Early Intervention

Early Intervention

Learn what smart districts are doing to identify students' learning disabilities and enhance instruc

Assessment is everywhere. Even in places where you might not expect to find it. "We could not have a pre-K program without assessment," says Janice Royals, coordinator of the pre-kindergarten program for Atlanta Public Schools. In Atlanta, and increasingly across the country, Pre-K teachers are relying on assessment to drive instruction and plan activities.

Assessment has become a valuable instrument in the K-12 educators' toolbox, proving its merit by allowing teachers to identify students' specific learning needs. The next step is using assessment to formulate

lesson plans based on students' needs. Linking assessment with instruction enables teachers to better help students meet learning objectives.

In many districts, the assessment process begins in kindergarten or first grade. But targeted early intervention and instruction may have an exponential payoff. The earlier districts determine students' specific needs the sooner teachers can devise an educational plan to meet those needs.

Diagnosing Developmental Delays

"Many kids come to pre-school without a diagnosis [of a developmental delay]. Pre-school is often the first time parents realize there may be a significant developmental delay," explains Wilda Pipkin, special education preschool supervisor for Clayton County (Ga.) Schools. "Our end goal is to prep children for kindergarten," continues Pipkin. A multi-faceted approach to assessment helps Pipkin and her colleagues devise an appropriate plan to meet that goal for all kids.

In Clayton County's local birth to three program, pediatricians or parents may identify three- to five-year-olds suspected of having a developmental delay. After parents agree to a referral, the district sends them a developmental checklist. The list provides a broad overview of the child's development, covering items like basic speech skills and the ability to follow two-step directions. The next step is a vision and hearing check to identify specific needs.

A preschool diagnostic team, which typically consists of an educational diagnostician, speech and language pathologist and parent interviewer, meets weekly to review referrals and determine whether or not referred children need a full developmental assessment or a speech and language screening. An occupational or physical therapist or psychologist may join the diagnostic team if necessary.

For example, if a referral indicates a delay in motor skills development the occupational therapist participates in the review process. Children requiring only a speech and language screening are referred to the speech and language pathologist at the school the child would attend at age five.

Children requiring a full developmental assessment visit the Preschool Diagnostic Center for an assessment. The district uses a variety of standard early assessment tools including the Betel Developmental Inventory, Developmental Profile 2 and Vineland and DAYC assessments.

"Regardless of which tool we use, it is important that assessment is play-based," says Pipkin. For example, if the team needs to determine whether a child understands the concept "three," Pipkin may take the child to a play kitchen area to make a cake, asking the child to hand her three eggs. Assessments address five areas: social/emotional skills, gross and fine motor skills, receptive and expressive language, cognition and adaptive skills. At the same time, a parent interviewer meets with parents to gather additional data about the child's strengths and weaknesses.

The preschool diagnostic team reviews the assessment and parent data to determine the child's eligibility for various preschool programs.

Developing an IEP

After the team reviews its findings it crafts an individualized educational plan for each referred child. Students qualify for the district's special education preschool program if they score two standard deviations below the mean in one area or 1.5 standard deviations below the mean in at least two areas in an initial evaluation.

During the initial IEP meeting, the diagnostic team and parents discuss multiple, flexible instructional options based on kids' needs. Children may be referred to one of the district's 18 special education classrooms for one to five days weekly. Options for kids who don't qualify for special education preschool include the district's pre-k/four-year-old program or Head Start with an itinerant therapist providing services during the program. Or the therapist may visit the child's home or day care. IEPs may focus on learning or behavior management strategies as well.

"The assessment guides our development of the IEP, but it is important that it is not directly translated into IEP goals and objectives," cautions Pipkin. The other half of the assessment-IEP equation is the understanding that a relationship with the child provides the best foundation for development of skills. Instruction should combine assessment results and observations of the student's interests. If a child loves to throw balls, color or number concepts can be introduced when he is engaged in throwing. In this way, learning becomes relevant and emotionally based.

Preschool assessment continues with daily anecdotal observations of children's progress toward IEP goals and objectives. More formal progress reports are sent home every nine weeks. In addition, each teacher collects samples of the child's activities and keeps an ongoing portfolio to share with parents during conferences and meetings. Every spring, formal assessments are conducted as a post-test to determine the direction of children's educational plans, progress toward goals and objectives and development of new goals.

Improving Instruction

As children transition into kindergarten, the pre-k team forwards assessment results to kindergarten teachers. And, as the primary purpose of assessment is to improve instruction, the pre-k team shares successful strategies with kindergarten teachers. For example, if a child with behavioral challenges requires a visual scheduler (pictorial depiction of daily routine) to maintain behavior, the preschool team provide examples for the kindergarten. In this way, assessment comes full circle--from identifying the behavioral challenge to developing, implementing and disseminating strategies to improve learning.

It's important to remember assessment is not an exact science, notes Pipkin. In rare cases, assessment is off the mark. The child may enter preschool with significantly more skills than identified in the assessment process, or new characteristics may emerge indicating an alternate diagnosis. In these cases, the diagnostic team typically waits for a few weeks before holding a second IEP to re-evaluate the child and devise a more appropriate educational plan.

Laying the Groundwork For Success

"We know that children should have early education to prepare for kindergarten. The only way to know how to teach skills and concepts [needed in kindergarten] is to assess what children know," says Royals.

The Atlanta district relies on a variety of assessment tools in its 38 pre-k classrooms. The Brigance assessment provides a quick overview of students' knowledge of body parts, shapes, numbers and more. Teachers administer the basic assessment when students enter and exit pre-k. The Brigance score provides a first indicator of students who may have speech and language or developmental delays or behavior challenges.

The heart of the district's pre-k assessment program is a district-created pre-k assessment tool that complements its curriculum. The assessment is comprehensive and covers all domains, says Royals. All domains, in pre-k nomenclature, refers to language and literacy skills, large and small motor skills, math concepts, pre-writing and writing, reading readiness, interpersonal and social skills and self-help skills.

Teachers assess all pre-k kids three times annually. Pint-sized students aren't graded; instead teachers check for mastery or progress. "Assessment helps us determine where each child is and what skills we need to emphasize," says Royals.

Mastering Skills

Atlanta complements its formal assessments with anecdotal staff notes and student portfolios. The notes and portfolios serve a similar purpose: documentation indicating a child's mastery of specific skills.

At the next level, it pinpoints students who may need more than extra help. Twenty-five percent to 30 percent of students qualify for speech therapy. "The earlier we identify students and begin speech therapy the better off they are in kindergarten," says Royals. When assessment indicates a developmental delay, the student may be referred to pre-k special education referral team. Assessment also may point to behavior challenges. In these cases, the team helps teachers develop a behavior plan.

At the administrative level, Royals uses assessment to guide staff training. For example, if assessment reveals kids consistently not mastering a specific skill, Royals focuses on ways to teach that skill in staff development programs. Comprehensive pre-k assessment also ensures that pre-k classrooms meet state content standards, adds Royals.

Finally, assessment is an important part of parent-teacher conferences. Teachers share results with parents and provide suggestions for how to reinforce pre-k skills and concepts. The last piece of the assessment program is the parent evaluation; the district surveys parents about their needs and expectations for the pre-k program and gauge how pre-k meets their needs.

Lisa Fratt is a contributing editor.

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