Clayton Early Learning

Celebrating Culture: Our School’s Approach to Building a Community of Respect


Kelsy Petersen-Hardie

Teachers and Home Visitors huddle around tables in a conference room to learn about a program family’s subculture of “Southern Coastal/Beach” during a professional development day this month.  Down the hall, more early childhood professionals settle on bean bag chairs and large foam blocks to absorb the cultural traditions of how one family celebrates Carnabal and how another family celebrates Dia de los Muertos.  Across the campus, still more education and family service staff gather in a conference room to understand the cultural heritage of one family’s Hawaiian culture.  This interdisciplinary discussion and collaboration is taking place in preparation for Clayton Early Learning’s annual Culture Night celebration, a chance for families and staff to share their own and learn about others’ cultural heritages, beliefs, and traditions.  These three cultures were chosen by our families to be featured in this year’s festivities, although all families and staff will have opportunities through classroom experiences to explore and share their own cultures in the months and weeks preceding Culture Night.

This celebration that occurs in December every year is one of the ways Clayton Early Learning puts into practice Principle 5 from the guiding document, Multicultural Principles for Head Start Programs Serving Children Ages Birth to Five: Every individual has the right to maintain his or her own identity while acquiring the skills required to function in our diverse societyCelebrating Culture Night at Clayton Early Learning, December 2011This document highlights research that shows the strength that family culture brings to a growing child’s forming identity; self-esteem, healthy social-emotional development, and school achievement are all associated with one’s connection to cultural roots. Therefore, it is the work of the day for early childhood programs to foster a sense of cultural pride for families and children, while helping one another grow skills to function successfully in the diverse world in which we live.

From our experiences, this charge is easier said than done as we sometimes risk stereotyping the cultures we seek to honor and approaching cultural beliefs and practices that are outside the dominant culture’s “norm” in a touristy way.  Having individual families showcase the concrete ways in which they live out their cultures, along with investigating each child’s and family’s culture during classroom experiences, monthly parent meetings and home links, we hope to provide families and young children with an experience that will go beyond the one night of our school’s celebration, heeding the advice of Louise Derman Sparks in Anti-Bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children:  “Have cultural diversity permeate the daily life of the classroom through frequent, concrete, hands-on experiences related to young children’s interests, …explore the similarities among people through their differences, [and] …begin with the cultural diversity among the children and staff in your classroom” (p. 58).

How do you grow a sense of cultural pride and identity among the children and families in your school?  How are families invited to share their cultures with children, families, or program staff? How does culture show up in the classroom to honor every individual?


Revisiting and Updating The Multicultural Principles for Head Start Programs Serving Children Ages Birth to Five (2010).  HHS/ACF/OHS.

Sparks, L. D.  (1989).  Anti-bias Curriculum:  Tools for Empowering Young Children.  Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children. (NAEYC Publication #242).



Parent-Teacher Conferences: Collaborating to Facilitate Children’s Success



At Educare Denver at Clayton Early Learning (CEL), it is time once again for teachers and parents to come together to discuss children’s successes and challenges at school. For teachers, this process is a highly reflective one, and it requires them to analyze and synthesize their child data in order to create a meaningful picture to share with families. The goal is to share with families what they have observed as well as what assessment data tells them about each child’s learning outcomes, and it also involves the family’s input in creating and setting goals for their children that teacher’s will consider in their future planning. This information will be discussed in our Early Head Start classrooms with families of infants and toddlers, as well as in our Head Start classrooms with families of preschool age children.

