“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

“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.

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Bentley Ponder

Bentley Ponder

Bentley Ponder

Bentley Ponder is the Senior Director of Research and Policy at Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL). Ponder oversees DECAL’s external research studies and manages internal evaluation projects, policy analyses, and ongoing data projects. Past and present initiatives include validation efforts for the state’s tiered quality rating and improvement system (QRIS), longitudinal evaluations of Georgia’s Pre-K program, development of policies related to the state’s Cross-Agency Child Level Data System (CACDS), research projects for the state’s Child Care Development Fund (CCDF) plan, and a statewide early education economic impact study. He helped write Georgia’s Early Learning Challenge grant application in 2013. He received his doctorate in sociology from Georgia State University and has been with DECAL since 2005.


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

Bentley: The Georgia Pre-K program (GA PreK), a lottery-funded educational program for Georgia’s four-year-old children designed to prepare them for kindergarten, recently celebrated a birthday—it is 25 years old! I stumbled into early education during the early years of GA PreK. Early childhood work wasn’t part of my career plans. While I was earning my doctorate in sociology at Georgia State University, I was looking for a graduate research assistantship. I ended up being hired by a research group at Georgia State University that was conducting the first longitudinal study of children who participated in the 1995 GA PreK program. At first I was just a data collector, but in 2001 the director of the study went on sabbatical and there was an opportunity for me to move into more of a leadership role. I began to interact with what was then the Georgia Office of School Readiness—it later became the Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL)—and during those interactions, they got to know me and my expertise. When they decided to hire a researcher, they recruited me, and I have been here ever since.

I’ve had the opportunity to see DECAL and its emphasis on early learning grow. Our base is really the GA PreK program. We wouldn’t have a true early learning system without it. Although it isn’t our largest program, it has been foundational in setting high-quality standards, and it has allowed our state legislature to understand the importance of early learning for our state’s preschoolers. DECAL also oversees child care licensing, a federal nutrition program, and Georgia’s quality rating and improvement system (QRIS), Quality Rated. In 2012, we became the Georgia lead agency for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Child Care Development Fund (CCDF). We also house the state’s Head Start Collaboration Office, and administer an Early Learning Challenge (ELC) grant that was awarded to Georgia in 2013 and an Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership grant under which DECAL is serving over 200 infants and toddlers. Because we oversee all of these programs, we have the ability to look across programs, coordinate improvement efforts, and build a strong early learning system. It has also been fun to grow our research and evaluation unit. Initially, it was staffed by only me, and my primary role was to do a lot of data analysis. Now we have a team of six and the unit’s role has expanded to support the various early care and learning programs administered by DECAL. We have a robust research agenda and work closely with our early care and learning program directors to see what they need.

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

Bentley: Our research and evaluation team’s primary mission is to ensure that we are using the latest research, data, and evaluation information to inform policy and practices across our early learning programs and grants. We focus on how to use evidence-based information to improve the quality of our programs. Our team is engaged in a number of different activities and projects. We do a lot of QRIS-focused research. At first it was just learning about what other states were doing; we weren’t ready to implement a QRIS but wanted to learn from others. We funded a quality study that took a sample of classrooms across the state, including infant-toddler, preschool, and GA PreK classrooms. Findings indicated that the majority of our infant-toddler programs fell in the low-quality range. Our PreK classrooms had good structural quality, but they needed to focus on the quality of teacher-child interactions. DECAL leadership used these results to inform some of our improvement efforts. For example, DECAL developed a cadre of infant-toddler specialists who support our infant-toddler programs to improve quality, and created professional learning communities for preschool and PreK teachers that focus on those critical positive teacher-child interactions. DECAL also used the findings from the quality study to help design our QRIS.

Some of our research and evaluation work is done in-house, and for some we hire outside contractors. When managing these contracts, we place a lot of emphasis on ensuring that the work they do is grounded in our context and connected to our programs.

ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced in this work and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?

Bentley: Our research and evaluation team is big enough to be its own unit, but not big enough to conduct randomized control trial studies or manage complex field data collection for DECAL. One of the challenges is figuring out what we can do directly and when we need to bring in outside contractors. Another challenge has to do with embedding research and evaluation into the overall mission of our agency. We have done a good job of asserting our team as an important part of the agency, but this can lead to challenges in being objective researchers. We are attached to our programs and we want them to be successful so this can be hard. This is an example of where it is really important to bring in outside contractors.

Another challenge is ensuring our team has the capacity to address all of our priorities. There is so much work to be done and sometimes we have to make decisions about what is most important. For example, I wish we published more. We have so much to share about the interesting work we are doing but, given our capacity and time constraints, publishing usually doesn’t rise to be a priority. One thing that helps with prioritization is if we have funding for a specific project. Currently, completing the validation study under the ELC is my priority.

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

Bentley: I really believe that having a research and evaluation unit housed within our agency has infused the importance of research, evaluation, and data as part of our agency’s culture. Our program directors and agency staff embrace and use data and research on a regular basis to inform policy and programmatic decisions. They value the studies and evaluations we conduct, and use the information when deciding how best to use resources and improve programs. I’d encourage other early learning agencies to build a research and evaluation team, or figure out how to bring folks with this expertise into their regular work.

One specific example of how we’ve done this is through our QRIS validation study. We created an internal committee that includes staff involved in our QRIS, researchers, professional development specialists, and infant-toddler specialists. Since the beginning of the study, we have met every two weeks to dive into the data. It has been so beneficial in understanding and being able to use our data. I also encourage others to involve and engage program and other early learning staff in research, evaluation, and data work. If your research, study, or data analysis isn’t beneficial to the program and children being served, then why are you doing it?

A final suggestion is to consider that as researchers we need to be careful and not go overboard with our evaluation efforts. You don’t always need to conduct a survey or do an in-depth study, because sometimes useful information can be found elsewhere!


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.

