It Takes a Village

NOTE: October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month

Courtney Hansen holding her two boys on their front porch.

Courtney with her twin sons on their first day of kindergarten in a new state. The boys play t-ball together, love Super Why, biking to the park, and are in the same kindergarten class.

A guest blog by Courtney Hansen. Courtney is a non-attorney special education advocate. She advocates at the local, state, and national level for disability rights, and blogs about it at www.inclusionevolution.com


My son with Down syndrome and his typically-developing twin brother just started kindergarten. The military also just moved us across country this past summer.

There’s been a lot of change this year, and I was often overwhelmed by the idea of my first-born twins starting “real” school in a new state. I cried like a baby their first day of school, but they just marched off to school like they owned the place. I was amazed, but realized that it was the result of years of preparation and help from so many different people. Having a son with a disability has shown me the value of “the village.”

About two years ago, I really started investigating the idea of a fully inclusive education for my son with Down syndrome. I even blogged about my ultimate goal: my twins graduating together in the year 2031.

For most other sets of twins graduating together wouldn’t be a goal, because it would just happen automatically. With lower graduation rates for students with disabilities compared to non-disabled students, and even lower rates for student with intellectual disabilities, I knew our path would be hard fought. It all starts in kindergarten of course. So, I worked tirelessly over the past two years to get where we are today. Both Hunter and Troy are in the same class, and Troy is 100 percent included with his typical peers with the appropriate supports to be successful.

Too many kindergarteners with intellectual disabilities don’t have the same opportunity as my son, even though federal and state laws require the continuum of placement to start in general education with appropriate supports. You might ask how I successfully got him included 100 percent of the time and if he really is being successful. I will tell you it all starts with the village, as well as learning you and your child’s rights.

1. Find Your Tribe

Social media can be a blessing and a curse, but for parents of children with disabilities it’s often an awakening.

Getting plugged into the Down syndrome community via social media helped me realize what is possible.

Even though we’ve lived in three states since our twins were born, I’ve been able to make friends in each state and around the country who have shaped my perspective on what it means to live and thrive with an intellectual disability.

Can my son go to college? Of course, because I just talked to Beth whose son with Down syndrome is moving across country to attend George Mason University.

Can Troy really find a meaningful career? Yes! Elizabeth’s son just got another promotion at Kroger.

These friends have pushed me to set high expectations for my son.

2. Lean on Experts

No doubt about it, you are the expert of your child.

When he was little you were up in the middle of the night with his croupy cough, and you’ll be there when he ages out of the system.

Still, we can learn so much from doctors, therapists, counselors, and teachers.

I’ve always taken a hands-on approach to my son’s endless therapy sessions and education.

I always set some of the private therapy and individualized education program (IEP) goals. In return, many doctors, therapists, and teacher have taken the time to really educate me on best practices in my son’s areas of need and given me functional tips to help my son at home.

3. Start Advocating

I started advocating early ensuring my son would receive an inclusive education with proper supports. I attended conferences and special education trainings to learn my son’s educational rights.

You can start local with school board meetings and school superintendents. Request training for teachers in best practices like Universal Design for Learning and Multi-Tiered System of Supports.

At the state level, I advocated for a bill that is now law in Ohio to end organ transplant discrimination for people with disabilities. Many disability organizations provide opportunities to advocate nationally either over social media or in person.

I attended the Buddy Walk on Washington, and had the opportunity to ask my U.S. Senators and House of Representatives to preserve important health care protections for people with disabilities and better fund IDEA. Positive change starts with you and me. So get out there; our children’s futures depend on it!

4. Take a Break

Most parents of children with disabilities are the most tenacious, hard-hitters I’ve ever met, but this heightened existence of higher highs and lower lows can take their toll on Type-A personalities like me.

I have to make a conscious effort to lean on friends and family outside of the disability community.

The military affords our family respite hours every month, and I use every last minute. The only way I can be a superhero for my son is if I take care of myself.

Parenting a child with a disability is a marathon, not a sprint.

Even with the strong start my son has, I know we will hit many bumps in the road.

Will I know when his needs aren’t being met? How will I ensure he’s included, but also gets the support he needs for a successful future?

My best answer is to lean on my village. I wish more people would embrace their “village.” Our children, community, and country would be better for it!

Courtney's two boys

Troy and Hunter


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Briana Harris, Tennessee Early Educator

Briana Harris

Briana Harris, lead teacher at the Cambridge Early Learning Center

Briana Harris is from Henderson, Tennessee, and currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a lead teacher at Cambridge Early Learning Center, which is part of the Metro Nashville Public Schools system. She earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Tennessee at Martin. She began her early learning career in Nashville as an educational assistant and interim teacher at the Martha O’Bryan Center. She is passionate about early childhood education, her family, and her three dogs!


ED: How did you begin your career in early learning and development?

BH: I’ve known since I was in kindergarten that I wanted to work in early childhood education. I had a difficult childhood. My experiences caused me to be a fragile child and I didn’t trust new people and was afraid of new situations. My kindergarten experience was critical for me. Was school going to be okay? Was it a safe place? I didn’t attend preschool, so kindergarten was my first school experience. My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Emily Brown, was everything I needed her to be for me as a child. She and her classroom were my safe place when I really needed one. I so clearly remember the love, grace, patience, and kindness I experienced that first year in school. She gave me a sense of belonging in a world that terrified me and I knew that I wanted to be just like her. I wanted to be a teacher and wanted to do for other children what she had done for me. She had the power to help me love school or hate school and I knew I wanted the opportunity to make children’s first year of school positive and meaningful.

My high school offered a program where students could spend time as a teacher’s aide, which was great for those of us interested in an education career. I worked in a first grade class for an hour every day. Then, when I went to college, I went into an elementary education program so I could become certified to teach PreK through third grade. Many people asked me why I was limiting myself, since I could get a degree in teaching kindergarten through 12th grade. This didn’t impact me because I knew that I was passionate about teaching young children. After graduation, I started working at the Martha O’Bryan Center in Nashville, Tennessee, which focuses on serving children living in poverty. It was a great experience and I eventually became a lead early childhood teacher. Then I began teaching at the Cambridge Early Learning Center, a center with only preschool classrooms that is part of the Metro Nashville Public Schools system. This is my third year teaching at Cambridge. I love being in an exclusively early childhood center — there is a lot of singing in the hallways! The downside is my students are only here for a year and I don’t have the opportunity to see them grow as they progress in older grades.

ED: What is your favorite thing about the beginning of the school year and what do you do to prepare for the first day?

BH: Getting to meet the new children and families. For the most part, the children are so excited. Some of them have been in child care or Head Start, but for many of them, it is their first time being in school. I take it very seriously that they enjoy their first school experience from the beginning. After looking at the names on my enrollment list, it really is fun to meet them in person.

In terms of preparation, I remind myself to be patient and go with the flow; having strict educational expectations for the first few days is unrealistic. It is often very hectic with parents and children crying and parents trying to take pictures, and I have to remind myself to be flexible.

Children's cubby cabinet

Children’s cubby cabinet

I want the kids to have a sense of belonging immediately. So, before the first day, I work hard to make sure the kids’ names are on their cubbies and in other places in the classroom. I also work to put pictures of the kids up within the first couple of days since many students don’t yet recognize their written name. We also get their artwork posted in the classroom early. It is really powerful for them to feel like they belong.

The first day can be hard on families, especially if it is their first or only child. The week before school we host Meet the Teacher Night, where families can bring their child in to meet me and see their classroom. This also gives families the chance to speak with me so we can begin to build trust. It is really important to give families the opportunity to ask me questions and see what I’m like. This event has been very successful. I can really tell the difference on the first day of school with children whose families were able to take advantage of coming in before the first day. The children usually settle in much easier.

