxygen mask on first,” as the saying goes?

Hansen recommends mindfulness apps like the free Insight Timer, as well as reflective practice. Reflective practice is a form of professional development for early childhood professionals. 

You can learn about reflective practice in an introductory course on reflective supervision/consultation from CEED. (Find all our online courses.)

For those who don’t have access to reflective supervision or want to engage in reflection outside of a reflective relationship, Hansen offered these guiding questions:

Image of list of reflective questions for when things are hard

Thanks to our presenter, participants, and volunteers Jessica Bosacker and Jodi Altringer, and to the Minnesota Department of Education’s Division of Early Childhood Special Education—sponsors of the Summer Institute for the past 36 years.

What Is Executive Function and Why Does It Matter? Find Out in CEED’s New Online Course!

The Center for Early Education and Development (CEED) is launching a brand-new online course this fall that can help both early childhood professionals and parents of young children support an important part of children’s growth.

Executive Function: What Is It and Why Does It Matter for Infants and Young Children? will run from October 7 to December 16, 2019. It will be taught by Marie Opsahl Lister, MA, a University of Minnesota alumna who is now a teacher at the Shirley G. Moore Laboratory School.

Executive function skills are brain processes that help us focus on tasks, switch from one task to another, control impulses, and carry out our goals. For example, these skills enable us to put down a book to answer the phone, work to perfect a new tune on the piano, or complete a homework assignment (perhaps while conquering the urge to reach for the TV remote).

A toddler boy builds a tower with big colorful plastic blocks.
Children use their executive function skills to make plans and work towards goals.

“Executive function is a set of skills that nearly all of us come into the world ready to learn,” says Deborah Ottman, director of online professional development at CEED. Infants start to develop executive function skills at birth. All the adults that surround them—families, educators, and caregivers—share in the job of helping them develop executive function.

That might sound like a daunting prospect—one that you might need a PhD in child development to tackle! But, Marie Opsahl Lister says, that’s not at all the case.

“I think that people who take this course will be surprised at how accessible executive function—or EF—skills are,” she shares. “When you first hear the phrase ‘executive function,’ it can feel a little intimidating. But when I really dig into these skills with students there’s always this lightbulb moment. There’s a realization that EF skills are something all of us use on a daily basis to organize our day, make decisions, control our impulses, and so on.”

A little girl in a striped shirt plays with construction toys
Executive function skills support both academic and social success.
Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

It’s well known that the first six years of life lay an important foundation for success in school and social relationships. It’s no coincidence that these years are crucial to developing executive function skills. Growth in executive function accelerates during early childhood. It continues at a slower pace through early adulthood.

“When children who demonstrate they’ve begun to acquire these skills start school, they typically do better academically and socially. This holds true as they move into adolescence, the teen years, and adulthood, too,” Ottman says.

So how can we set infants and children up for success with strategies that support executive function? CEED’s new course will provide answers to that question. And it will help families and early childhood professionals build on the many ways in which they are already helping children gain these skills.

“After taking this course, parents and early childhood professionals will be able to identify the ways they are already encouraging the use of EF skills in the children they care for. And we’ll help them intentionally scaffold the development of these skills,” Lister explains.

Here’s what the course will cover:

  • What executive function is and how it develops through infancy and early childhood
  • What factors impact the development of executive function skills
  • How executive function relates to positive outcomes like academic knowledge, social skills, and resilience
  • How executive function issues are related to developmental disorders and mental health problems
  • Intervention strategies that you can use in your work with young children, or in your parenting

Like all CEED’s online professional development, this course does not take place in real time. Students have 24/7 access to the course content. While there are due dates for assignments and activities, students can fit them into their existing schedule in the way that works best for them. Registration is open until September 30. For more details, visit

Highlights from Summer Institute 2019: Working with Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Families

4 Big Questions Early Childhood Professionals Have about Screening CLD Kids

We’re continuing our series recapping the 2019 MN Early Intervention Summer Institute, focusing today on Effective Practices for Dual Language Learners presented by Lillian Durán, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Special Education and Clinical Sciences at the University of Oregon. Dr. Durán began this information-rich session by making the case for bilingualism. In Minnesota, culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) families, including Hmong, Latino, and Somali families, are a growing part of our urban and rural communities. Research shows that supporting dual language learners’ native language as well as their acquisition of a second language benefits them in the short term and the long term.

Photo of a little girl practicing writing with a pen and paper
Supporting children’s fluency in their native tongue also enhances their skills in a second language.

For example, think of a 3-year-old who speaks Spanish with her family at home and is learning English at preschool. Will becoming fluent in Spanish interfere with her ability to learn English? Far from it. The evidence shows that supporting her Spanish will result in better academic outcomes in English. Not only that, but when she joins the workforce as an adult, being bilingual will be an economic advantage.

Dive deeper with online courses from CEED such as Working with Parents: Using Infant Mental Health Principles to Support Special Populations. See all of our professional development offerings.