Bentley Ponder - thumbnail image
Posted by
Senior Director of Research and Policy at Bright from the Start, Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL)

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Monica Adrian

Monica Adrian

Monica Adrian

Monica Adrian is a program manager and behavior support specialist for the Merced County Office of Education (MCOE) in California. She has created and helped establish innovative programs that focus on developmental screenings and social skills and behavioral intervention. These programs include Caring Kids, which provides training and support for parents, teachers, child care providers, and social workers. Adrian is an Act Early Ambassador to California for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Learn the Signs. Act Early campaign. In this role, she helps promote ongoing developmental monitoring; helping children with delays get connected to needed early intervention services in a timely manner.


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

Monica: Right out of high school I got a job working in a U.S. Department of Defense child care center at the U.S. Air Force base that was in my town at the time. I immediately loved it and knew I wanted a career working with young children. I worked at the child care center while I started college, first earning an associate’s degree in psychology, and then a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies with an emphasis on child studies. After college, I worked for five years with children with autism and their families in their homes; at the same time earning my teaching credentials in special education. When my son was born, I had planned to take a few years and stay home with him. However, when he was three months old, I received a call asking if I was interested in working for Caring Kids, a program that works with families to help their young children from birth to age five develop socially and emotionally. I realized that I missed the work of helping young children to build social skills and reduce their challenging behavior. I took the job and have continued to work with various programs that similarly focus on helping all children reach their potential. I also believe that as a professional I have the responsibility to continue to grow and learn. A year ago, I decided to go back and get a master’s degree in special education with an emphasis on early childhood and I’m almost done!!

ED: What is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Learn the Signs. Act Early campaign, and can you describe your role as the Act Early Ambassador to California?

Monica: Learn the Signs. Act Early. is a public awareness campaign that aims to educate families and caregivers about young children’s development and developmental milestones with the ultimate goal of improving caregivers’ support of early development and increasing the early identification of developmental delays and disabilities. Currently, the campaign has 45 Act Early Ambassadors across the country (California has two). Being an ambassador is a two-year commitment. Our role as ambassadors is to promote ongoing developmental monitoring in our state, and to help make sure young children exhibiting developmental delays are connected to early intervention or early childhood special education services as early as possible. We know that many kids with developmental delays or disabilities are often not identified until they go to school at age five, but this is inconsistent with what we know about brain science and the importance of intervening early. We’ve worked hard with different groups of professionals (doctors, social workers, child care providers, and others) to encourage them to move away from the “wait and see” approach, sharing with them the importance of identifying concerns early. This allows for children and families to be connected with appropriate services and interventions. So many different professionals and family members see and spend time with young children regularly and we want everyone to know what typical development looks like. We want to help families promote optimal development and also be able to identify when there should be concerns with development. Learn the Signs. Act Early. has developed evidenced-based and easy-to-use tools and resources for families and professionals which are free and easy to order. Some of my favorite resources are the Watch Me modules developed for child care providers. These modules train providers on why monitoring children’s development is important; what their role in developmental monitoring is; easy ways to monitor a child’s development; and how to talk with families about their children’s development. Child care providers can access the modules for free in English and Spanish and in using them, can even earn continuing education units (CEUs) or professional growth hours. We are working with the California Department of Education so early educators can also access the Watch Me! modules on California Early Childhood Online.

ED: How has your work improved the quality of early learning and development?

Monica: Merced County is in the central valley of California, right in the middle of the state. This is a region of high needs with minimal resources or services. Through our county office of education’s Early Education Department, we administer several programs that help to ensure quality early care and education services for our community. Our programs focus on promoting optimal development for all young children since we know the impact early experiences have on later academic, health, mental health, and employment outcomes. Most of our programs focus on young children at risk for developmental delays and negative outcomes later in school. We work to help families provide safe, stable, and nurturing environments. Many of the families we encounter live in poverty or are dealing with multiple stressors; this work is hard since we usually can’t remove the stressors. Our goal is to help parents build resiliency and provide a buffer from stressors for their children in spite of the adversity they experience. Given many of the children we work with live in families with pervasive—or, wide-ranging—needs, our approach is multi-generational. Our philosophy is that parents are their children’s first teachers, but parents also need support to fulfil this role. We want to implement a process that supports families in being fully present with their children.

I supervise two programs. First is the Caring Kids program I mentioned earlier. Through this program, we provide home visiting services to young children displaying challenging behavior or delays in social skills, and facilitate weekly social-skills-building playgroups and parenting workshops around the county. The second, our Early Connections program, is a collaboration between our county office of education and our county human services agency. This program conducts developmental screenings with children from birth to age five who have had substantiated cases of child abuse or neglect, and then connects the identified kids to any needed follow-up services. In order to act on the federal mandate that requires all of these children to be screened, our county tasked the Merced County Office of Education’s child development staff, who had the most relevant expertise, to conduct the screenings. They work closely with social workers from the human services agency, a collaboration which has been critical for many of the children with the greatest needs in our county.

ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced in this work and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?

Monica: One of the challenges is that, as we push to identify more children with developmental delays and disabilities earlier, we need to ensure that the services and service providers who understand how to work with them are available. We really have to look at current systems and policies; identify early learning and intervention champions across disciplines; and empower them to communicate to decision makers the importance of increased funding for mental health and early intervention services, and for programs that are multi-generational. Given the research base, we should be able to make the case to decision makers that investing in these early programs will have long-term financial and social benefits. We really need to think about where we as a community invest our funds. When thinking about how we can better prepare children to enter school on a level playing field, the answer is more than just preschool. We need to look across different systems. As I mentioned before, one useful strategy is to identify champions, like a local school superintendent or principal who understands the importance of early experiences. Individuals in the medical field can also be really helpful advocates. I’m really excited that doctors recently coming out of medical school seem to have a strong understanding of the importance of developmental screenings—we should capitalize on their expertise and the fact that their perspective is one that is likely to influence policy makers.

ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in promoting developmental screenings?