Since teachers are constantly trying to build relationships with the families of the children in their care, they value Parent-Teacher conferences as a way to spend some one-on-one time with families while focusing their attention directly on the needs of the children. On the day of Parent-Teacher conferences, our classrooms are closed. Each family attends a scheduled meeting with their child’s primary caregiver during the day. Confernence week - parent's, teacher's and children meet to discuss what's going on at school.Teachers prepare in advance Individual Child Care Plans (ICCP’s) that document the teacher’s view of each child’s strengths, their goals for children’s growth, and also some activities or strategies that will be used to help children achieve the goals identified. All teachers use their ongoing observational records documenting children’s interests and abilities as well as assessment data from Teaching Strategies GOLD to assist in identifying areas on which they want to focus as well as to help them understand where a child is in a developmental continuum. This helps them better understand how to scaffold a child to the next level in their learning. Infant and Toddler teachers also use data from their curriculum, Learning Through Relating (LTR). Additionally, teachers have been supporting the work of CEL’s Institute by working with the Research and Evaluation Team who have been assessing and documenting children’s learning for the last several weeks. With the data complete and ready to share, the Research and Evaluation Team will have previously met with teaching teams to reveal and discuss implications of the results of several screenings. At the Parent-Teacher conference, teachers facilitate parents completing an ICCP as well. In this way, teachers and families can come together to discuss all the strengths, goals and strategies identified, and by doing so, they can partner to support the child at school and at home.

We have high expectations of our teachers and for our children. We rely on current research to inform our practice, and we are committed to incorporating our many endeavors to improve early education for young children with the Early Childhood Colorado (ECC) framework. This framework, created in 2008, identified several goals, outcomes and strategies for action to support Colorado’s young children and their families. “ECC provides a framework that recognizes the needs of the whole child and family, communicates the vision for comprehensive early childhood work, focuses on specific measurable outcomes, [and] guides, organizes, and focuses the actions and accountability of public and private stakeholders” (Early Colorado Framework, July 2008). Additionally, ECC’s principles call all those working with children to, “…be child-focused and family-centered, recognize and respond to variations in cultures, languages, and abilities, [to] use data to inform decisions, build on strengths of communities and families, focus on children from birth to age 8, promote partnerships, [and to] act at state, local, and statewide levels” (Early Colorado Framework, July 2008).

As we move forward in partnering with the families of the young children in our care, it is good to reflect on the multiple ways we have collaborated within our own interdisciplinary teams in preparation for conferences. Much time, dedication, and consideration has gone into the preparation of information that we will share with families. I am mindful that it truly takes a village to raise a child, and I am proud to be a part of this one.

Early Childhood Colorado Framework (July, 2008). Retrieved from on November 12, 2012.


Coaching to Improve Quality – in Search of the Evidence

Lynn Andrews

Posted by Lynn Andrews


Lynn Andrews

Here at Clayton, we always strive to use “evidence-based” practice, whether we are teaching children, supporting families, training teachers, or developing programs and policy with community partners.  Sometimes, the evidence-base doesn’t yet exist in current research findings and we are helping to create it.  An example of this is our coaching work.  We have been privileged to engage in a number of research projects that use coaching as a key professional development strategy.

To some extent, our coaching work is still an act of faith.  There is a small body of research on coaching in early childhood education that is beginning to shed light on whether it is effective in helping teachers make sustained changes in their practice (generally, so far the answer is yes) but there are still many unanswered questions. Is there a minimum “dosage” to be effective?  How should coaching hours be distributed over time?  Is on-line coaching as effective as face-to-face coaching?  Is there a difference between coaching in a supervisory relationship and coaching from a peer? Is time for shared reflection between the coach and teacher important or is simply giving teachers feedback and recommendations enough? Do the answers to these questions vary depending on what skills or dispositions you are trying to teach?  And of course, the million dollar question, does an approach that works in one situation – teaching specific content related to a specific knowledge and skill base, such as language and literacy, using specific incentives for participants – transfer to a different situation?

