Child Screening & Assessment

Readiness and Relationships: Issues in Assessing Young Children, Families, and Caregivers

Assessment should give a picture of the whole child, not just splinter skills and milestones, and it should also help to differentiate and expand parents and providers' perceptions of their babies. In early childhood, assessment is not the same thing as testing. Parents and teaching teams can learn that assessment is an essential element of good practice for children under three-years-old.

School readiness has become a near obsession in this country. Although no agreed-upon definition of readiness exists, children are now being asked to take standardized "readiness" tests as early as the beginning of first grade. This obsession with readiness has even gone below preschool and kindergarten. Recent years have witnessed an explosion of interest in infants' developing brains. Books and magazines are filled with information on how to "grow the best brains possible." Though some of this information is quite good, these publications fuel the view that infants' brains are essentially moldable as long as you intervene early enough, and that if you don't intervene early enough, you've missed the boat.

The critics of this interpretation of brain research complain that brain development is not over at age three, and they are correct. However, that does not free us from an obligation to nurture, support, and seek to advance the development of children during those years. What we do during the first three years is extremely important, even though much more growth and development is still to come.

An essential element of good practice in the first three years is assessment. Assessment should give a picture of the whole child, not just splinter skills and milestones, and it should help to differentiate and expand parents' and providers' perception of their babies. In early childhood, assessment is not the same thing as testing. Assessment should engage us in a process of ongoing discovery. It should be viewed as a collaborative process of observation and analysis that involves formulating questions, gathering information, sharing observations, and making interpretations to form new questions.

Functional Assessment

What does an assessment like this look like at a practical level? My colleagues and I make two assumptions in our work on new assessment tools. The first is that skills and behaviors that have functional applications should be the centerpiece of early intervention. A second is that positive relationships between infants and their primary care providers, both within and outside the family, advance development most effectively. In short, our overall purpose is to enhance relationships by strengthening infant/toddler competence and increasing parental and caregiver knowledge, information, and skills. We can do this through functional assessments.

Functional assessments focus on everyday, naturally occurring behaviors that are easily recognizable. In a functional approach, children do not have to score at a certain level or exhibit a certain type of behavior to achieve a certain acceptable score. Instead, we're trying to help parents and caregivers appreciate children's abilities in the first three years of life and think about how that relates to a whole range of other developmental indicators.

Functional assessments help families and service providers set goals. They also enable families and providers to work together to document accomplishments and identify areas in need of further development. This type of assessment provides a vehicle for families and service providers to learn to observe the child and contribute to the evaluation of his or her growth. It links intervention with assessment, programs with families, and families with young children's developing competence.

Returning to school readiness, we must begin to think of readiness as much more than a few skills seen in the first few weeks of kindergarten. Consistent with ZERO TO THREE's "Heart Start Indicators" described in the 1992 Head Start Report, The Emotional Foundations of School Readiness, the characteristics that equip children to come to school with knowledge of how to learn include confidence, curiosity, intentionality, self-control, and the ability to relate, communicate, and cooperate. To attain these readiness skills, children need a sense of self that can only be developed over time and through interactions with trustworthy and caring adults. We believe that functional assessments can contribute to these kinds of relationships.

We have reached a critical moment in the life of Head Start. Besieged by those who advocate a downward extension of K-12 testing practices, Early Head Start must remain strong in its commitment to children, families, and communities. It must remain committed to maximizing meaning in all aspects of its activities, and particularly in assessment. If we can use assessment data to enhance the child' s primary context the family then we will have engaged in something meaningful something that will open the doors to lifelong learning for untold numbers of children.

Sam Meisels is Professor of Education at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. T: 734-763-7306, E: smeisels at umich dot edu

Practices to avoid in assessments:

  • Young children should never be challenged during assessment by being separated from their parents or familiar caregivers.
  • An unfamiliar examiner should never assess young children.
  • Assessments that are limited to areas that are easily measurable, such as certain motor or cognitive skills, should not be considered complete.
  • Formal tests or tools should not be the cornerstone of an assessment of an infant or young child. (Greenspan & Meisels, 1996)

Functional assessments focus on everyday, naturally occurring, practical behaviors and accomplishments that are:

  • Easily recognized by parents and service providers,
  • Central to the emergence of infant and toddler competence,
  • Learned and assessed in context,
  • Form the fabric of the relationships between infants and their primary caregivers, and
  • Serve to elicit, support, and extend children's skills, abilities, and accomplishments.

The above is an excerpt from Head Start Bulletin by Samuel J. Meisels