Monica: Engaging a wide range of stakeholders is really important. Start by having conversations about the importance of developmental screening and how professionals and families can play a role in this. Build a collaborative team of people that represent different agencies and disciplines, be sure to include families, and create and continue to follow an action plan. Consider important questions with this group: What is the vision for children’s future in your community? How does developmental screening fit within this vision? Try not to recreate the wheel; utilize the various resources that are already out there. In addition to resources from Learn the Signs. Act Early., there are great tools available via the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Birth to Five, Watch Me Thrive website. Many states also have a Help Me Grow initiative, which typically focuses on providing resources to best promote developmental screening and monitoring. You can also contact the Learn the Signs. Act Early. ambassador in your state or territory for support.


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.

Monica Adrian
Posted by
Program Manager and Behavior Support Specialist, Merced County Office of Education (MCOE), California

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Melissa Herzig and Melissa Malzkuhn

Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2),
a National Science Foundation Science of Learning Center at Gallaudet University


Melissa Herzig

Melissa Herzig

Melissa Herzig is the Research and Education Translation Manager and the Director of Translation at the National Science Foundation Science of Learning Center on Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2) at Gallaudet University. She co-founded the PhD Program in Educational Neuroscience (PEN) at Gallaudet and is its Assistant Director. Her role is to facilitate two-way communication between researchers and educators.

|
Melissa Malzkuhn

Melissa Malzkuhn

Melissa Malzkuhn, digital strategist and creative director at Gallaudet, directs the university’s development of research-based creative and translational products, including bilingual storybook apps designed for early language acquisition for Deaf children. She leads the VL2 Storybook Creator program that provides training for and facilitates the development of bilingual storybook apps in multiple languages. As founder and Creative Director of Motion Light Lab, she leads projects intersecting creative literature and digital technology to create immersive learning experiences.


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

Melissa Malzkuhn (MM): I have master’s degrees in deaf studies and fine arts/visual narrative, which have given me the opportunity to do a lot of creative and innovative work, while focusing on the importance of narratives. When I started working at Gallaudet in 2008, I led efforts as managing editor of the world’s first peer-reviewed sign language journal, Deaf Studies Digital Journal, which provides articles in American Sign Language (ASL) with printed English. It was fun and challenging to figure out technological capabilities in publishing a visual and spatial language. That led me into my current role with VL2, which is to create innovative resources that help families and teachers promote evidence-based approaches for promoting language and literacy in young children. My work utilizes touchscreen technology to promote a bilingual experience for families with young deaf children. That’s my journey in a nutshell. I also come from a deaf family and I grew up with rich ASL stories. I’m grateful for my access to language, narrative, and word play since birth. My experience has led me to believe in the importance of ASL literacy. The challenge is that since ASL is an oral language, stories are passed on through generations, but can easily disappear. My motivation is to document ASL literature, but to also innovate ways in how we view and interact with ASL storytelling. I’m also the mother of a deaf 5-year-old, so watching his language and literacy development has had real implications for my work.

Melissa Herzig (MH): I’ve always enjoyed working with children and thought I’d be a teacher. I also had a natural curiosity about how the body and the mind worked. I majored in biology in college. After graduating, I worked as a research assistant in language and cognitive neuroscience labs and learned the science behind cognition and language. I started a master’s program in teaching and learning and bilingual education and learned more about language and literacy development. As I began to spend time in classrooms, I found a huge disconnect between what we know from research and what was happening in classrooms, so this became my passion: better connecting research and education. I also better understood the urgency of focusing on early language development in young children. I pursued a doctorate with a strong focus on literacy and motivation. In my current position, I direct the Translation in the Science of Learning Lab. This lab is responsible for translating VL2 research discoveries for applications in various learning environments that deaf children experience. We produce publications and resources for parents, educators, medical professionals, and policy makers as well as offer training for educators on bilingual education and language policy. I am also a mother of three hearing children who have grown up in a bilingual (ASL and English) environment, which has had a positive impact on their development.

ED: What is early sign language acquisition and why should parents of young children know about this?

MH: We know from brain research that there is a critical period for language to develop. For deaf children, there is a serious risk of language deprivation during this critical period. We also know that, for deaf children, including a visual language like ASL in the early years is critical to their later development of strong English literacy and language skills. Most deaf children are born to non-deaf families and many of them don’t have all the information they need to make important decisions about promoting language and literacy development. Research demonstrates that multiple modes of communication have a positive impact on all children’s language development. Sign language helps the child’s brain progress through the normal developmental milestones by activating the part of the brain that spoken language activates. Parents of deaf children are made to think that they must choose ASL or English, but they need to know that they don’t have to choose; they should try it all, and use it all! Bilingualism, regardless of the languages used, makes children’s language and literacy development stronger. Readers can check out our Early Education Literacy Lab website for more information on the latest research in this important area.

ED: How has your work improved the quality of early learning and influenced approaches to teaching early language and literacy?

MM: I’ve been developing bilingual and interactive storybook apps for deaf children using our VL2 Storybook Creator platform. Anyone can create storybook apps using this platform. Its research-based design has three modes:

  1. Watch Mode—the storyteller signs the story from beginning to end with images of the story in the background;
  2. Read Mode—the traditional book where you go from page to page and read the text, and the reader can click to have an individual page or a word signed to them; and
  3. Learn Mode—a list of vocabulary words from the story appear, and the reader can learn and explore words in both text and sign.

This has been a wonderful tool for both educators and families. These are engaging stories for children, and also support parents in learning sign language and sharing reading time with their child. Our goal is to support young deaf children who are learning to read and reading to learn.

MH: This tool has helped boost bilingual teaching in the classroom with deaf children. Teachers have long lamented the scarcity of bilingual resources, so it is a welcome addition to the classroom. We’ve also developed resources to help teachers use the storybook apps, including lesson plans that go along with most storybook apps. Resources provide ideas for how to use the storybook apps for guided, shared, and independent reading and teaching of ASL and English grammar. The best way to help deaf children read is through stories, getting the whole picture, and building background knowledge—not to just focus on English print. We think these visual and interactive storybooks are essential.