These are not just important questions for those of us who are on the giving and the receiving end of coaching, they have important policy implications.  Compared to other forms of professional development and supports to improve teacher practice, coaching is expensive.  Funders and policy makers want to know where they can get the best return on their investment.  At the same time, the randomized control trial studies that are the standard for providing evidence of what works and what doesn’t are also quite expensive and the results often take years to reach publication. So as much as I wish we had the answers to these questions about coaching now, in trying to make a difference for teachers and children now, I have to ask – what are we willing to accept as “evidence”?  Where does our experience – carefully documented and examined – fit in?  And what does it tell us? At Clayton we have been using coaching as a professional development strategy for over 10 years, working with more than 200 programs.  Here are a few things that we believe are true based on our particular experience that I suspect eventually will be supported by further research:

  1. Coaching combined with training is more effective in changing practice than training alone.
  2. It’s important for the “coachee” to trust the coach.
  3. Coaching should focus on specific, well-defined changes in practice, not global concepts.
  4. Coachees need to see examples of effective practice and have opportunities to practice with feedback AND opportunities to reflect on their efforts to implement new practice.
  5. Given the realities of teaching schedules and limited planning time, accomplishing #2-4 requires more than a few hours of coaching over a couple of months time.
  6. What the teacher believes about her work is as important as what she does – changing practice based on values (such as behavior management) takes more time than changing practice based on knowledge (bleach sanitizes better than soap).
  7. The coaching time required to help teachers achieve a desired level of proficiency depends on her starting point and the level of cognitive processing required – supporting children in math reasoning is more complex than figuring out a daily schedule.
  8. If coaching isn’t voluntary on the teacher’s part, creating change will take longer or may not happen at all.

As you can see, these are not sweeping generalizations – our sense is that the answer to the questions about coaching is often “it depends”.

Many states and communities now include coaching in their early childhood Quality Rating and Improvement Systems, and there are numerous, smaller professional development initiatives using coaching paired with training.  If we can gather what is learned from the experience of all these efforts, we will make a huge contribution to the evidence-base for coaching to accompany emerging research findings.  Formal research may be able to inform future professional development efforts with some broad principles for coaching, but I believe we will always need to rely on the evidence of our experience in real-time, in continuously evolving environments, to guide us in deciding how to design effective coaching interventions.  If you have been involved with coaching, what insights can you add from your experience bank?


Assessment- A ‘Stickery’ Situation

Nathan Pope

Posted by Nathan Pope


Nathan Pope

As a recent addition to the Clayton Research and Evaluation department, I wanted to share my perspective on the challenges and benefits of assessing young children. I am a data collector for the Evaluation of Program Options at Clayton Early Learning research study. My responsibilities include assessing preschool-aged children in the center-based and home-based program options. To assess these children, we are using the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT-4) and the Preschool Language Scales (PLS-5). These standardized assessments provide valuable information to parents, teachers, and other stakeholders about children’s receptive vocabulary.

Sponge BobThe example below is a glimpse of what a day in the life of a data collector is like at Clayton Educare: To assess children one of the first things you need is to make sure you have all of your supplies. Supplies consist of: Testing kit- check. Test booklets in English and Spanish- check. Class rosters- check. Sharpened pencils with erasers- check. School Id- check. Stickers- (flowers, princesses, Sponge Bob, and Spiderman)- check. My hands were full with the bulky set of testing materials, and I felt like a traveling salesman selling an unpopular but necessary product as I walked the 100 yards across the parking lot from the Clayton House to the Educare School. The fall assessment season had begun, and I was ready to start assessing children!

At Educare, I was warmly welcomed by the people attending the Help Desk. At first the master schedule showed all the meeting rooms were occupied by other staff members and assessors, but after making a few calls they helped me find a quiet space where I could assess the children on my roster. After setting up my testing materials, I went to look for students to assess.