Durán shared Four Big Questions that professionals like special education teachers and speech-language pathologists may share when working with CLD children:

Big Question #1: How should I screen and assess CLD children?

Prepare yourself by considering a family’s cultural background and  previous experiences. Prepare the family for your meeting by letting them know what is going to take place and how they are expected to participate. If an interpreter or cultural liaison is helping you, remember to set aside twice as much time for your meeting as you would otherwise—you don’t want to be rushed. The Pacer Center’s publications can help parents understand the process and what resources are available to them, and they are available in Spanish, Hmong and Somali.

Big Question #2: Which screening tools should I use?

Some standardized screening tools are available in Spanish, such as the Early Screening Inventory-Revised (ESI-R). The Ages and Stages Parent Questionnaire (ASQ-3 and ASQ:SE) is available in Spanish, Hmong, and Somali. But the availability of many tools in languages other than English is still limited. Consider other screening options—parent report, observation in natural settings, testing to the limits, and dynamic assessment (test-teach-retest), for example.

Say you are working with an interpreter. Could you simply ask him or her to translate a screening tool? The short answer is no. For one thing, developmental trajectories differ in different languages. For example, in some languages, children may learn more verbs before nouns, or the reverse may be true. Moreover, the assessment tool will have a cultural bias in the objects and concepts that the child is expected to know. Additionally, the interpreter would need early childhood assessment training for their report of the child’s responses to be accurate.

Big Question #3: How do I decide which language to test in?

Test in both—or all—languages, but not at the same time or on the same day. And don’t switch back and forth during testing.

Big Question #4: How do I take culture into consideration?

Interpreters and cultural liaisons can be incredibly helpful, but they must be properly trained. In the real world, interpreters often don’t receive sufficient training to understand your role and theirs, best practices for interpretation, and how families can benefit from what you have to offer.

When using standardized screening tools, ask yourself, “How might this family’s culture and background experiences influence development differently than the population on which the tests we are using were normed?” Make sure to document your answer to this question in your report.

A toddler and adult male caregiver play with paint as the toddler paints a spot on the man's nose.
Every child is unique, and every child’s language trajectory is different. Professionals should tailor their approach to the individual child and family.

The Talk With Me Manual from the Minnesota Speech-Language-Hearing Association features a wealth of information with links to further reading for professionals working with CLD families.

Dr. Durán emphasized that many factors shape second language acquisition, and that there is enormous variation between children. Tailor your approach to each young learner’s individual needs.

Thanks to our presenter, participants, and volunteers, and to the Minnesota Department of Education’s Division of Early Childhood Special Education–sponsors of the Summer Institute for the past 36 years. Check back for lots more from Summer Institute 2019!

Highlights from Summer Institute 2019: Why Getting Outdoors Is So Good for Us

And How Early Childhood Professionals Can Help Kids Get the Benefits

Today’s blog post comes from Ariel R. Blanchette, a graduate student in occupational therapy at St Catherine’s University. Ariel volunteered at the 2019 MN Early Intervention Summer Institute, helping out with a session on Using Nature-Based Play in Early Childhood Programs to Support Development for All Children. The presenters were Sheila Williams Ridge, Director of the Shirley G. Moore Lab School at the University of Minnesota, and Anna Dutke, Nature Preschool Teacher and Nature Preschool Program Developer with Prior Lake Savage Area Schools. Williams Ridge is the author, with Julie Powers, of the book Nature-based Learning for Young Children: Anytime, Anywhere, on Any Budget.

I had a blast at the Summer Institute as a volunteer this year. It was a great opportunity to learn more about early intervention and early childhood education. In the session that I helped with, I learned about the importance of nature in childhood development and strategized with peers about how to incorporate elements of nature and nature-based play into classroom environments. We discussed a lot over the two days, but really focused on different ways to use nature (leaves, sticks, rocks, treasure hunts, bugs, etc.) to accomplish Individualized Education Plan goals and meet standards for kids in early childhood programs.

Let’s zoom out for a moment from sticks and bugs to big questions like why and how. The truth is, as Ridge and Dutke made clear, not all classrooms have four walls. Outside is a classroom and kids engage in learning in a different way outdoors than they are able to indoors. Nature-based play contributes to their social, emotional, and physical health. Nature experiences can also help adults to engage some children whose behavior we may find challenging. It’s good for children, it’s good for our relationships with them, and it’s good for our classrooms as a whole.

The Center for Early Education and Development (CEED) offers several related online courses. This fall, CEED is offering Challenging Behavior in Early Childhood: Bridging Educational and Mental Health Strategies for Child-Specific Interventions. In spring 2020, courses will include Infant/Toddler Movement and Brain Development: Understanding the Critical Connection and Preschooler Movement and Brain Development: Promoting the Critical Connection.

Photo of Sheila Williams Ridge presenting a PowerPoint slide to attendees inside a classroom
We spent some time in a more traditional classroom…
Photo of participants standing on the bank of a pond on a sunny day
…and we also experienced nature-based learning.