MM: Through the VL2 storybook creator program, we’ve collaborated with a number of countries to develop translated versions in their signed and written languages. We’ve worked with Norway, Russia, Japan, Italy, and the Netherlands. On top of this, there is tremendous interest to bring our platform to more countries and to more schools in the U.S. This is really groundbreaking work! Technology has finally caught up to our needs in this area; use of this technology can support literacy for deaf children in a way that hasn’t been an option in the past.

MH: We conducted a usability and efficacy study and found that a diverse group of children were accessing and using the apps, from beginning signers to fluent signers. We also found that participants do learn new English vocabulary words from the stories. The users really liked how the tool allowed for individualization. They can move through the story at their own pace and choose what works for them (watch the story, read the story, click “play” to see videos that aid with comprehension).

ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced in this work and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?

MH: Overall, one of the major challenges is getting findings from the research base into the hands of families when they are making decisions about early language development. There is a misconception in the medical and education fields that children need to learn spoken language in order to read. This is not true. Visual sign can activate the brain in the same place as oral language. Strong language foundation in any language is best. Strategies we’ve used for countering the misconceptions include sharing our work through research briefs, websites, and presentations. Through our translation lab, we are continually creating resources to translate the research base for families and teachers.

MM: Another challenge is the huge demand for more ASL and ASL/English content because there is limited capacity in the field. We are striving to expand the number and type of visual storybook apps to cover more subject areas and topics. Through collaboration with others, we are building a global digital library of a variety of visual books that teachers and families could access.

ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in supporting early literacy development in young children?

MH & MM: Reading is fun, signing is fun, and the bridging of two languages in bilingual education is natural. And start early. The earlier we introduce both languages, the better. Language play is so important, and finding ways for all children to be creative with language helps develop the important skills that foster strong literacy skills.

And finally, family involvement is crucial. We encourage schools to engage families in a meaningful way, potentially providing ASL classes at family-friendly times, and encouraging language immersion at home. We’ve developed a VL2 parent package to address this, with helpful FAQs and tips for families on developing language and literacy.


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.

Melissa Herzig
Posted by
PEN Associate Director and Strategic Focus Areas 4 Leader, Gallaudet University
Melissa Malzkuhn
Posted by
Digital Innovation and Media Strategies Manager, Gallaudet University

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Melody Arabo

Melody Arabo

Melody Arabo

Melody Arabo is the 2017–18 Teaching Ambassador Fellow for the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and was honored to serve as the 2015 Michigan Teacher of the Year. She has been a third grade teacher at Keith Elementary in the Walled Lake Consolidated School District since 2002. She has a bachelor’s in elementary education and a master’s in teaching and curriculum, both from Michigan State University. Melody is a wife, mother of three, speaker and presenter, author, and bullying-prevention advocate.


ED: How did you begin your career in education?

Melody: I never planned to be a teacher. I was planning to go into marketing and advertising. I had big plans to live in a city and take a train to work. When I was 19, I found out about a paraprofessional job at a local elementary school. They were looking for someone who spoke Chaldean, which I do, so I applied and was very lucky to get the job. It changed my career trajectory. I loved the school and the principal, and really loved the kids. I quickly realized what a positive impact you can have so quickly on young learners. I enrolled in an associate’s degree program at our community college focused on elementary education and then moved to Michigan State University to complete my bachelor’s (and eventually my master’s) degree in teaching and curriculum.

As a paraprofessional, I worked with kids in kindergarten through second grade, which I enjoyed. But during my year-long student teaching internship, I ended up in a third grade class. I realized I loved kids in third grade. They are independent enough to tie their own shoes and blow their own nose, but are still young enough that we can shape their learning, curiosity, and engagement. After student teaching I landed a job as a third grade teacher in the same district where I started as a paraprofessional, and have been teaching there since 2002.

ED: How did you become interested in the School Ambassador Fellowship program here at ED?

Melody: In 2015, I was honored to be the Michigan Teacher of the Year and spent the year working outside of the classroom. My biggest take away from that experience is that the educator voice is really lacking in critical policy discussions. I wanted to figure out how I could help increase teacher leadership and expand the role of the teacher voice in policy making. When I heard about the School Ambassador Fellowship program it seemed like a perfect next step, so I applied. The program enables outstanding teachers, principals, and other school leaders to bring their school and classroom expertise to the Department and exposes them to the heart of the national dialogue about education. In turn, school ambassador fellows are better equipped to facilitate the learning and input of other educators and community members.

In 2016, I was a part-time fellow for one year. This meant that I still had my classroom in Michigan and engaged and worked with ED remotely. It was an intense year, because I was staying involved at the classroom-level while being engaged in state- and federal-level activities. I am now the lead fellow here in DC and a big part of my work is with the part-time campus fellows, located around the country, who are still working in classrooms and schools. We have a fantastic group of 2017–18 fellows and my role is largely to support and connect them to work going on here at ED. I also have the goal of strengthening ED’s outreach to, and engagement with, educators. To accomplish this, we have been hosting monthly conversations on important educational issues to engage educators in the field. For example, one of our recent monthly topics was STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), particularly how teachers are incorporating STEM in the classroom. For each conversation, we pose a question about the topic via Twitter to generate conversations among educators, encouraging them to share examples of innovation. We then collect their input and feedback, and develop a toolkit of resources around that topic. Additionally, we are tapping into teachers by asking them to write for ED’s Homeroom Blog on each of the monthly topics. I also work with our fellows to promote and encourage teachers to sign up for ED’s monthly newsletter developed for teachers, The Teachers Edition. We have involved each of the fellows in Teach to Lead, an initiative that expands leadership opportunities for teachers and further develops their ideas.

ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced as a teacher and what strategies have you tried to overcome them? 

Melody: I am a general education teacher, but I am also a parent of children with special needs. Through struggling to navigate special education as a parent, I have realized that I am ill prepared to teach children with disabilities and see there is a huge need to bring the special education and general education worlds together. We really need to rethink teacher training; general education teachers need more training on how to teach children with disabilities and to work with special educators. I realize now that if I had known more about some of the best practices in special education, such as positive behavioral intervention and supports (PBIS); how to do functional behavior assessments (FBA) and behavior plans; universal design for learning (UDL); and response to intervention (RTI), I could have had a more positive impact on not only students with disabilities in my class, but could have better met the needs of all of my students.