The first classroom I tried was empty since the class had gone for a nature walk to gather sticks and leaves for a project. In the second classroom, children were engaged in learning activities and naturalistic play and I felt bad interrupting them. I asked the teacher if ‘Maria’* was present and if this was a good time to work with her. The teacher told me that ‘Maria’ was no longer in that classroom, so I made a note to make sure that this information was updated in our records. Next I asked if ‘Markus’ was there, and unfortunately he was absent. Several other children asked if they could go with me, but since these kids didn’t have consent forms signed by their parents yet, I told them they would have to wait until they were on my list. Finally I asked if ‘Jamir’ was available and he was. What a relief to finally have a child to assess!

The teacher called ‘Jamir’ over and said, “Mr. Nathan wants to play games with you. When you’re done you will get a sticker!” I was relieved when ‘Jamir’ came over willingly and seemed excited to go ‘play games’ with me. I guess that kids play all kinds of games, and some are more exciting than others, so saying a word and identifying a picture that corresponds to it could loosely be considered a game too. As ‘Jamir’ and I walk down the hallway to the assessment space, I tried to build rapport by talking. We chatted about his striped green shirt and about his brothers and sister. When we arrived in the testing room, I gave the directions and we started the assessment. ‘Jamir’ was engaged in answering the questions, and didn’t seem to be too nervous about his efforts. During the middle of the assessment ‘Jamir’ sneezed and I helped him blow his nose, then we got back to work. Around twenty minutes after starting the test, he reached his ceiling score so we stopped testing and he chose a Sponge Bob sticker! I always want to help kids have a positive assessment experience, so I told him he knows how to answer lots of questions, and that he has the potential to do anything with his life. We returned to his classroom, and I started working with the next available child on my roster.

From my experience this fall, I have come to learn administering assessments to children requires lots of flexibility. At first, I assumed I would be able to show up at the school and do back-to-back testing, quickly finishing the kids on my roster. Now I know that testing takes much more time than anticipated due to logistics and human factors. There are many challenges such as verifying the student is in the correct classroom, finding students when they are attending class, arranging assessments to minimize interruptions to the classroom schedule, and encouraging kids to do their best work during the assessment.

Although there are many challenges to collecting data, the results are beneficial and worth the time and effort. The assessment results are used in ongoing data-driven discussions between teachers, mentor coaches, and assessors in order to ensure all of the goals and objectives of the program are met. The individual child results are also used to identify areas where teachers can provide additional instruction to the child during class time. The assessment results are also compiled and the evaluation report of the Educare Program is generated. Our annual evaluation report is used to inform private funders and other invested partners about the high quality of Clayton Educare and the resulting outcomes for our children.

As a member of the Research and Evaluation team, I want to thank all the people who are involved in the assessment process. Everyone has an important role, and together we tell the story of Clayton Educare. We value parents who allow us to assess their children to display the high quality work taking place in our classrooms. We value teachers who encourage kids to ‘go play games,’ and who utilize data to provide meaningful lesson plans. We value Child Family Educators who explain the goals of our research study to families to obtain consent to assess their children. Finally, we value the stakeholders who share our educational philosophy and fund our programs. Together, we generate information about children which can be used to identify areas of strength and areas of support. With this information we work together towards closing the achievement gap and providing the best opportunities for the children we serve. For all your hard work and support you deserve a sticker too!

*All names are fictitious to protect the identity of the individual.