Some parents have a hard time saying goodbye to their child, particularly on that first day. One of the things I tried to do this year was to have a place outside the classroom where they could take their first day of preschool photo so that after the photo was taken they could say goodbye and their child could enter the class on their own. In our school, we have an archway near the entrance and we really encourage families to say goodbye there. We try to foster independence at the beginning of the year with the kids and work with families to help them understand that this is a good thing!

ED: How do you know if the first day was a success?

BH: I like to think of it as a success if the children leave with smiles on their faces. We often have tears at the beginning of that first day, but if they leave school with smiles and say they want to come back by the end of the day then I think it was a success. We might have tears again on the second morning, but again, if they leave happy by the end of the day then I think it was a success. It might still be scary to get dropped off, but those smiles show me that they did have fun and enjoy school, which is my goal for those first few days.

ED: What advice do you have for other early learning teachers on strategies to use at the beginning of the school year, to make the rest of the year a success?

BH: My advice is to systematically focus on building strong social and emotional skills for the first month to six weeks. Our school uses the Pyramid Model for promoting social and emotional competence in young children and we start implementing this on the first day. We did home visits a couple of weeks ago and many parents wanted to know when we were going to teach letters and numbers. We share with families how important it is that we start out with a focus on social-emotional skills. Starting school is a huge transition for kids. Children need to be able to identify their emotions and develop skills for how to deal with different emotions. We start the year learning our schedule and routines, discussing what is expected of members of our classroom, exploring how to be kind to one another, and understanding that it is okay to get upset while learning skills to calm ourselves. We also spend a lot of time on problem-solving, including how to be fair with one another and how to solve problems without needing an adult. The children need to learn to function successfully as a class and by spending the time on social and emotional competencies those first several weeks of school, classroom management is easier and the entire year can be practically seamless. After that, you can easily dive into the academics.

On a last note, recently, our state recognized the importance of social-emotional development. In January 2018, they released updated Tennessee Early Learning Standards for four-year-olds in our state. I was very happy to see that the updated standards strengthened the importance of social-emotional development. This is all so important because, if children don’t feel safe and loved in their classrooms, they aren’t going to be able to learn!


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Briana Harris (thumbnail)
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Briana Harris Lead Teacher Cambridge Early Learning Center Nashville, Tennessee

“Voices from the Field” Interview: Dan Gaffney, Leading Efforts to Improve and Expand Early Childhood Opportunities in Northwest Oregon

Dan Gaffney

Dan Gaffney

Dan Gaffney is a veteran educator and administrator, having spent 17 years with the Seaside School District in Oregon as an elementary principal and special education director. He later coordinated Clatsop County’s Preschool—Third Grade (P-3) Collaboration project to align programs and professional development for those working and involved with the education and care of children from birth to age 8. He also developed and directed Clatsop County’s early childhood health and education screening for 3 years. Dan has served on Oregon’s Northwest Early Learning Hub Governance Committee and Clatsop County’s Way to Wellville Strategic Council. Most recently, Dan directed the U.S. Department of Education-funded Preschool Pay for Success Feasibility Study involving Clatsop and Tillamook Counties in Oregon.


ED: How did you begin your career in education and then choose to focus on the importance of early learning?

Dan: I spent 37 years as a K–12 educator. First as a teacher, 13 years as elementary principal, and four years as a special education and English language learner director. All of these experiences really helped me understand the importance of the early childhood years. Being a special education director connected me with a broader education community that includes the medical community working with preschoolers who have or are suspected of having a disability. During the last five years, I’ve worked on preschool to third grade alignment. This has involved working with early childhood experts and the medical community to run a health and development screening clinic available to families with young children in our community. It has addressed a need in our community and connected these families much earlier to both the educational and health systems.

Our community is relatively rural, about 100 miles from Portland, Oregon, and on the coast. One of the things that struck me when I moved here 30 years ago is that people here are resourceful and pull together when there is a need. We find ways to address challenges which can be hard when you are far from a major metropolitan area. Our poverty rates continue to grow. In the elementary school where I was principal, 35 percent of students qualified for free and reduced lunch when I first started. Now, 17 years later, almost 70 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Our community has also become much more diverse with schools seeing increasing numbers of English language learners. Recognizing these changes in our community broadened my awareness of the challenges families with young children experience and led me to early childhood advocacy work. It also connected me to others at the state and local level working to improve early learning opportunities for young children in need. It has been fun and rewarding working with others who are passionate about improving services and programs for families and young children.

ED: What efforts have you and your community been involved in to improve the quality of early childhood programs and services?

Dan: I coordinated Clatsop County’s Preschool—Third Grade (P-3) Collaboration (funded through the Oregon Community Foundation). This project supported the alignment of educational programs, parenting programs and professional development for early childhood providers, school district teachers and administrators, healthcare professionals, and others involved in the education and care of children from birth to age 8. We called this initiative Clatsop Kinder Ready and brought together leaders from our Hispanic community and county government, preschool and K–12 educators, and others who delivered services to our young learners. That led us to do early childhood health and education screening clinics where families could bring in preschool-aged children and receive free health, developmental, and education screenings, and if needed, follow up with appropriate services. We conducted a couple of these each year. This effort relied on many volunteers—nursing students from the college, local Head Start staff, interpreters from the Hispanic Council, local high school students, elementary school staff, physicians, school psychologists, and others. We also provided transportation support when needed. It was a great example of the community working together.

Then, the state started funding Early Learning Hubs, which are charged with getting cross-sector partners to work together to create local systems that provide families and young children with the support they need. Our Northwest Early Learning Hub was able to take on the screenings, and now the hub is working to improve the link between screenings and the need for appropriate referrals and further evaluation.

A new piece of this work that our community started last year is the Welcome Baby project. The group that worked together under Clatsop Kinder Ready recognized we needed to do something to connect with families of new babies. Following the successful work in other Oregon communities who developed a welcome box, we decided to create welcome baby baskets that include needed baby supplies and a community ABC book. In the ABC book, each letter of the alphabet represents a service available in the community. Last I heard, we had given out over 100 of these in the two local hospitals where each family also connects with a social worker. Last May, we held a county-wide baby shower and invited all the families of babies that had been born in the last year to meet other families and service providers. Participants shared information about different programs and services available for young children and families. The county health department is going to take on the Welcome Baby program and we hope it can be sustained. It has increased awareness and excitement about the importance of these early years and what’s available to help families.

ED: How has your community benefitted from your Preschool Pay for Success (PFS) Feasibility Study and other early learning efforts?

Dan: We were thrilled we had the opportunity to explore how to expand high-quality preschool programs in our community through the Preschool PFS Feasibility Study. More specifically, the purpose of the study was to determine whether or not PFS was a feasible approach for this. Complementing the study were efforts by the Sorenson Impact Center at the University of Utah. Their data experts came in and helped us examine data from eight local school systems and Oregon’s Department of Education that could help inform our efforts.

There have been many benefits of conducting the PFS feasibility study. First, it broadened our set of partners engaged in our early learning work. Having a grant from the U.S. Department of Education really helped us to connect with partners at the University of Utah, the state, and other early learning partners and to form true collaborations. One of the unique partners we have here is the Coast Guard. We have over 600 Coast Guard families living in the county and two additional ships are being reassigned to our area. Our partnership with the Coast Guard extends to serving the needs of their families. They are interested in exploring what they can do and offer in terms of resources to help their families and the broader community around early learning. Our project also attracted interest from state leaders within the education department’s early learning division and the Children’s Institute, Oregon’s largest children’s advocate organization.