In my experience, co-teaching isn’t used widely. Children with disabilities are often pulled out of classrooms for their special services and I think that because of this we are missing an important opportunity to bring special educators and general educators together. After my twins began having challenges, I became more active in the disability community and realized how limited my experiences had been in a classroom. I never had a student with autism, cerebral palsy, or other more noticeable disabilities. As a parent, I’ve realized how important it is for children with disabilities to be included in general education classrooms and schools. As a teacher, I’d really like to learn different strategies and different techniques that would benefit all of the students in my class. I think we can do this by better connecting the professionals; it is a disservice to children to have those two worlds—special education and general education—segregated.

ED: What suggestions do you have for improving the quality of early learning and education?

Melody: I believe one of the most important things we can do is to raise the importance of the educator’s voice in making policy decisions. Teachers need to be part of the conversation. The educator’s voice is there but typically only in the policy discussions. Educators need to also be part of the decision-making process, since they are the ones who know what’s realistic and what’s not. I also hope that more educators will become policy makers. From the parent perspective, I think family engagement is critical and we need to do a better job making information easily accessible for families. When my kids were first diagnosed with developmental delays, I mainly relied on other parents, which was wonderful because it created a support network for us. I believe we need to do more to connect families with other families when making educational decisions—families are more powerful and informed when they are connected.

My specific advice for educators interested in becoming part of important local, state, and national conversations is to start looking for leadership opportunities in your community, district, and beyond. Develop your leadership skills, brand yourself as expert in an area, and let policy makers know. For example, based on your expertise and experience you could be an Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) expert, or a STEM expert, or an expert in best practices for increasing positive social emotional and behavioral skills. Engage in social media by following other teacher leaders, ED, state-level policy makers; develop your own website and blogs; and build an audience. It is okay if your audience is small at first, but you have to put yourself out there to engage. I really like the teacherprenuers initiative, where teachers think of themselves as innovators but also take on entrepreneurial leadership outside of the classroom. I would love for this to be part of teacher training. It is really empowering for teachers that think this way and have already begun engaging outside of their classrooms. So I encourage teachers to think like a teacherprenuer. This can be as simple as having a business card or presenting at a conference, and will begin to shift their idea of what it means to be a teacher and a leader.


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.

Melody Arabo
Posted by
Melody Arabo, 2017–18 Teaching Ambassador Fellow for the U.S. Department of Education.

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Julie Sarama & Doug Clements

Julie Sarama and Doug Clements

Julie Sarama and Doug Clements

Julie Sarama is Kennedy Endowed Chair in Innovative Learning Technologies and Professor at the University of Denver. Her research interests include developing and evaluating research-based educational software and other technologies, using learning trajectories in standards, assessment, educational technology, curriculum and professional development, developing and evaluating research-based curricula, and asking successful curricula to scale using technologies.

Douglas H. Clements is Kennedy Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Learning and Professor at the University of Denver. Previously a kindergarten teacher and preschool teacher, he has conducted research and published widely in the areas of the learning and teaching of early mathematics and computer applications in mathematics education. His most recent interests are in creating, using, and evaluating a research-based curriculum and in taking successful curricula to scale using technologies and learning trajectories.

Doug and Julie have collaborated over the past 20 years on research and implementation projects focused on improving early math development in young children.


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

Doug: I was always interested in math and was planning on being an engineer but after I graduated, I decided to go into early education. My first job out of college was teaching kindergarten. As a teacher, math was the shining star for me. I was so interested in young kids’ thinking around math. When I went back to school to get my doctoral degree, I focused my dissertation on preschoolers’ thinking about early math. How do young kids learn math ideas and skills? How do they think about early math? What are the best ways to teach early math?

Julie’s background was in teaching high school and middle school math. In the 1990’s we became involved in a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded project on developing a kindergarten-through-fifth-grade math curriculum. We had developed some of the technology for the kindergarten piece of the curriculum, but weren’t able to complete it since the project ran out money. Thankfully, NSF soon came out with a call for a focus on early math, and then we had the opportunity to really start our work on early math and began developing what we call our Building Blocks project.

Julie: Previous efforts around early math focused on activities or developing ideas that sounded cool but weren’t based on research. Alternatively, we focused on identifying (from the research base) the specific features that help young children in early math. In the first year of Building Blocks, we worked on identifying the early math learning trajectories for young children. Doug reads everything from everyone; he looked at studies from a variety of related fields (developmental science, cognitive science, mathematics education, early childhood education, etc.). We pulled from all of those areas to help us develop these learning trajectories. What do kids learn, when do they learn it, and what can we do to help them progress? In the end, we developed an assessment and curriculum to help teachers understand learning trajectories. Later we were very lucky to receive funding from NSF and the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences for our TRIAD project. This allowed us to develop the needed professional development materials and scale-up approaches for our work. Through TRIAD we were able to help early childhood teachers across multiple sites (e.g., Boston, Buffalo, and Nashville) understand the learning trajectories and how to implement the assessment and curriculum. This was especially important given many early childhood teachers often report they went into early childhood so they wouldn’t have to teach math!

ED: How has your research improved the quality of early learning and influenced approaches to teaching early math?

Doug: Everyone can write more cute activities that might touch on basic math concepts, but with the growing consensus on the ways young children learn to understand mathematical concepts and engage in mathematical thinking, we believe that understanding the early math learning trajectories is critical for early childhood educators to teach early math.

Julie: Learning trajectories have three parts:

  1. a learning goal (i.e., target, benchmark, expectation);
  2. a developmental path along which children develop to reach that goal; and
  3. a set of activities matched to each of the levels of thinking in that path that help children develop the next higher level of thinking.