Better Safe Than Sorry

Whitney Rehr

Posted by Whitney Rehr


Whitney Rehr

Since 1987, October has been observed as Domestic Violence Awareness month. Having worked as a child advocate in a domestic violence shelter and as a women’s advocate for many years, it seemed to make sense to pen a few words on this issue both to educate and to empower. Starting the with the somber, here are a couple of statistics: Every 9 seconds in the US a woman is assaulted or beaten and every hour as many as 115 children are abused or beaten.1 Considering our time spent in the office, classroom, preschool or private home environment, this sobering data, unfortunately, spares none of us. Moving then into how this affects us as early childhood educators, I will share a work related story, of which I am sure we all have plenty. A few weeks ago my coworker returned from a child assessment at a preschool site and recounted how well it went, how adorable the child was, etc. She added that the child had a remarkable, uncovered burn on the back of his hand. The child reported it was from his mom’s curling iron. I was silent for a few moments and then asked how she felt about that. She answered with a question: “Should I call the school back and talk to the teacher about that?” We decided that it was a good idea and the right thing to do. At the very least, the wound could be tended to with some ointment and a band-aid. On a more serious note of intervention, the conversation could lead to further discussion and awareness around family dynamics and possible abuse in the home. Either way, it is a poignant example of heeding to the call of being responsible stewards for the health and well-being of the children and families with whom we interact. While professionally we are all mandated reporters, our charge to protect children and families as best we can is a duty around which we need to feel empowered. There are multitudes of resources available to us. Nationally and locally, domestic violence centers and hotlines are ready to serve. For quick reference in Denver, one can contact the SafeHouse Denver 24-hour hotline (information noted below). Of course we all wish for best case scenarios around a child’s “boo-boo”, mom’s sprained wrist or an older sibling’s black eye, but please maintain the courage to ask questions, to listen and to seek counsel both from professionals in the field and from each other. Our shared stories can bring us together and heal like nothing else. It takes a village to raise a child. We are that village.

Contact the SafeHouse Denver 24-hour hotline at: 303-318-9989
Or you can find them online at,

1 National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2012.


Developing a Sense of Wonder



In our fast-paced world we educators are concerned that children are no longer able to spend unhurried hours exploring our natural world. When I was a child, many of my fondest memories were playing outside for hours in nature with friends. Today’s children are not receiving the same unstructured experiences, and are disconnected from nature spending more and more time in an electronic world.

As educators we must be intentional with providing experiences outside for children to be able to slow down and develop a sense of wonder from our great outdoors. “Caring for simple things in nature- like caterpillars, flowers, and lady bugs- help children develop a sense of themselves as nurturers and as people who care. Looking up into the brances of a tree changing colors in the fall.This sense of self contributes to a peaceful way of living- with self, with others, and with the natural world.” (Wilson, 2009) Providing environments rich in nature also supports creativity and problem solving. Studies conducted of children on playgrounds found that children engage in more creative forms of play in the green area. They also played more cooperatively (Bell and Dyment, 2006). Play in nature is especially important for developing capacities for creativity, problem solving, and math. In a recent case study conducted in 2011, Young children develop foundational skills through child initiated experiences in a Nature Explore Classroom, (Veselack, Chang, and Miller 2011) the findings showed interacting with natural materials, peers, and teachers provided children with many opportunities to develop early math skills. Children explored patterns, the attributes of objects, and shapes, as well as opportunities to measure and count. The math experiences were more meaningful to children because they used the math concepts naturally, in the context of their play.

Creating a nature-based outdoor environment can seem very overwhelming. One simple way to begin is by adding more experiences and activities for children while they are on the playground. I encourage teachers to stop thinking about outside time as just “recess” and to start thinking of your playground as an outdoor learning environment. Plan for outdoor learning with the same intention as you plan for indoor learning.

Fall in Colorado is my favorite season with beautiful colors all around us and pleasant temperatures. Autumn is a wonderful time to incorporate more science/nature activities outside. Here are a few easy suggestions to get your nature-based outdoor classrooms started:

  • Add pumpkins for children to explore, carry, and roll. Carve one of the pumpkins so children can see the inside, and watch what happens to the inside over time.
  • Make binoculars out of paper towel tubes and take the children on a nature walk, find different shapes in nature, listen to the sounds of nature: birds, squirrels, wind, or how leaves sound when you step on them.
  • Add sticks in many different lengths for the children to explore. Incorporate math by comparing how the sizes of two small twigs can equal one larger twig. Count how many small twigs will be needed to add up to one large stick.
  • Add leaves. Ask children to pick a leaf and then try to find another one that looks the same, then find leaves that look completely different.
  • Create an area for children to do leaf-pounding. Add leaves, paper and hammers. Layer the leaves between the papers and discover what happens when the leaves release chlorophyll.
  • Plant a tree
  • Add small and large tree cookies for the children to explore, carry and stack.
  • Get more in touch with trees by learning about the different parts of a tree, and feel the different textures. Make bark rubbings.
  • Sort the seeds from trees such as acorns, walnuts or buckeyes.

