Stephanie DeSpain understands well the process of screening preschool-age children to ensure that their pre-academic, motor, speech-language and social skills are developing as they should.
“Professional practitioners just go in and look quickly, maybe 15 to 20 minutes, to see how the children are doing,” says DeSpain, an assistant professor of Early Childhood Education. “Any kids who we come across who might have difficulty, we say, ‘Let’s try preschool.’ If they fail, and we have significant concerns, that might force us to give a recommendation for services.”
Children are asked their names and ages. They are shown pictures on cards and asked to identify them. They are asked to correctly identify items, such as scissors, and explain their functions. They discern between concepts such as big and small and same and different.
They count. They quantify. They recognize and name colors. They stack blocks, draw shapes, write their names and sketch pictures of people. They walk a straight line, hop on one foot and stand one foot. Older children are asked to recite their home addresses and phone numbers.
It was something DeSpain engaged in constantly when she worked for a decentralized special education co-op of LaSalle County school districts and private preschool programs, but teaching the procedure to NIU College of Education students has proven a bit “nebulous.”
“Unless you’ve worked with real students – real kids – through this process, it’s kind of hard to conceptualize in your mind what this looks like,” DeSpain says. “I tried case studies, talking through what you do if you were making decisions, but they still had lots of questions: ‘How does this actually work?’ ‘How do I coordinate this with school districts?’ ”
DeSpain found a solution in the Campus Child Care, located just steps west of Gabel Hall and the Department of Special and Early Education.
One call to Kristin Schulz, director of the NIU-owned center that provides care and education for children from three months old to age 5, set her plan in motion.
“I told Kristin, ‘This is what I would love to do. This is my idea,’ ” DeSpain says. “She was so amazing. She jumped right on board and said, ‘Let’s try it. Let’s see how it works.’ ”
Thirty-five of DeSpain’s juniors in SESE 423: Observation and Assessment in Early Childhood Special Education course made the short walk this fall to conduct actual screenings of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds enrolled at the center.
NIU’s students prepared and practiced in and out of class with the BRIGANCE Early Childhood screening scripts to build their proficiency, DeSpain says.
When the first day of the two-day activity arrived, they divided into groups of two – one to conduct the screening; the other to observe. On the second day, they switched roles. DeSpain circulated through the three rooms, looking for comprehension and providing guidance if needed.
Her initial anxiety – “I was anticipating that they would be nervous because I felt like I could have used more time to get them ready” – proved unnecessary.
“My students did great,” she says. “The preschool students were so wonderful and engaging, and we went in and got the data we needed. I shared that with Kristin; now she has information on students she might have concerns about, and we talked about strategies.”
During a time of debriefing back in their Gabel Hall classroom, she says, students brought thoughtful questions and insightful reflections, including the need to reword questions that children might not understand at first.
“I was impressed by their professionalism. I was impressed by their ability to think on their feet, which you have to be able to do when you’re teaching,” DeSpain says.
“They were really well prepared to be respectful, to work with other teachers and follow directions, and the Campus Child Care teachers were so much more supportive than I would have anticipated,” she adds. “I was always nervous of people coming into my classroom, but they were so open and willing to let my students come in and work with their kiddos, which I appreciate.”
Students were grateful for the experience, she adds.
“They said, ‘We really liked it. We liked having this better than having a case study in class. We loved working with the kids; we don’t get enough direct contact,’ ” she says. “They said, ‘We appreciated being able to come in and work the students and go through a screening, with you here, with a partner, in a place where the process was set up for us.’ ”
It also will put them a step ahead of their peers in the job market.
“When they go into the school districts, and they’re charged with helping those districts perform those screening services, they’ve already been through it. They understand. They can help, and provide guidance,” she says. “If you’re working in that birth-to-3, or the 3-to-5 world, you have to facilitate or help in some way with those screening experiences. Most have to learn that process on the job or on the fly.”
DeSpain hopes to expand the program in coming years.
Beyond providing the practical skills to NIU students, she says, it offers valuable information to the Campus Child Care.
“If we can say that they were able to give the assessment, and score and interpret the results with fidelity, Kristin could say, ‘Hey, we do have concerns with this child, and it’s reflected in this screening that this group of students did,’ ” she says.
“We did have a couple students that the teachers had some concerns with, and yes, this matched; this is what we’re seeing, and you see it too,” she adds. “It’s validation for those teachers that it’s not just them. We are seeing those concerns also.”