Second, and this excited people from the beginning, the study allowed us to pull together data we hadn’t had time or resources to pull together before. This renewed look at data solidified many of our assumptions but also provided us with new information. For example, we now have data showing us that the mobility of families in our community is a big issue. We can see the percentages of our students that are moving regularly across the eight school districts in our community; these data will be helpful in responding to this issue and better meeting the needs of our transient students. Data were really valuable for internal planning and when reaching out externally to clearly demonstrate the extent of our community’s needs. It made a case for expanding high-quality preschool and helped us develop specifics for how to reach families with young children.

Third, through the feasibility study we conducted a cost benefit analysis of preschool expansion and resulting transportation needs in our community. This helped us understand its cost and potential benefits, and understand when and how those benefits occur. Finally, being part of a feasibility study allowed us to consider doing things a little bit differently. We were new to the PFS concept, but it has helped us think about how we can expand on what worked for some of our families and children with the greatest needs.

ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in expanding access to high-quality early learning programs?

Dan: Collaborate; don’t try to do it on your own. Find out who else has interest, expertise, and connections that are beneficial to not just families and children, but to the overall community. Think about connecting with businesses and your local chamber of commerce. For example, we learned one of our local fish processing centers was looking at buying slots in a local child care program and building that into their employees’ compensation so they could retain high-quality workers. We then brought them into our efforts since they were motivated to support their employees.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to leaders who might seem like they aren’t interested. Have your two minute elevator speech ready—be concise about what you are doing and why, and what the possibilities are. Over the course of my career, and with much practice, I have learned how to make a compelling pitch and have refined my approach with leaders.

Finally, be ready for ups and downs. There definitely isn’t an easy path in this work, but when you have a core group that is committed and willing to dream together and work together, you can keep the momentum going.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Kate Roper and Eve Wilder, Massachusetts Early Childhood Comprehensive Systems Project

Eve Wilder and Kate Roper

Eve Wilder and Kate Roper

Kate Roper is the Assistant Director of Early Childhood Services in the Bureau of Family Health and Nutrition at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH). Roper oversees several state and federal grants, including Project LAUNCH and Early Childhood Comprehensive Systems (ECCS) grants, and co-leads the Massachusetts Pyramid Model State Leadership Team. Roper has been in the field of early childhood education since 1978 as an infant teacher, teen parent child care director, trainer, adjunct faculty member, and independent consultant and curriculum developer.

Eve Wilder is the ECCS Coordinator at DPH’s Bureau of Family Health and Nutrition. Wilder has managed early childhood projects at DPH through the state’s ECCS grant for over 7 years. She has worked to strengthen early childhood systems of care in a variety of capacities since 2005, from providing home-based services to young children with autism spectrum disorders, to policy and program development at the Massachusetts legislature and DPH.


ED: How did you begin your career in early childhood?

Kate: I’ve always had a passion for understanding why people become forces for good. So, in college, I ended up with a joint major in psychology and education. I became more interested in early childhood by spending time in the nursery school on campus. At first I thought focusing on kindergarteners was too old, and then I decided focusing on preschoolers was too old. In my first job out of college, I ended up as an infant teacher in a child care program that was focused on supporting families going back to work. Here I gained an understanding of the importance of working with the whole family. Later, I earned a master’s degree in human development and worked with high-school-aged young parents. I started working alongside social workers and guidance counselors, and became familiar with the family systems model, where the family is central to supporting healthy development in their young child. I also began adjunct-teaching at local colleges on early childhood development and started consulting with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH).This eventually led to a position working directly for the DPH Bureau of Family Health and Nutrition. In 2003, Massachusetts was awarded an Early Childhood Comprehensive Systems (ECCS) grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS’) Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). I started working on the ECCS grant which, at that time, was very open-ended and focused on coordinating across systems of family support, parenting education, early education and care, health, and mental health. Eventually, in 2006, I became the director of our ECCS grant. That year was also the inaugural year of the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) and we partnered with them to build a strong emphasis on mental health. In 2009, we received a Project LAUNCH (Linking Actions for Unmet Needs in Children’s Health) grant from HHS’ Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and I took on leading that project as well.

Eve: My career in early childhood started in college. I volunteered at a family shelter where I helped to provide child care. There was a boy living with his mom at the shelter who, at the age of four, was diagnosed with autism. I was blown away by the lack of supports for him and his mom and the late age of his diagnosis. That really motivated me to learn more about the various systems in place to help children and families—health, education, and social services—and to identify and find solutions to cross-systems-level issues. After I graduated from college, I became a specialty early intervention provider under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Part C, where I worked for several years providing home-based services to young children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). I learned first-hand how the family and community context impacts child development. I then had an opportunity to work as a legislative aide for a member of our state legislature. It was fascinating working on the policy side, helping draft bills related to early childhood health and development. Eventually I earned a master’s degree in public health. I became a Leadership Education and Neurodevelopmental Disability (LEND) program fellow, and was able to focus on systems and policy issues impacting children with special health care needs. I started at DPH as a graduate student intern working with Kate and came on as staff when a position opened up on the ECCS grant. I’ve been at DPH for seven years working on both ECCS and the state’s Early Learning Challenge (ELC) grant.

ED: What efforts have you and your organization been involved in to improve the quality of early childhood programs and services?

Kate: For the first eight years of our ECCS grant we mostly functioned as a convening and development office that served any of the state’s early childhood collaborative projects and technical assistance (TA) opportunities. For example, we worked with the Children’s Trust to bring Strengthening Families to the state; and with EEC to being implementing the Pyramid Model. We convened a state leadership team for Pyramid Model implementation. We also used our convening power to develop an Early Childhood Mental Health Strategic Plan, which led the state to apply for and receive a SAMHSA systems of care grant and our Project LAUNCH grant. Our efforts were really focused on working with other state agencies to develop initiatives that benefit young children. It worked out nicely that during this phase, EEC invited us to the table when they applied for and were awarded the ELC grant. As one of four agencies within the state to receive ELC funding, we helped lead efforts to develop coordinated TA focused on trauma-informed care and family mental health. We also helped bring more of a health focus to child care in the state by building capacity in regional offices and by hiring regional nurses.

Eve: Prior to the ELC grant and regional nurses, our ECCS grant built capacity for health consultants supporting early learning and care programs. These consultants provided basic information when it came to working with children with complex medical needs or addressing the outbreak of a virus. When we put four regional nurses into the field, it was great because they provided direct medical support around medication administration (including asthma and severe allergies), worked with young children with diabetes, helped address the obesity crisis, and more. Unfortunately, when the ELC grant ended, we were not able to find a way to sustain this health work, including funding for the nurse positions. We have, however, tried to maximize the resources that were developed under ELC through TA and train-the-trainer approaches. We’ve had to be creative and adaptable in partnering with colleagues within DPH and across the early education field to sustain many components of the work.

ED: How has your ECCS project evolved over time?

Eve: In 2012, HRSA changed the guidance for ECCS and increased its emphasis on infants and toddlers. For our grant, we chose to address and mitigate toxic stress on the development of infants and toddlers in two local communities, Springfield and Chelsea. The first phase of this work had fewer defined parameters so our two communities did a lot of relationship building, including identifying a common vision for addressing toxic stress. We are now in the later phase, known as the ECCS Impact Project, which has additional structure, a focus on measuring our impact, and increased funding. As an ECCS grantee, we are part of a Collaborative Improvement and Innovation Network (CoIIN), which is a multidisciplinary team of federal, state, and local leaders working together to tackle a common problem. HRSA supports CoIINs that address a range of topics. We participate in the ECCS COIIN. The primary aim of the ECCS grant is to show a 25-percent increase in age-appropriate developmental skills among our participating communities’ 3-year-old children. With our two communities and our state-level partners, we discussed and defined what that means for us. Once we did this, the CoIIN guided us through using a Plan-Do-Study-Act methodology to impact change.