Need more persuasion? I recommend doing the homework that Ridge and Dutke assigned to Summer Institute attendees. (It will take you less than half an hour, and then you will probably want to head outside!) They assigned these three TED talks that shed light on some of the problems that nature-based play just might be a solution to.

The REAL Reason Children Fidget, and What We Can Do about It. Pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom presents an evidence-based TED talk urging us to get outside with kids.

The Decline of Play. Researcher Peter Gray makes the case for free play to support children’s social and emotional development.

Nature Is Everywhere. We Just Need to Learn to See It. Environmental writer Emma Marris advocates for us to find nature not just in the wilderness but also in our own neighborhoods—no matter where we live.

I asked Ridge and Dutke what they thought was most important for participants to accomplish during this session. They had two answers:

  • They wanted participants to have solutions to the challenges of bringing students outside to a natural space (as opposed to a playground). 
  • They wanted participants to develop new ideas on how to incorporate the natural world into their own classrooms. 

I asked them what one thing they hoped participants would incorporate in practice tomorrow.  They hoped participants would walk away from the Summer Institute understanding the importance of nature-based learning in their classrooms and how to advocate for it.

Photo showing a long table covered with books about outdoor learning at home and at school
There are many resources available for professionals and parents alike.
(Pictured here are resources that are suitable for reading in a hammock.)

Ridge and Dutke encouraged participants to start small if that is what you (or your program) are ready for. Some resources to get ideas include:

And since we are in Minnesota, here’s the National Weather Service’s wind chill chart.

Thanks to our presenter, participants, and volunteer Ariel R. Blanchette, and to the Minnesota Department of Education’s Division of Early Childhood Special Education—sponsors of the Summer Institute for the past 36 years. Enjoy the outdoors this summer!

Highlights from Summer Institute 2019: Social Communication Intervention for Diverse Toddlers and Their Families

Routines-based Intervention with a Cultural Lens

We’re sharing more information from the 2019 Minnesota Early Intervention Summer Institute in today’s post on “Social Communication Intervention for Diverse Toddlers and Their Families,” presented by Sheri Tracy Stronach, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, Assistant Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders, University of Wisconsin – River Falls.

Early intervention professionals often work with families whose backgrounds differ from their own. Dr. Stronach reminded participants that each of us has a cultural background, and it is multifaceted. Building a solid relationship with a family depends upon acknowledging that the service provider and parent or caregiver may have different assumptions both about parenting and about communication.

Photo by Jeniffer Araújo on Unsplash

Different cultures have different guidelines for:

  • Personal space 
  • Eye contact 
  • Facial expressions 
  • Touch 
  • Silence 
  • Discourse

Our culture also influences our expectations for children. One difference between U.S. culture and other world cultures is the U.S. emphasis on individualism. American culture places a high value on independence and individual achievement. Broadly speaking, cultures in Asia or Latin America may instead foster a sense of collectivism. Parents with Asian or Latino cultural backgrounds might communicate with their children differently from American parents—for example, having more multiparty (as opposed to one-on-one) interactions or encouraging children to learn by observing rather than discussing what is happening.

If we value diversity, then why should these potential differences in communication styles matter? Simply put, they matter because our culture shapes our schools. Children of recent immigrants may be better prepared to succeed in American schools if they are familiar with the social communication patterns used in our education system.

Service providers can and should explain this to families so that they understand why they may be asked to practice communication patterns that they may not not used to.

Explore all of our professional development opportunities at the Center for Early Education and Development.

Dr. Stronach outlined the clinical implications for service providers working with diverse families.

  • Reducing racial and ethnic health disparities is a national priority
  • Clinicians need to be able to differentiate difference from disorder
  • Improved detection of early delays leads to earlier intervention

Increasingly, professionals are using routines-based intervention as a best practice. In routines-based intervention, the service provider begins by learning about a family’s existing routines and gathering information about communication patterns and opportunities between caregivers and children. Dr. Stronach stressed the value of observing and listening, keeping in mind that family members are the experts on their family, culture, and child. The provider’s role is to help the family decide how to integrate communication opportunities into their everyday lives.

Thanks to our presenter, participants, and volunteer Kirsten Maxam, and to the Minnesota Department of Education’s Division of Early Childhood Special Education—sponsors of the Summer Institute for the past 36 years. Check back for lots more from Summer Institute 2019!


Elizabeth D. Peña and Christine Fiestas, “Talking Across Cultures in Early Intervention: Finding Common Ground to Meet Children’s Communication Needs.” Perspectives on Communication Disorders and Sciences in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CLD) Populations, Oct. 2009.

Anne van Kleeck, Guiding Parents From Diverse Cultural Backgrounds to Promote Language Skills in Preschoolers With Language Disorders: Two Challenges and Proposed Solutions for Them. Perspectives on Language Learning and Education, Aug. 2013.