As you spend more time exploring nature observe your children to see if they are calm, less distracted, and happy! Please share your favorite fall nature activity.

Resources to consider when creating your natural environment:

Project Learning Tree -

Arbor Day Foundation -

Colorado Division of Wildlife -

Colorado Head Start -

CPSC Playground Guidelines  -


Looking upwards into the center of a green tree.Bell AC, Dyment JE. (2006) Grounds for Action: Promoting Physical Activity through School Ground Greening in Canada. Toronto, Ontario: Evergreen; 2006.

Veselack, E Cain-Chang, Miller D, 2011, Young Children develop foundational skills through child-initiated experiences in a Nature Explorer classroom: A single case study La Canada, California. Growing with Nature, 87

Wilson, R.A. 2009 The color of green: A “go” for peace education. Exchange Magazine, 31 (3): 40-43


Mixed Company: Preparing ALL Children for School

Rebecca Soden

Posted by Rebecca Soden


Rebecca Soden

Are you a parent or grandparent looking for a quality preschool experience for your child? Great news! Our high quality NAEYC Accredited school here at Clayton Early Learning would like to announce that we now have a limited number of preschool openings available for tuition-based children.

This might be news to some folks in our community who have known Clayton as a program that primarily serves low-income children and families. We recognize that this is a shift from how we have traditionally gone about improving educational opportunities within our local neighborhoods. We want to take a moment to highlight a few of the reasons WHY we are making a change to serve tuition-based families and how YOU can help us to create a future where all children are prepared for success in school and in life.

Why Are Mixed Income Preschool Classrooms Good for Kids?
Here at Clayton, we are always striving for evidence-based practices. We want to be doing the kinds of things that we know are related to better opportunities for children down the road. As universal access to preschool becomes more common across the nation, we have more evidence to help us understand the value that economic integration has for children’s school readiness. Data has been mounting for years that quality early learning experiences (especially literacy building experience that teach vocabulary and expressive language skills) help to prepare children for reading success down the road. Studies that have looked deeply at this issue have found some preliminary evidence that economic integration within preschool classrooms can lead to stronger language skills for ALL children.

  • Low Income Children – After just one year of preschool, low-income children in economically integrated classrooms moved from below the national norm (93) on language scores to above the national norm (101) while children in the low-income only classrooms were still well below the national norm in the spring (Schechter & Bye, 2007). Classroom quality was high within all of these preschool rooms suggesting that learning alongside peers from different economic backgrounds might have played a role in these gains.
  • Middle and Upper Income Children – Gains in the mixed-income classrooms were similarly strong for children who were coming from more affluent homes. The great news is that ALL children benefited, not just low-income children (Schechter & Bye, 2007).

Another reason that we are striving for economic integration is because we are working with families to gain upward economic mobility. As families in our program achieve their goals and their income levels increase, we want to provide avenues for children to stay at our school with the continuity of care that we are so committed to providing. Offering a tuition-based preschool option is one more way that we are trying to meet the needs of our families and our community.

How Can You Help?

Give the gift of high quality learning to your child. We want our preschool to be full when the new school year begins. We want every preschool child (low, middle and upper income) within Northeast Denver to have a quality early learning experience and to be fully prepared for success in Kindergarten. Please take a moment and complete an Interest Form online or call us at 303-355-4411.


Teachers and Coaches: Radical Learners?