When we first convened our teams in Chelsea and Springfield, we focused on identifying where the needs were in these communities. We found that we have a strong IDEA Part C system, relatively high levels of developmental screening, and nearly universal health insurance coverage for children. However, we are still challenged by persistent inequities in health and development outcomes for young children of color and those living in poverty. Through a partnership with a local United Way program’s developmental screening initiative, we are training parents from the communities on how to use the Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ), a developmental screening tool, and how to reach out to families that are not connected to existing programs. We do this through local institutions and establishments such as libraries, parks, and laundromats. This approach is focused on building connections to isolated or not-yet-engaged families, talking with them about their child’s development and, if there are any concerns, helping these families connect to resources and services.

Another exciting piece of this ECCS grant is a coordinated database for ASQ that we are building in partnership with the United Way. Parent screeners enter screening data into the database, and then other programs (with a data sharing agreement) can see the data at the aggregate community level. The goal is to begin to identify trends in the community. We have found this to be particularly helpful in Boston. When we were completing the ECCS grant application, we realized that we didn’t have a consistent health and development measure for young children at the population level, and this ASQ database has been our first step towards developing one. We are also exploring how we might build on some data integration efforts that DPH is undertaking, including a community-level dashboard that includes aggregate data, as well as ways to use de-identified but matched data across data sets. This allows us to look at aggregate data from various data sets (and keep individual data private) so we can identify areas of risk and the outcomes of interventions. The final piece of our ECCS grant that we’re trying to accomplish is to make more of a collective impact in the state, across agencies and funders, by building processes and networks that sustain the work.

ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in using systems-level work to improve early childhood services and programs?

Kate: Cross-systems work is really powerful, and having HRSA funding for the convening and systems-building work in our state has been extremely useful. We recommend you start with a small project; build trust; and learn about other agencies’ and partner organizations’ strengths, expertise, and resources. Sustainability is always a challenge, so bring it into the work from the very beginning. Try to be creative and intentional about bringing outside partners in to help.

The other suggestion we have is to keep showing up to meetings. Attend those meetings where at first you aren’t comfortable, but eventually you can learn the language of that other system. For example, the word “assessment” means something different depending on who you are talking to and about. As you bring together folks from different disciplines and programs, become a translator across systems. ECCS has allowed us to be like Switzerland, a neutral convener. And always remember the focus of this work that we’re doing: it’s about children and families.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Kate Roper
Posted by
Assistant Director of Early Childhood Services, Bureau of Family Health and Nutrition, MA Department of Public Health
Eve Wilder
Posted by
Early Childhood Comprehensive Systems Coordinator, Bureau of Family Health and Nutrition, MA Department of Public Health

She Will Never…

Note: May is Better Hearing and Speech Month.

Rene Averitt-Sanzone

Rene Averitt-Sanzone
Executive Director
Parents’ Place of Maryland

Those were the words I heard over and over again when my oldest child was born 27 years ago. She will never read past a third grade reading level; she can only hope for a menial or labor-oriented job; this is the best her writing will ever be so maybe you should just accept it, maybe you are in denial. Sound familiar? I am sure that I am not alone as a mom. Many of us have heard these words from well-meaning and well-intended professionals who are only trying to help.

In July of 1990, I gave birth to a very healthy and beautiful baby girl, Laurin. I mean, she was adorable (seriously, picture the Gerber baby. That was Laurin.). She seemed to be doing everything ahead of the developmental milestones: crawling, sitting up, etc. But then, on Christmas when Laurin was five months old, my sister came to me and said, “I just tripped and knocked over some pots and pans behind Laurin and she didn’t startle.”

It is safe to say that this single moment radically changed my world.

Throughout the next month, I tested Laurin’s hearing: clapping my hands behind her, clanging pots and pans, you name it. Yes, sometimes she turned and other times she did not. What’s a mom to do? It was then time for Laurin’s six-month well-baby checkup. I told our family doctor that I thought there might be a problem with Laurin’s hearing. His fateful response was, “It seems unlikely, but you are her mother and you know her best. Let’s just get her hearing checked.” All I could visualize was my Gerber baby sitting with big clunky headphones strapped on her head. How in the world could they test her hearing? All I knew of hearing tests was from my elementary school days—sitting very still, listening intently for a beep so I could raise my hand. Before we walked out of our doctor’s office, we had an appointment to see an audiologist.

The next few weeks were a blur—lots of crying, lots of testing, lots of unknowns, and then the audiology appointment. To be honest, I was so lost. It was like I stepped into a whole other world—one of strange words and acronyms, ABR, amplification, speech banana, Db, frequency… this was just the start of all of the special education lingo that was to follow shortly after our audiology appointment. So yes, Laurin’s auditory brainstem response (ABR) was basically a flat line. I’m not sure exactly what I felt, but I can say that Laurin was clueless. All she wanted to do was to play and explore the world around her. Our audiologist broke the news to us in a very direct and factual way, which was such a relief. He also said that he could be wrong. We went for a second ABR and his diagnosis was confirmed—she was profoundly deaf in both ears. Bilateral deafness; yes, another new vocabulary term added to my repertoire.

Looking back, I didn’t realize that the diagnosis was the easy part of this journey. After the diagnosis, our audiologist informed us that we needed to decide on a methodology. Huh? Consider amplification. Hmm? He also shared that there were very strong and opposing opinions about what were the best ways to teach children who are deaf. Later I learned that this was an understatement. He sent us off to do our research. Now remember, this was 27 years ago, and there was no internet. We went old school: our local library. We checked out every book they had on deafness and began to read.

I also received a wide array of advice: there is a residential program 30 minutes down the road; do not take no for an answer. I clung to this advice, which firmly cemented that I was Laurin’s mom and I had to make the decisions. It came from a Parent Educator at the Exceptional Children’s Assistance Center, North Carolina’s PTI (parent training and information center). Little did I know, my Parent Educator would later become my confidant and mentor. Just knowing that she was on the other end of the phone, or joining us for a training session, was such reassurance as we journeyed through Laurin’s life.

Four years later, we decided to have another baby. We felt like we had things somewhat under control. Laurin was fully included with her peers in our local childcare program. The school system was doing all kinds of creative supports and services for her. Her team and I decided that it was time for a cochlear implant. I had it all mapped out: surgery on June 1, second baby the middle of July—what could go wrong? Everyone told me that Laurin’s deafness was a fluke, right?

Her sister came on the fourth of July, and yep, you guessed it, she was another baby who was deaf. I wish I could say that I didn’t cry, but I did. However, this time I was a pro at the vocabulary and acronyms. This time, her big sister had already blazed the trail. Fast forward 20 plus years, and I am an empty nester. Both girls are grown and married. The youngest graduated college two years ago. And Laurin, her big sister? Well, as someone who was told she’ll struggle, and of course never earn academic honors…she of course graduated high school with honors, in the top 10% of her class; went onto college (which wasn’t for her); lived abroad; worked a variety of jobs until she figured out her path; and will graduate from college this May!

To say that I am proud of both of my daughters is the understatement of the century. I’d like to think that I played a role in their success and accomplishments, but truth be told, they came into this world as amazing women! It took persistence, and truly a village’s worth of blood, sweat, and tears from more people than I can name to make success and happiness a reality for them.

So what’s next for me? Hopefully grandbabies one day!


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Improving Early Childhood Intervention

Note: May is Better Hearing and Speech Month.

The Early Childhood Personnel Center (ECPC) logo

Infancy and early childhood are important times of life for all children, but more so for those who have delays in development. These delays may be from genetic conditions, disabilities, various risk conditions, or unknown reasons. While families may be the first to recognize a difference in their child’s developmental progress, professionals trained and licensed in early childhood intervention have the skills and knowledge to detect a developmental delay and to then provide intervention to remediate and/or minimize its impact on a child’s development.

