How Early Intervention is Just Like Flossing (and Why Tiny Victories Are Big)

photography canvas backdropsThis is the fourth article in a series on early childhood assessment. In this series, I’m exploring the core concepts from a white paper recently published by Dr. Cindy Jiban. You can find the previous three articles here, here and here.

Good Intentions, Not Enough Action

Flossing. We know we should do it, our dentist recommends it and compared to many other activities, it isn’t that time-consuming. Yet many of us don’t do it nearly as often as we should (if at all)…Why? For some reason, many of us find focusing on prevention (avoiding dental issues before they start) harder than fighting fires. If a front tooth was knocked out, we’d take care of that pronto, wouldn’t we?

How is this related to early education? In both scenarios, we see a lot of good intentions but not enough action focused on prevention. The research has proven time and again – early childhood is a critical time for addressing and avoiding long-term learning difficulties. We hear a lot about early intervention, but it often remains an unfunded mandate. Educators in the earliest grades are not always supported with tools that can help them capture instructional insights early and often, and act on those insights in a preventative manner. This creates more problems in the older grades.

Our partners see this firsthand. Dr. Cade Douglas, Superintendent of the Sevier School District in Utah captures this concept perfectly when he says:

“We’re big believers in early intervention. You can get two to three years of growth out of a kindergartener or first grader, whereas the same intensity of intervention for an older student might only yield a couple of months’ growth.”  

The Case for Early Intervention

As Dr. Douglas points out, the same expenditure of time and resources in the younger grades often yields more growth than in older grades. In Dr. Jiban’s white paper about early childhood assessment, she references a number of research findings that support this point:

+ Investments in early intervention programs offer a return to society from $1.80 to as much as $17.07 for every dollar spent (RAND, 2005).

+ Early childhood represents an optimal period for intervention, because gaps compound and become more costly and difficult to address as time passes by (Perez-Johnson and Maynard, 2007).

+ A preventive framework which uses early and ongoing assessment to drive intervention can substantially reduce the number of students with learning disabilities (Gibbons, 2008).

Floss now to avoid a root canal later, so to speak.

Building the Habit of Prevention with Tiny Victories

So we know early intervention works. But how do we actually build it into our district plans in a bigger way and make time for it in the classroom (amid all of our other priorities, like the Common Core transition)? I recently read a good recommendation about flossing that may be surprisingly applicable: floss just one tooth a night. The idea is that it’s so ridiculously easy that we can’t NOT do it… and once we’re at it, we’ll feel the ‘quick win’ of having accomplished our goal and go on to floss more teeth… now wildly exceeding our expectations and feeling pretty good. Over time, those tiny victories compound, helping us make a small feel-good process into a lasting habit.

Now, certainly creating a comprehensive, scalable early intervention plan is a more complex process. But the key concept to take away from this analogy is the notion of capitalizing on tiny victories. How can we apply it? How about collaborating in Professional Learning Communities to identify one tiny additional thing we can do each month to support our early intervention plans at the classroom, school and district level? And when planning district strategies for early intervention, how can we focus on breaking up milestones into small chunks and incorporating opportunities for small victories for our teams along the way?

Have you already tried this in your class, school or district? Please share. Next time, I’ll focus on three specific, practical steps that can help teams build a successful early childhood assessment plan.

Photo credit to Ashley Campbell Photography.

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