Lynn Andrews

Posted by Lynn Andrews


Lynn Andrews

What will it take to make early childhood programs the best that they can be? Jim Knight, director of the Kansas Coaching Project at the University of Kansas, believes that Radical Learners will be the people to “save our schools” – and I think his ideas apply to our field as well. He describes radical learners as people who, among other qualities:
• believe we are here on earth to learn, so they are turned on by every chance they get to discover something new
• have hope because they know that to teach without hope is to damage, but to teach with hope can save the world
• have mentors and coaches
• mentor and coach others
• are brutally honest about what is really happening in their classroom and would welcome any visitor who could help them improve
• don’t blame others but accept personal responsibility
• infect everybody with their love of learning, most importantly the children they teach

His list includes passion for learning as a key quality for creating educational change, but I was also struck by his inclusion of mentoring and coaching. There is growing evidence that coaching improves performance and job satisfaction for new teachers, but Knight suggests that more experienced teachers (and, I would suggest, any early childhood professionals) can benefit from coaching, as well. Knight’s description of Radical Learners implies that both people in a coaching relationship have to demonstrate these qualities for coaching to be effective.

Regardless of how much expertise we have gained, there is always room to grow. And it is difficult to observe our own behavior objectively – we often “don’t know what we don’t know.” Knight teaches coaches to observe, attending to several critical learning environment dimensions that translate well to early childhood settings: whether the teacher has an effective plan for instruction, whether the students are engaged and interact respectfully, and whether there are intentional conversations taking place. Then coaches initiate conversations designed to help the teacher observed reflect on her practice (perhaps with the help of video), mainly by asking questions such as “What worked well?” “What didn’t work so well?” and “What did you notice?” before pointing out what the coach has seen. Usually, this is followed by a problem-solving conversation in which both coach and teacher brainstorm ways to address the issues identified. The coach needs to be a willing learner and a non-judgmental and caring reporter who can help the teacher focus on the children’s experience and learning, and the teacher needs to be open to seeing where there is room for improvement and taking responsibility to change her practice. This can be a challenge on both sides when it’s just part of our nature to think our ideas are right and to want to be seen as competent professionals.

In his Radical Learners blog, Knight states “The real joy of teaching is learning how to reach all the students we teach.” Perhaps for coaches, it should be “The real joy of coaching is learning how to help all the teachers we coach.” So whether you’re a teacher, or a program director, or any other early childhood professional, are you feeling it? Do you consider yourself a Radical Learner?


Authentic Assessment of Infants and Toddlers: Exciting New Research on the Learning Through Relating System

Mary Klute

Posted by Mary Klute


Mary Klute

Think back to the greatest teachers you ever had.  When I do, I think of teachers who challenged me, rarely presenting me with material or tasks that were too easy for me.  And when they challenged me, they did so by pushing me to achieve things that required real effort, but weren’t so hard that I felt frustrated.  Doing this for every child in a classroom is precisely what educators are talking about when they use terms like “individualization” (in the early childhood world) and “differentiation” (in the K-12 world).  When you consider how varied children are in their abilities in different areas, you can appreciate what a monumental task it is to meet each and every child where they are and support them to get to the next level.

Before a teacher can engage in this monumental task, they have to get some idea of where each child is developmentally.  In a high quality early childhood program, teachers do this via a process called authentic assessment.  Authentic assessment is the process of on-going observation in the context of everyday classroom environments. Teachers make notes throughout the day when they see children display various skills while participating in classroom activities. Using authentic assessment techniques, children are not put in a testing situation, rather, teachers document relevant observations in the form of ‘anecdotes’ that they refer to later when completing a developmental checklist.

Many authentic assessment tools are available for the preschool age range and to guide early intervention efforts.  However, few options exist for authentic assessment during the infant and toddler period.  In response to this, the Learning Through Relating system was developed with funding from the Administration for Children and Families.  When this project started, my colleague, Amanda Moreno and I were working at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.  Amanda was working closely with the staff here at Clayton Early Learning Institute, particularly Chris Sciarrino, to create an authentic assessment for infants and toddlers.  When the grant opportunity came along, we were thrilled to obtain funding to further develop the system and to conduct research on it. With this funding, we were able to implement the curriculum in Clayton’s Early Head Start program and provide intensive coaching to support teachers and home visitors to use the curriculum well.