Traditionally, professionals train in a single discipline that usually corresponds to an area of development. For example, speech-language pathologists are experts in the development of communication. Likewise, physical therapists are experts in a child’s physical or motor development. Additionally, most disciplines are trained to offer services and intervene across a broad age range—the lifespan of an individual. When a person completes a program of study in a discipline, the individual is then licensed in that discipline to provide services to persons across the lifespan.

These training and licensing practices create two challenges to providing effective early childhood intervention to infants and young children and their families:

  • Interventions may be focused to specific areas of development by discipline specific interventionists (e.g. an occupational therapist provides specific motor intervention and does not incorporate any other areas of development into her therapy/intervention); and
  • Interventions may be provided by a person who does not have any specific experience or competence in infancy or early childhood.

To address these challenges, the Early Childhood Personnel Center (ECPC), which is funded by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) at the U.S. Department of Education, joined representatives from seven national organizations to examine the professional knowledge, skills and competencies that all disciplines should have when providing intervention to infants and young children.*

First, ECPC identified personnel standards (i.e., knowledge and skill statements) for each of the disciplines represented by the organizations. This yielded 752 individual standards. The organizations and ECPC aligned and reduced these standards until four thematic areas emerged that encompassed all disciplinary standards. Representatives of the seven organizations endorsed these as equally important to all disciplines providing early childhood intervention services. These representatives also operationally defined each area, which are contained in the following table:

Operationalized Definitions of the Four Core Competency Areas

CORE COMPETENCY AREA DEFINITION
Family Centered Practice Family-Centered Practice is culturally competent practice in natural settings that involves and actively engages the family in decision-making and the provision of services/therapy.
Interventions Informed by Evidence Evidenced Based intervention requires the use of scientifically based evidence to inform all screening, assessment, intervention/instruction and evaluation delivered to an individual child and family. Databased intervention and instruction refers to the process of collecting data about a child’s level of performance and designing and implementing a plan (e.g. IEP, IFSP) of instruction/ intervention that is evidence-based and focused on remediating a child’s and family’s needs.
Coordination and Collaboration Coordination and collaboration refers to working across professionals from other disciplines and community organizations in every facet of intervention/instruction.
Professionalism Professionalism requires all who provide early childhood intervention to have knowledge and skills in the laws, policies, practices that govern their professional discipline. It also requires that all in early childhood intervention demonstrate professional ethics and advocacy with each infant, young child and family they work with. Professionals in early childhood intervention will also take responsibility to improve their knowledge and skills through professional development and self-reflection.

The organizations’ boards endorsed these areas and definitions, and the organizations are now working with the ECPC to identify and validate indicators for each competency area. Training and materials will then be developed for both preservice and in-service audiences to teach and support early intervention professionals from multiple disciplines to provide interventions for the infants and young children across developmental areas.

It should be noted that these competencies will not replace the need for therapists and teachers to retain expertise and be licensed in their own discipline to address the needs of the infant or child. Rather, it will help ensure the effectiveness of integrating all developmental areas into a child’s interventions.


* The seven organizations included: The Council of Exceptional Children (CEC), the Division of Early Childhood (DEC), the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and Zero to Three.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Will Eiserman, ECHO Initiative

Will Eiserman with a back pack in the woods

Will Eiserman, Director, Early Childhood Hearing Outreach (ECHO) Initiative at Utah State University.

Will Eiserman is the Director of the Early Childhood Hearing Outreach (ECHO) Initiative, at the National Center for Hearing Assessment and Management, Utah State University. As Director of the ECHO Initiative, he has led a national effort to assist Early, Migrant, and American Indian/Alaska Native Head Start programs in updating their hearing screening and follow-up practices. Working in close collaboration with a team of pediatric audiologists and other Early Hearing and Detection Initiative (EHDI) experts, Eiserman has been responsible for the design of training systems, mechanisms for tracking and follow-up, and evaluation strategies associated with early and continuous hearing screening activities. His career has focused on a variety of efforts to improve early intervention systems for children with special needs, and on meeting the psycho-social needs of children with craniofacial disfigurements and their families. Eiserman’s perspective is influenced by his extensive international and cross-cultural experiences that include work in Ecuador, Vietnam, Costa Rica, Russia, and Indonesia.


ED: How did you begin your career in early learning and development?

WE: I first earned my doctorate in educational research and development, and then had an opportunity to do post-doctoral work in early intervention research that was funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). The project, based at Utah State University, looked at a common set of assumptions about early intervention for young children with disabilities and developmental delays. This was back in the late 1980s, and we were exploring questions such as, “Is early really better in terms of when we intervene with children with disabilities? Is more intervention better than less? What types of interventions are more effective with children experiencing different types of developmental delays?” It was really exciting. Ours was part of the research that set the stage for developing the early intervention (EI) and early childhood special education (ECSE) programs that are now under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

I continued my work on EI/ECSE when I moved to the University of West Florida, where we focused on inclusion and family engagement. We provided a lot of training and technical assistance (TA) for local programs on supporting the role of families in EI, and helped programs think of ways to provide interventions for young children with disabilities in more inclusive environments. I then had an international opportunity through a Fulbright fellowship in Indonesia, where I taught research and development methods in social sciences.

A common thread across these experiences is the social integration and empowerment of individuals with special needs or disabilities. They allowed me to see how often there is a constellation of variables that impact the social placement of individuals with disabilities, and how that can be addressed through policies and support.

ED: What are periodic hearing screenings and why are they so important for healthy early learning and development?

WE: When you ask early childhood educators what is important for young children, one of the things they discuss is language development. Language is at the heart of social-emotional development, cognitive development, and school readiness. As conscientious as most early childhood professionals are about promoting language, there is less awareness about the importance of monitoring the status of hearing throughout the early years of development. We tend to think about language primarily as expressive, but we are not as attentive to receptive abilities. Monitoring children’s hearing status is an important investment in healthy language development. If there are concerns, we can intervene and ensure there is minimal impact on language development.

I direct the Early Childhood Hearing Outreach (ECHO) Initiative, which is part of the National Center for Hearing Assessment and Management (NCHAM). NCHAM has been funded for over 25 years by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Health Resources and Services Administration’s Maternal and Child Health Bureau (HRSA/MCHB) as a national resource center. It has been instrumental in expanding

  1. hearing screenings, and
  2. the follow-up that may be necessary based on the results of the hearing screening for young children.

Over the last two decades, significant advancements have been made through the provision of newborn hearing screenings. These screenings are now available to more than 95 percent of the children born in the U.S. This is transformative and has dramatically changed the life landscape for individuals who are born hard-of-hearing or deaf.

The work of the ECHO Initiative arose from the observed success of newborn hearing screening efforts across the nation. Recognizing the significant changes newborn hearing screening represented for children and families, the HHS Head Start Bureau (now Office of Head Start) raised an important question about the technology that was making newborn hearing screening possible: whether any of it could be used to continually monitor the status of hearing for the children ages birth–3 years old who were being served in Early Head Start (EHS) programs. Head Start and EHS programs are required to ensure that all children in their programs receive evidence-based hearing screenings. We couldn’t think of any reason why the newly available technology wouldn’t work with this population, but it had never been done. This would require EHS program staff to be trained to screen young children with the Otoacoustic Emissions (OAE) screening method. While research suggested increased likelihood that continuous screening would result in additional identification of children with hearing loss as a result of late-onset or progressive loss, we weren’t sure what we would actually find.