The idea behind a learning trajectory is that these are the stepping stones to get you to your goals. Each of these stepping stones represents a significant change in the way kids think; they are the developmental progressions or descriptions of kids’ behavior that give us a hint of where a kid is developmentally. The activities that follow are critical to help move children from one stepping stone to the next.

Through our TRIAD project we taught early childhood teachers to understand how young children think about math; how to identify where kids are with their mathematical thinking; and then to provide instruction or activities that take the kids to the next level of mathematical thinking. We found that teachers when given this framework and the learning trajectories became excited about teaching math. When they saw their students’ growth along the learning trajectories, it was transformative. Teachers often tell us “I had no idea young children could learn this or think like this.”

ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced in this work and what strategies have you tried to overcome them? 

Doug: The biggest challenge is the perception that math doesn’t belong in early childhood and that we don’t need to teach it yet. Another challenge is the false dichotomies that our field creates such as academics versus non-cognitive skills, or teaching math versus teaching literacy. We know we can teach math and literacy and social-emotional skills in early childhood. We know that early math skills are fundamental to children’s overall learning. Along with one of our post-doctoral researchers, Alissa Lange, we found improvements in oral language in classrooms that implemented Building Blocks. The learning is connected.

Julie: An effective strategy for overcoming the negative perception about math in early childhood is getting out there and talking about it. You really need a Doug! He travels a lot, spreading the word and accepting speaking engagements to all different kinds of groups about the work we are doing. Writing research articles isn’t enough. You also need your champions. The teachers we trained in our TRIAD project continue to implement Building Blocks without any coaching or support. We went back two years later and were shocked and delighted that they had all increased their fidelity of implementation, meaning they were implementing Building Blocks the way it was intended. Six years later, the teachers who were still teaching continued to implement Building Blocks. It is important to share their experiences.

[Check out this video report on the successful implementation of Building Blocks in Boston]

ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in supporting early math development in young children?

Julie: When you focus on math, either alone or as part of a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) initiative, be sure to focus on the learning trajectories, not just math activities or projects, and embed math growth.

Doug: Professional development (PD) is critical and you need to start-off thinking about the PD as lasting for at least year. We know that a math day or a math workshop won’t change classroom practices, yet this is what we continue to offer to teachers. We need to be honest and start planning alternatives. Through foundation funding we developed a website with resources that support teachers to better understand learning trajectories. The website is called Learning and Teaching with Learning Trajectories (LT2), and is a great free resource for programs wanting to get started in thinking differently about early math.


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.

Julie Sarama and Doug Clements
Posted by
Julie Sarama is Kennedy Endowed Chair in Innovative Learning Technologies and Professor at the University of Denver. Douglas H. Clements is Kennedy Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Learning and Professor at the University of Denver.

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Lillian Durán,
 National Center on Improving Literacy

Lillian Durán standing in front of a school

Lillian Durán

Lillian Durán, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Special Education and Clinical Sciences at the University of Oregon. Her research is focused on improving instructional and assessment practices with preschool-aged dual language learners (DLLs). Dr. Durán leads National Center on Improving Literacy’s (NCIL) work on creating and translating resources for DLLs, and provides expertise on the topic of recommended practices in assessment and intervention with young DLLs with and without identified disabilities. Prior to Dr. Durán’s work in higher education she worked for 9 years as an early childhood special education teacher. 


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

Lillian:  I started my career as an early childhood special education (ECSE) teacher in Prince George’s County, Maryland. I was hired without special education licensure to teach a self-contained special education preschool class that was deemed “cross-categorical,” meaning the children all had disabilities but the type of disability varied by child. Around this same time I enrolled in a master’s program at George Washington University. I eventually became licensed and graduated with a degree in ECSE.

My next job was working with an early intervention home visiting program in rural Minnesota. We worked in home settings with infants and toddlers with identified disabilities, birth to age three, and their families. Many of the families were native Spanish speakers. Through this work, I started to become very interested in young dual language learners (DLLs). I grew up in a multi-lingual house. My mother was German and father Mexican, so I grew up learning and speaking 3 different languages and always saw the value in being multi-lingual.

I was surprised at the number of Spanish speakers in rural Minnesota. Many were agricultural workers and in some of these rural districts 30–50% of the families were Latino. I started helping these rural school districts by conducting Spanish language assessments, which piqued my interest in DLL assessments and literacy. I ended up enrolling in a doctoral program and working with Scott McConnell, at the University of Minnesota, who developed the Individual Growth and Development Indicators (IGDIs) to measure preschool literacy. The focus of my doctoral work was on

  1. assessment and intervention with DLLs whose home language was Spanish and
  2. second language acquisition.

I have been an associate professor at the University of Oregon’s Special Education Department for the past two years and last year had the opportunity to join NCIL.

ED:  What efforts have you and NCIL been involved in to improve the quality of early learning and early literacy?

Lillian: NCIL’s efforts in early learning are emerging. Our first year has really focused on laying the groundwork. We have been busy:

  1. building our repository of existing resources,
  2. developing professional development materials for educators and families around evidence-based instruction, screening, and assessment for students with literacy related disabilities including dyslexia, and
  3. forming partnerships with key stakeholders and audiences.

NCIL has a number of activities planned this October to raise awareness and improve understanding of dyslexia. I was specifically brought onto the NCIL team because of my expertise in screening and progress monitoring, especially for young DLLs. I am also a co-principal investigator for a research grant, funded by ED’s Institute of Education Sciences, focused on developing a Spanish version of the IGDIs for both screening and progress monitoring. This research and expertise will be wrapped into NCIL’s body of work.