Learning Through Relating is unique in that it is not a downward extension of a preschool curriculum.  Instead, it was created with the key developmental tasks for infants and toddlers in mind.  In addition, the system includes a curriculum that is linked to the assessment.  The curriculum offers caregivers guidance about how to provide meaningful learning opportunities for children that can be customized to meet each child where he or she is.

One of the most frequent questions I’ve heard when I’ve spoken to people about Learning Through Relating has been, “that sounds great, but is it reliable and valid?”  I’m thrilled to now be able to answer that question, “YES!”  A journal article documenting the reliability and validity of the Learning Through Relating Child Assets Record was published in this month’s issue of Early Childhood Research Quarterly.

The development and refinement of the Learning Through Relating System has truly been the result of an ongoing partnership.  Over the years, many people have provided valuable input to refine the Learning Through Relating system including teachers and home visitors in Clayton’s Early Head Start program and Clayton infant-toddler coaches, Shelly Anderson and Laura Rothe.  We are deeply grateful to them for their contributions.


Head Start: Are We Accountable?

Rebecca Soden

Posted by Rebecca Soden


Rebecca Soden

It’s back to school time here at Clayton Early Learning. We just held our annual all staff meeting at Park Hill Golf Course to start off the new school year.  We had the opportunity to watch a documentary about Sargent Shriver, the founder of Head Start and his dedication to the War on Poverty.  Ironically, during our session break, the TV in the clubhouse was playing a report on CNN about Head Start Fraud. For many of us, it was difficult to see the report from the Government Office of Accountability stating that some Head Start programs had enrolled children who were not eligible for the program based on federal guidelines.

Hearing this report, led me to reflect on the work that I’ve seen in our Head Start program and the value of our services for children, families and the Denver community.  I can say with experience that accountability for the Head Start Performance Standards and responsibility to fulfill the mission of closing opportunity gaps for low-income children has been a constant focus of our collective work for the fifteen plus years that I’ve  worked with Head Start.

“Accountability” is certainly the buzz word of the times, but at Clayton Early Learning, we’ve been living this term for over a decade.  A pioneer in using child and program data for accountability and continuous improvement purposes, we’ve been consistently invited to present at national Head Start meetings and conferences.  Sharing our story with other Head Start programs does not mean much however if we aren’t able to make the tough choices everyday that lead to excellence.

That day, at the staff meeting, we shared some of the outcomes of those tough choices:

  • Teachers here at Clayton Early Learning are implementing expansive care giving strategies with babies and toddlers.  They have extended conversations with children and create well organized classroom environments with stimulating materials and activities.  Child outcome measures indicate that our infants and toddlers are communicating at above average levels with their caregivers and are maintaining these high levels over time.
  • Preschool children tend to come to us with rather low vocabulary scores. However, the data suggest that our program has been successful in supporting children to increase their vocabulary scores. Children, on average, increase approximately 5 standard score points during the course of one year, indicating that their rate of vocabulary growth substantially exceeds the typical rate of growth in vocabulary.
  • Children heading to Kindergarten are leaving our program prepared for success, with readiness scores on or near the national average.  Kindergarten-bound children who attend both EHS and HS at Clayton tend to have higher scores on school readiness measures, echoing results from the Bounce Learning Network that children who enter earlier leave more prepared for kindergarten.

Our appreciation for the depth and breadth of outcomes created by the dedication and diligence of Head Start staff may not be measurable for years to come, but our eyes remain fixed on measuring our impacts in the ways that we can and in tailoring our resources to realize the mission of Head Start to promote school readiness for low-income children.  Please share your Head Start success stories with us by posting a comment.