The ECHO Initiative began as a pilot project with a handful of EHS programs in three states: Oregon, Washington, and Utah. From this pilot we discovered that yes, we can train early childhood program staff to conduct the OAE screenings and, in fact, staff often already had the set of skills most needed for conducting the screenings—getting young children to cooperate! Additionally, we found that when you screen 0–3-year-olds with the OAE, you do in fact find children with hearing loss that have not been previously identified. Newborn hearing screening programs have been shown to identify approximately three babies in 1,000 with permanent hearing loss. We found that in the 0–3-years-old range, subsequent to newborn screening, we typically identify another one to three children in 1,000 who have permanent hearing loss. This finding was consistent with research that had suggested the incidence of permanent hearing loss doubles between birth and the time children enter school; from about three in 1,000 at birth, to about six in 1,000 when children reach school-age. This finding was very compelling and led to what has been a multi-decade commitment from the Office of Head Start, in collaboration with HRSA/MCHB, to support the provision of evidence-based hearing screening and follow-up practices for all children in EHS and Head Start across the nation. This has occurred through the availability of online resources, training, and TA. Our website includes a broad array of resources and information about training and TA opportunities that help promote evidence-based hearing screening for young children.

ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced in promoting regular hearing screenings, and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?

WE: Obviously, the use of technology nearly always involves some costs. Hearing screening equipment has associated costs, whether you’re using OAE, the recommended hearing screening method for children 0–3 years of age, or Pure Tone screening (historically used with 3–5-year-olds). Training is critical and needs to be provided in a timely fashion. It should also respond to high staff turnover, which is a reality in nearly all early care and education environments. To address these needs, the ECHO Initiative offers online trainings. We also partner with audiologists in locations across the country who can assist individual programs to conduct evidence-based hearing screening and follow-up practices.

Another challenge inherent in implementing any health or educational screening program has to do with ensuring the necessary follow-up occurs when children do not pass. There are multiple reasons why a child might not pass a hearing screening. Our data show that about 25 percent of children in the birth-to-age-3 range don’t pass the initial OAE hearing screening on one or both ears. We don’t recommend, however, that all of those children be referred for further evaluation. Instead, our protocol recommends screening these children again in 2 weeks, at which point we consistently see the “not pass” rate decline to about 8 percent. This may be due to screener error during the first screening; a transient condition that caused fluid in the middle ear and prevented an ear to pass the screening; or even a temporary wax blockage that worked its way out during the transpiring 2 weeks. For children who don’t pass the second screening, we recommend families go to a health care provider for a middle ear evaluation and treatment, if necessary. It is not uncommon that these children are found to have had an ear infection that wasn’t noted. This is not the completion of the screening process, however. Once any middle ear disorder is addressed, we screen the child again to see if they pass. If they still do not pass, then the child is referred to a pediatric audiologist for a complete audiological evaluation. You can see that there are potential challenges in supporting families to complete these many follow-up steps. Additionally, the availability of pediatric audiologists can present as a challenge. We have found that EHS and Head Start staff are often very skilled and innovative in supporting families through the completion of all follow-up, and recognizing that monitoring hearing is a critical part of promoting language development during the early years.

Spreading the message about the importance of hearing screenings is an ongoing challenge. We want to increase the awareness of this for parents, caregivers, and providers of health and educational services throughout early childhood. Given that the status of hearing can change at any time in a child’s life, we cannot rely on any single screening, but must screen periodically. We’ve developed several short videos about the importance of monitoring hearing throughout early childhood, and we invite viewers to share them and help us spread the word:

ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in expanding regular hearing screenings as part of high-quality early learning programs?

WE: We encourage people to explore the resources and learning opportunities we have available on the ECHO website. In developing our various resources, we have recognized that those doing hearing screening nearly always have many other responsibilities as well. We have tried to provide a comprehensive set of resources so that programs can easily develop evidence-based practices without having to recreate the wheel. And we’ve tried to provide resources that are applicable and relevant across a variety of early childhood program contexts, including center-based or home-based programs; rural or urban program settings; and programs serving children in Head Start-funded programs, IDEA Part C, or health care settings. We also try to make our resources helpful across our stakeholder groups, which include many partners with an interest in increasing periodic hearing screenings—health care providers, IDEA Part C early intervention programs, EHS and Head Start programs, child care providers, families, and the Early Hearing and Detection Initiative (EHDI) programs within states.

My final suggestion is to be aware of the assumptions we often make in early childhood. We don’t ever want to assume a child can hear before that has been verified. For example, even if a child turns toward sound, that doesn’t give you enough information to know that the child’s hearing is in the normal range. We also don’t want to just assume a child has been assessed. Unless you have ear-specific results from an objective screening that was conducted within the last year, you really can’t be certain of the current status of a child’s hearing. Finally, we must caution that, even if a child passes an objective hearing screening, any concerns about a child’s hearing ability or language development would warrant a referral for a complete audiological evaluation.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Will Eiserman
Posted by
Director, Early Childhood Hearing Outreach (ECHO) Initiative, National Center for Hearing Assessment and Management, Utah State University

Autism—A Family’s Journey and the Lights Along the Way

Note: April is National Autism Awareness Month.

Carolyn Hayer with son Chris and their family

Carolyn Hayer with son Chris and their family


Carolyn Hayer is the Director of Parent and Professional Development at the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN) in New Jersey, a federally funded Parent Training and Information Center.


Autism.

There was a time when I couldn’t even say the word out loud. It was too painful, too devastating to utter. I wanted to believe that if I didn’t say the word, it didn’t exist. But it does exist; it’s real, and it’s beautiful, and it’s challenging all at the same time. And whether I say the word or not, my son Chris has autism.

I’ve been on this autism journey for 30 years now, more than half my life. Back in 1990, when Chris was first diagnosed, there was no autism awareness month, because there wasn’t autism awareness. Family, friends, and neighbors looked at me quizzically when I shared his diagnosis. What does that mean? How did he get it? How do you cure it? But I did not have the answers. Even the multitude of doctors we saw could not provide the answers. Since that time, there has been an exponential increase in the number of children diagnosed, and almost everyone has been touched by autism in some way. So today, when a family shares the diagnosis, others are usually aware of what it means.

As I reflect on the past 30 years I recall so many memories.I remember, as if it was yesterday, sitting in the doctor’s office; the diagnosis confirmed my fears following months of research into what might be causing the unusual behaviors of our little boy.

I remember…calling anyone and everyone I thought might help my family; the feelings of isolation at the playground, Sunday school, birthday parties, and all the other places where we just never seemed to fit in; the stress before every outing, wondering if there would be a meltdown or some other embarrassing event; wondering if my marriage would survive the stress; and the feelings of inadequacy for not parenting my children the way I thought I should have.

I remember the fear, guilt, and sheer terror of not knowing where my child was that day when he wandered off. But I also remember the intense relief and gratitude I felt when he was found.

I remember the vast uncertainty I felt when Chris was diagnosed, wondering what his life would be like as he grew to adulthood. And now that we have reached that point, I want to share some of the bright lights we encountered along the way, especially for those of you who may be new to the journey.

When he was four, I remember watching Chris climb aboard the school bus to begin the 45-minute ride to his “special” school. My gut told me that he needed to be with his community friends, and I spent years trying to persuade my school district to serve him in our local school. I learned about Chris’ right to be included with his neighborhood peers when I attended a workshop hosted by the New Jersey Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN), our state’s federally funded Parent Training and Information Center. SPAN became one of the bright lights on our path. The information our family received from SPAN allowed us to develop an IEP (individualized education program) that brought Chris back to our home district for high school. I remember watching anxiously as he disappeared into the building on his first day of high school, also his first day of school in a general education setting. Despite my concerns, I remember how kind and supportive Chris’ peers were to him; serving as beacons lighting our journey. I remember Chris learning math, reading, and how to play an instrument—things I was told he wouldn’t be able to do—and working with teachers who never gave up on him. And I will never forget, four years later, watching him climb into a limo with friends to attend the senior prom. My heart was so full of happiness and pride I thought it would burst.