In the second year of NCIL, we will focus more intentionally on early learning, particularly screening and assessment tools.  We are forming a partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics to develop a simple tool that pediatricians can use to identify risk for reading-related disorders. We are excited to begin work with preschools, including building partnerships with existing Head Start and statewide Pre-K programs that are interested in improving early literacy screening, monitoring, and instruction. I have an early childhood background and it is my role on the NCIL team to ensure we are thinking about how to translate our work so it is appropriate for younger children and the various early learning programs they participate in. Working in an elementary school or classroom can be very different than working in an early learning program. There can be so much variability across different early learning programs—the education level and expertise of the teacher, whether or not they implement a specific curriculum, the overall quality of the program, and much more. You really need to understand the program and meet them somewhere in the middle if you want to be successful in helping them improve their instructional quality and contributions to early literacy. Our specific early learning work scope is still in development, but we are hoping to identify local Head Start and Pre-K programs to partner with and, within these programs, to establish regular early literacy screenings. We also hope to teach evidence-based intervention strategies to teachers within the programs so that once children are identified there is actually a system of targeted and systematic instruction in place to meet their identified needs.

ED:  What are some of the challenges you have experienced in this work, and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?

Lillian: One major challenge is helping practitioners and administrators understand the systematic need for universal screening. Universal screening isn’t just about identifying children who may have a developmental delay or disability; it is also about identifying the instructional needs of all children. We need to do a better job getting this message across.

Related to this is figuring out how we train and support teachers to differentiate instruction. Once you do know where the kids are functioning (e.g., in a multi-tiered system of support, once you know which tier level the kids are), what do you do? How do you differentiate instruction based on children’s instructional needs? This is the research-to-practice challenge. Through research we can identify instructional approaches to meet the needs of various children, but translating these practices into real classrooms and early learning programs isn’t always easy. We need to understand the context and build strong partnerships with programs. We need to understand what programs are currently doing to see how the research-based practices can be embedded. For example, do programs have enough staffing to support the implementation of new instructional approaches? Do programs have an existing curriculum that these practices align with?  We need more people that are focused on this challenge—getting evidence-based practices into the hands of people working with children. I believe what’s crucial to this is researchers taking time to roll up their sleeves and get into classrooms, working directly with practitioners. This allows researchers to partner with programs to work through the practical challenges that always come up.

The final challenge I’ll mention is the need to address and improve the overall quality of early learning programs. I worked with migrant Head Start programs in Utah to implement a semi-scripted curriculum focused on early literacy and language. We found that with the right support they were able to easily implement this early literacy curriculum, and then found that it changed teachers’ practice throughout the day (not just when they were implementing the curriculum). The teachers were hungry for guidance and support on how best to help their children. Again, the message here is that researchers need to become more embedded in the classroom, conducting more focused observations of how what they’ve developed could be implemented in different classrooms and programs. A researcher’s work isn’t done after developing a product or intervention; this is just the beginning. The next critical step is figuring out what support is needed for the product or intervention to actually be translated into daily practice on a large enough scale to actually make a difference.

ED:  What suggestions do you have for others interested in supporting literacy development in young DLLs?

Lillian: My first bit of advice is to understand your own attitudes toward DLLs. This can be tough, but thinking from a strengths-based model is much more effective than from a deficit model, where you primarily think of the kids as not knowing English. Bilingualism is an asset and not a deficit. If we attend to children’s home language in addition to English when it comes to assessment and intervention, we will have a better picture to understand a child’s language and literacy development. This provides tremendous information when determining whether there is a language or literacy delay or disability. Additionally, it is important to learn more about bilingual development. What may be considered a concern with regards to monolingual development may actually be typical when children are developing two or more languages. Finally, seek out bilingual resources and hire bilingual staff.  And simply hiring bilingual staff is only the first step—they need support and training in order to implement evidence-based interventions. I’ve been in many preschool programs where there is a lack of attention to what the bilingual staff are doing. They need:

  1. training about language development, assessment, and interventions and
  2. curriculum and supports in place to guide their instructional practices.

Overall, the big frame is prevention. We need to screen and monitor the progress of all young children and ensure the instructional approaches we are using with young DLLs are meaningful and effective. By intervening early, we will hopefully prevent reading problems from developing down the road. Early intervention is a cornerstone in preventing reading difficulties and I hope to make that a key focus of NCIL. A house is only as solid as the foundation.


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.

From Daughter’s Advocate to National Advisory Board Member

One mother brings personal experience to the new
National Center for Improving Literacy

Laura Shultz boating with her daughter, Catherine.

Laura Shultz boating with her daughter, Catherine.

Laura Schultz is co-founder of Decoding Dyslexia Maryland and previously worked as a Congressional Staffer for Rep. Helen Delich Bentley and later as the Director of Federal and State Government Relations for a national trade association in Washington, D.C. She has a background in public policy and consulted for a Florida-based public relations firm for many years before “retiring” to focus on dyslexia advocacy to help children who struggle to read, write and spell in public school. She has two children, one a senior at Leonardtown High School and the other a junior at the U.S. Military Academy. Her husband is active duty Navy and they are a proud military family


Something was wrong, but no one could quite figure out what to call it.

At age three, my daughter Catherine spoke very few words compared to her brother. Early evaluations revealed that she needed speech and occupational therapy services.

Catherine displayed behavioral issues including aggression, which the school psychologist later attributed to possibly too much stimulation. At other times, she was withdrawn. She was held back in preschool because of these issues.

When she entered kindergarten, Catherine had meltdowns because of her frustrations with language.

What I saw was her having difficulty finding words and using incorrect language, which resulted in a scrambled output of the words she could find.

After three years in preschool and a year of kindergarten, she could not identify her letters and sounds, write her own name or spell simple words. I felt strongly that we were looking at a reading problem, and my advocacy finally resulted in her being found eligible for special education as a child with a “specific learning disability.”

As Catherine prepared to enter first grade at age seven, I was frightened and frustrated feeling that my child was in crisis and it did not seem that the district’s special education personnel knew how to address her reading and writing needs.

The years of pull-out services, small-group instruction and reading interventions produced few results.

Unfortunately it would take another six years from the time she was identified as having a “specific learning disability” before we understood her specific learning disability was dyslexia.

One year her teacher pulled me aside to share the Patricia Polacco book, “Thank you, Mr. Falker” and encouraged me to read it to Catherine. It was the first time anyone almost mentioned the common learning disability by name.

By fifth grade, our developmental pediatrician formally diagnosed Catherine with dyslexia. We shared the news with her school team hoping that we would finally be able to get the appropriate instruction in place for our daughter.