This journey has taught me a great deal; autism has been my teacher for some of life’s most important lessons:

Gratitude.

Autism helps you to be grateful for the small things, the things you might have overlooked had they not been such a struggle to achieve: hugs, first words, friends, independence, general happiness and physical health. I’ve learned to take nothing for granted.

Community.

I continue to be in awe of, and inspired by, all the people we’ve met on this journey, most of whom have gone out of their way to help us any way they could: doctors, teachers, therapists, neighbors, friends, strangers, other families on the same path, and my colleagues at SPAN. Today, Chris has a circle of support that makes it possible for him to live a full, rich life. My husband and I appreciate the love and support of family; siblings have been caretakers and cheerleaders, and extended family members step up and help, no questions asked. Autism has taught me that I can’t do it all alone, no matter how hard I try. We need the support of others and must learn to accept it graciously.

Courage.

Fear is an everyday struggle on this journey. I fear what will happen today and in the near future, and dread what might happen to my child when I’m not able to care for him. I feel trepidation in trying something new, and doubt with every life decision. But sometimes I must take a leap of faith. In this, I have always been rewarded, either with success or increased knowledge, both very valuable. I have learned to trust in myself and follow my gut.

Forgiveness.

Of yourself and others. Don’t hold onto past mistakes and don’t carry the burden of anger and resentment toward others. Learn to let go, learn from your experiences, and move on.

Humor.

Laugh at yourself and your circumstances. Laughing releases endorphins and helps you feel good. We can learn a lot by seeing the world through a different lens and by not taking things—or ourselves—too seriously.

In closing, what I want to share with you more than anything is how immensely proud I am of Chris and all he has accomplished. He is a 30-year-old man living with autism, working and volunteering in the community, and often struggling to find his voice and get by in a world that can be overwhelming for him. Yet he manages to do it with dignity and grace, with unwavering support from the circle of love and light that surrounds him—his parents, siblings, and extended family; his peers, support staff, and therapists; our neighbors and friends. I shall always be thankful for Chris and the guiding lights that autism brought into our lives.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

“Voices from the Field”
Interview with Nancy Thompson and Janine Figiel

Nancy Thompson and Janine Figiel from Jolly Toddlers

Nancy Thompson and Janine Figiel from Jolly Toddlers

Nancy Thompson
Nancy is the owner and director of Jolly Toddlers, a thriving high-quality early education center. She opened this child care center in 1984 to meet the needs of local families looking for high-quality care. Nancy graduated from Fitzgerald-Mercy School of Nursing with a degree in nursing, becoming a registered nurse (RN). Later she attained an undergraduate degree in early childhood and elementary education, as well as a master’s degree in counseling from Gwynedd Mercy College. Nancy is the proud mother of four children, and grandmother to six beautiful grandchildren.
Janine Figiel
Janine is the Jolly Toddlers assistant director and the center’s facilitator of the Pyramid Model/PBIS. Janine graduated from Seton Hall University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. After college, Janine worked as a human resource manager in her family’s business while raising her two children. Human interaction and positive reinforcement has always been one of her interests so when Nancy Thompson asked her to help facilitate the Pyramid Model/PBIS pilot program at Jolly Toddlers, she was thrilled. Janine has been at Jolly Toddlers since 2010 and has since received a Child Development Associate (CDA) certificate as well as a director’s diploma in early childhood education.

The Pyramid Model

The Pyramid Model, as referred to throughout this post, is a Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) framework for young children. It is a tiered intervention model made up of evidenced-based practices. At the base (tier 1), are the universal supports for all children, provided through nurturing and responsive relationships and high-quality environments. The second tier (tier 2) is made up of prevention practices that target social and emotional strategies to prevent problems. The final tier (tier 3) consists of practices related to individualized intensive interventions for children with pervasive challenging behavior that need more than tier 1 and 2 supports and practices.

ED: How did you begin your career in early learning and development?

NT: I started my career as a nurse and was a visiting nurse for several years. When I had my own children, I became really interested in early childhood education (ECE). I knew how to physically take care of my children but didn’t know how to promote their learning and development. I decided to take some ECE classes and went back to school. I learned about the importance of the environment you create for young children and supporting social and emotional development. Eventually, I earned a degree in counseling. I thought it was critical to understand what is going on in children’s minds, what motivates children, and the best ways to support their growth and development. Then I decided to start my own business and opened a child care center to meet the needs of local women who were going back to work six weeks after having a baby. I was shocked because I couldn’t imagine, as a working mom, having to find care for a baby that young. I thought that with my background in nursing, education, and counseling I could create a child care center that would meet the needs of babies. We started out serving seven children and now, 33 years later, we have 25 employees and serve 110 kids ages 6 weeks to 6 years old.

JF: I graduated with a psychology degree and was thinking of applying to law school but decided to have children and work from home. I did this for many years while my children were young. I’m close friends with Nancy’s daughter and about eight years ago Nancy called me to see if I wanted to volunteer in her center and help her implement Pyramid Model/PBIS. I didn’t know anything about Pyramid Model/PBIS, but with my background in psychology it seemed like a good fit. I started out as a volunteer and loved it. I went back to school, took ECE courses, and earned my director’s diploma in early childhood education. Now, I am committed to our center and to implementing Pyramid Model/PBIS.

ED: What is the Pyramid Model/PBIS and why did you decide to implement it?

NT: For us, Pyramid Model/PBIS is all about being respectful to one another. You can walk into a center doing Pyramid Model/PBIS and it will take just a few minutes to realize that it feels different. Teachers are respectful to each other and the children, administrators are respectful to teachers, and staff are respectful to families. We actually teach children expectations and rules, and then we teach them strategies for sharing, making friends, and being kind. When I first learned about Pyramid Model/PBIS, I knew I wanted to implement it. There was an opportunity through our local early childhood intermediary unit to pilot Pyramid Model/PBIS. They offered to provide us with the initial training and a coach. We’ve been implementing with fidelity (the degree to which an intervention is delivered as intended) for 6 years. We’ve really seen it transform our center’s climate. There is much more collaboration and there is no gossiping; teachers really help each other out. Across the center we are clear and consistent about expectations of classroom rules and playground rules. We also use visual schedules to facilitate children’s understanding of what their day looks like.

JF: Nancy knew what she wanted to do, she just needed a name for it and some support. Pyramid Model/PBIS fits perfectly with her vision. Leadership is critical to implementation, so having her committed has been really important. Implementing Pyramid Model/PBIS isn’t easy; it takes about 3-5 years to get to a place where you are implementing with fidelity. It requires teachers being aware of how they talk to one another and to children. It is a tiered framework for figuring out how to support children in their social and emotional development. When implementing, centers must determine the specific strategies that will work best in their particular center. We have been focused on the bottom tier of creating a safe, warm, and nurturing environment. We have built in a lot of reward systems for the children; our goal is to catch them being good. Staff said they wanted a “reward” system too and soon the teachers started acknowledging one another, thanking each other, and recognizing accomplishments. Pyramid Model/PBIS really opened us up and bridged a gap we had with positive communication and collaboration across staff.

ED: How has your work with implementing Pyramid Model/PBIS improved the quality of early learning and development?

JF: We are a star 4 program (the highest quality) in our state’s quality rating and improvement system (QRIS), Keystone STARS. Implementing Pyramid Model/PBIS is a big part of why our rating is high. Children attending our center are happy; you don’t hear teachers yelling. The overall climate is wonderful. With Pyramid Model/PBIS, our teachers have been equipped with tools to meet the needs of all the children who attend. Twenty-five percent of our children are children with disabilities—our environment is an inclusive one. Pyramid Model/PBIS gave our teachers confidence to support all of the children, and to meaningfully collaborate with the therapists and special education professionals that come into our classrooms to work with the children with disabilities. Our teachers feel empowered to problem-solve and to figure out what works in an inclusive environment. In addition to the supportive climate we’ve created, our teachers take advantage of the great resources about implementing Pyramid Model/PBIS available online.

NT: Helping those with special needs is a priority for us and it has helped our overall quality improve. We regularly monitor children’s progress using the Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ). Families don’t always catch when a child is struggling. We now have the tools to help parents, so if there is a real issue we can help families get the child the services they need. Pyramid Model/PBIS gave us a framework for understanding when a child may need more intensive intervention, and showed us the importance of monitoring children’s progress.

ED: What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered with implementing Pyramid Model/PBIS and any strategies you’ve used to overcome them?

NT: When change comes to a center there are those that will resist. When we decided to implement Pyramid Model/PBIS, I told our coach that some of our staff may not stay working with the center. In order for this to work, you need to have staff buy-in and for both administrators and staff to truly believe this approach is the right thing to do. I was prepared to potentially lose staff, and we did, but long-term Pyramid Model/PBIS has actually reduced our teacher turnover rate. I believe it’s because the teachers are happy and love to come to work. When we bring on new staff, they are supported by the veteran teachers. For example, if a new teacher starts and doesn’t know how to set up a classroom to maximize positive social, emotional and behavioral development, our veteran teachers will work with them and discuss what works and what doesn’t with a particular age group.

JF: Another big issue for us has been when we have a child with significant needs, but that child hasn’t been identified as qualifying for special education. We need extra help to support the child, and this can add a lot of stress for our teachers. At times we have hired extra teachers to provide the support. We know that if this child receives the interventions and attention early, they will thrive, but it can be hard for us as a small business. Our teachers are great at being resourceful and problem-solving; they usually get online and try to find creative approaches.

NT: Janine is the internal coach at the center. She works really hard to support our teachers when we have a child with more intensive needs. We are still trying to figure out what this support looks like, particularly when we don’t have access to other professionals to help us problem solve. We are seeing more and more children with behavioral issues, born with drug addiction, and with parents in jail; the kids and parents in these situations are tired, and it takes a lot of energy to help and support them. One solution we’ve found involves working with and educating families. We have shared a lot of Pyramid Model/PBIS resources with our families. When a child is really struggling with behavioral issues, we will collect and share data about the child’s behavior with their family and then develop a plan with strategies that can be used at both home and school.

ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in promoting positive social, emotional, and behavioral development in young children?

JF: My advice for a program interested in Pyramid Model/PBIS is to start small, with easy and concrete steps for teachers. Lay it out for them and incorporate their strengths. For example, our teachers were really visually creative and focused on making things pretty, so one of the first things we did was to work on posting rules and expectations visually, including visual schedules that helped kids know what was happening each day. Also, implementing Pyramid Model/PBIS is a process, so be aware that you will likely have to go back and make changes to what you are doing. It really does take 3-5 years, so start small. Some other things we implemented early were bucket-filling books and beginning to teach children to recognize and understand different emotions. These were concrete strategies teachers could begin to use in order to see positive change.

NT: Also be flexible as an administrator. You may need to move teachers around. For example, we had to move a teacher to a different age group. You also need to think about how you staff your classrooms. I know that I want a teacher in each classroom that knows those children every day, so we make sure that happens; we staff our classrooms intentionally. We don’t put all of our kids in one big room at the end of the day. It is critical for kids to have their “own” room, and for the teachers in that classroom to really know them. My final suggestion is to be thoughtful about communicating with families on a regular basis.

JF: Hold onto your vision but be flexible. Take staff buy-in seriously. This can take time, but once teachers see the positive impact of the new strategies, they become more engaged. Providing structure, establishing clear expectations for kids, redirecting and replacing behavior with something positive—these strategies give teachers the tools to support all children. It is powerful when they use the strategies with a child with challenging behaviors and they see that it works. Our teachers also now recognize the importance of teaching kids social skills. Some children need to be taught how to play, make friends, and behave, and our center now has the tools to do this! Another important thing to remember is that Pyramid Model/PBIS looks different in every classroom and every center. It is an overall feeling of positivity and support among staff, children, families, and administration. It’s building a welcoming atmosphere as opposed to completing a checklist of things you do every day.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Another Journey

Note: April is National Autism Awareness Month.

The Bae family during trip to England

The Bae family during trip to England

Just like any other school day, Eugene, my son with autism, left on the bus this morning to go to a day program provided by our school district. For the last 20 years, he and I wait for the bus by sitting on our front porch. As he steps on the bus, he shouts at me with his happy high-pitched voice, “Bye Mom!” This is our ritual to begin each new day, to meet that day’s challenges, emotions, promises, and hopes.

In June this year, he will age out from the district program. I cannot help being emotional whenever I think about his first day of preschool and the journey that Eugene and our family have been on since then. On that day, I cried in the car for two hours after separating from my miserable, crying child.

Since that first day, school has been a challenging place for both Eugene and me. While Eugene was learning the alphabet and phonics, I studied the never-ending list of special education acronyms.

Just like other special education moms in this world, when my child cried about his school work, I wept on my steering wheel, but when he was happy in school, I felt like I had the world on a string. At times, figuring out how to navigate the world of special education for our son with autism while struggling with his atypical behaviors seemed like a brutal mission for a family like us, and we often felt we were not understood, not just because of our heavy Korean accents

However, our fundamental concern has not changed in these 20 years, and that is to help our son reach the final destination for his journey—Eugene being able to live an independent and inclusive life in the community. Of course, this is the same concern shared by thousands of moms and dads who have children with disabilities.

Young and Eugene Bae

Young and Eugene Bae

As a family we have had to adjust the sails of our ship quite a lot to reach this destination. We had to get past phrases like “below average range” or “socially maladjusted” since they were not helpful in steering the path for our son. As a family, we now see more clearly the incredible strengths and positive qualities of a young man who is able to say proudly “I am a person with autism.” We have learned that it is more helpful for us to make sure that Eugene is in the center of all service plans than putting systems first and having him fit around these systems.

Because of putting Eugene at the center, we have become more efficient in figuring out how to change the world around us and finding the resources we and Eugene need to reach our goal. As Eugene grew, our family grew too and our minds opened up to the new experiences that our son brought us.

I am not completely positive about Eugene’s future in the community. I see and feel the gaps between how my family and how society see the possibility of Eugene becoming a “successful” member of the community, and how we define success.

Many people still have a difficult time moving away from the stereotype that measures people with autism and other developmental disabilities as a social cost. However, I also believe that our society is moving in a better direction, becoming more able to envision a person with a disability as a valuable asset.

We have witnessed the notably increased capacity of our schools and workplaces to accommodate individuals with disabilities since the first form of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act became law in 1975. These accomplishments were not possible without the sacrifices and efforts of so many parents, educators, and leaders of this country. Today, their legacy continues through the next generation of families, educators, and leaders, and it only expands as we as a family sail toward the final destination of our journey.

The next three months will be an interesting time for our family. Frankly, it makes me nervous thinking that Eugene will no longer be in the classroom. There will be no more IEP meetings to attend and no school buses to pick him up.

Eugene and our family know that this is a start of the next stage of journey. However, this time, Eugene will be the captain of the ship, steering us toward that goal of independence and community inclusion. This time, I am not crying; I will take a deep breath to prepare myself for another thrilling sea of possibilities and opportunities.


Young Seh Bae, Ph.D. is Executive Director of Community Inclusion & Development Alliance (CIDA) a federally funded Community Parent Resource Center in Queens, New York. She was a faculty member of Teachers College, Columbia University, and served as president of Korean-American Behavioral Health Association.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.