Unfortunately, we still found it difficult to bridge the divide between the evidence-based interventions being recommended and the programs and expertise available in our school.

By seventh grade, we had to move on to seek private reading and writing instruction for Catherine.

Through pinpointing Catherine’s dyslexia and getting her the proper services she needed, she is now a high school senior pursuing a certification in Computer Aided Design and Drawing (CADD), taking two English courses and making plans for college.

Laura Schultz and daughter, Catherine

Laura Schultz and daughter, Catherine

Students like my daughter sit in every classroom in every school in every state. They are ethnically, culturally and socio-economically diverse. Many of these students will have access to the resources our family ultimately pursued and that is good, but truth be told, many more will not and that is a problem.

Unidentified dyslexia often creates social and emotional difficulties for struggling children. Parents’ and schools’ lack of understanding and awareness of dyslexia and other disabilities can exacerbate a child’s struggles unnecessarily. I knew other families and schools would benefit from knowing about early reading interventions that included phonological awareness and decoding instruction—this type of instruction would not only reduce the underlying cause of a child’s anxieties or challenging behaviors, but would also teach them to read.

My family’s experience, in what I would describe as an excellent public school system, motivated me to reach out to other parents of children with dyslexia. I knew that many of these families were experiencing similar situations and that collectively we may be able to raise awareness and bring much needed resources to our schools and communities.

We established Decoding Dyslexia Maryland, a parent-led grassroots movement that offers awareness, support and advocacy for children with dyslexia, their parents and educators.

Through my advocacy work with Decoding Dyslexia Maryland, I was asked to serve as a parent stakeholder on the Family Engagement Advisory Board for the National Center on Improving Literacy* (NCIL), which was funded by Office of Special Education Programs in September 2016.

NCIL is an important component of the U.S. Department of Education’s mandate under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to support students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia. The center is tasked with:

  • Developing and/or identifying tools to screen for and detect reading challenges early;
  • Identifying evidence-based literacy instruction, strategies, accommodations and assistive technology;
  • Providing information to support families;
  • Developing and/or identifying professional development for teachers on early indicators and instructional strategies; and
  • Disseminating these resources within existing federal networks.

Schools today are searching for information and assistance in implementing the evidence-based instruction outlined in ESSA and required by many of the new dyslexia laws passing in state legislatures across the country.

As I near the end of my family’s personal pre-K-12 journey, I’m excited to be able to offer NCIL the benefit of my daughter’s experiences to help change the way students with reading challenges and dyslexia are identified and taught to read.

It’s my expectation that NCIL, in collaboration with parents, educators, community partners, and reading researchers, will offer our public schools the information and guidance they need to bring the science of reading into their classrooms and to close the research-to-practice gap that sometimes hinders their ability to deliver best practices in literacy instruction to the students that need it the most.

This October, Learning Disabilities Awareness Month, is the perfect time to learn more about the mission of the NCIL and to spread the word to your schools and communities about dyslexia and this new research-based resource. Encourage teachers, principals and families to visit the NCIL website and make suggestions about the types of information, tools, trainings and resources that are most needed.


* The National Center on Improving Literacy is a partnership among literacy experts, university researchers, and technical assistance providers, with funding from the U.S. Department of Education.


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 Nina Brown, Early Childhood Special Educator in Fairfax County, Virginia

Note: October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month.

Nina Brown

Nina Brown

Nina Brown earned her master’s degree in education from George Mason University and is currently a teacher in Fairfax County, VA, where she has spent the majority of her career. Prior to that, she taught in Liberty County, GA. She has dedicated her career to teaching young children with disabilities and partnering with their families to help build a foundation for educational success. She recently graduated from George Washington University with a degree in education leadership and administration in special education, in hopes of continuing to support students and families throughout the county.


How did you begin your career in early learning and special education?

As a child, whenever we went to visit my grandparents, we would always spend time with my aunt in her group home. She had developmental disabilities and medical needs that prevented her from living at home. Even though I was only a child, I recognized the limited access and opportunities available to her within her community. She was an adult, but had never attended school, which seemed incomprehensible to me. From a very young age, I knew I wanted to go into a profession where I could advocate for people with disabilities. I combined that with my love for children and eventually earned my master’s in early childhood special education. After 17 years of teaching, I recently earned an education specialist degree in leadership and administration in the area of special education. With this degree, I hope to have a broader impact on children and their families throughout the school district in which I work.

What recommendations do you have for improving educational experiences of children with Down syndrome?

I believe that high-quality early childhood education is fundamental to long term success for all children, but most critically to students with disabilities. Early childhood special education is often the “gateway” to the education system, and it has been my goal throughout my career to be a positive liaison between schools and families.

Two steps fundamental in facilitating positive educational experiences are

  1. helping families access community services and supports, and
  2. incorporating evidence-based instructional practices into classroom activities.

Children with Down syndrome tend to have strong social skills, so building upon those strengths to increase their learning opportunities in all areas of development is beneficial, regardless of their age. Teachers and parents should always have high expectations of the abilities of children with Down syndrome. Children with Down syndrome often know much more than they are able to communicate. The use of visuals and manipulatives in acquiring new skills builds upon their strengths as visual learners. Providing increased processing time and consistency are also instructional strategies that complement the learning style of many students with Down syndrome.

What suggestions do you have for expanding access to high-quality early learning opportunities for children with Down syndrome?

One of my responsibilities as an early childhood special education teacher is to transition preschool students into kindergarten, helping to ensure they will be educated in the least restrictive environment, with their peers, in the school closest to home. It has been my experience that acceptance of students with disabilities varies among schools within the same district, even though inclusion benefits all students, with and without disabilities. Schools may look at a label or diagnosis of a student to help in their decision making for programs and services. I believe it is my responsibility, and that of all teachers, to look at the individual child and their abilities first and foremost. In all aspects of my job, I strive to advocate for the needs of students in order to help build a strong educational foundation to make the most positive impact on their future.


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.