Adopting Learning Stories in Early Head Start

How Lindsey Shafer Moved Her Team’s Assessment Approach

An article written by Judi Stevenson-Garcia


“The stories we tell literally make the world.”
-Michael Margolis

Lindsey Shafer is a former Early Headstart Site Supervisor and current Coach in Northern California and a SALSA board member. Lindsey recently shared in a webinar how her team is using Learning Stories in their centers and home visiting practices for assessment in Early Head Start, to view the whole child and build positive learner identity.

After the webinar, Educa sat down with Lindsey to talk about her role as a coach and how she supports teachers and home visitors in using Learning Stories. This article summarizes her approach to child-centered assessment for Early Head Start and the way she uses learning stories to support her coaching efforts.

Finding Learning Stories

In 2013-2014, Lindsey’s program was struggling under their current assessment system. It was based on collecting anecdotal data to support scores for the Desired Results Developmental Profile (DRDP), the state’s required standardized assessment tool. Under the pressure of collecting a large amount of information for many children in a short amount of time, they had begun to focus on the assessment objectives more than the children.

Teachers found their observations lacked authenticity and meaning. There was little connection between the anecdotes and who the children were as learners. In addition, the assessment information had very little connection to their curriculum. They also found little reason to connect with families around the assessment measures.

Around the same time, their program director Annie White, attended a study tour in New Zealand and discovered Learning Stories. She brought these ideas back to the program with the hopes of re-engaging families in their children’s learning and helping teachers rediscover what had originally brought them joy in their practice.

A New View of Documentation

This is where the shift began for Lindsey’s program. Staff went from jotting quick notes on scrap paper about skills or things children said to writing “hand-written letters” to the children. Of course, this shift didn’t happen overnight and did not come without some anxiety and questions from staff.

The major concerns were related to whether the shift in documentation would still provide enough information for staff to complete the DRDP ratings. And then whether this new approach to assessment would meet Head Start Program Performance Standards. Staff also worried that this approach would take more time and was unreasonable given the number of children.

They agreed to trust the process.

They took it slowly at first. Teachers practiced writing stories and then looked to see if by focusing on the child first they could find the DRDP measures after. They were happy and surprised to discover that Learning Stories didn’t make the data disappear. Instead, by focusing on the child, they were able to write rich stories that highlighted multiple domains and indicators at one time.

A New View of Children

Learning stories redirected attention away from the assessment tool and back toward the children. To support this shift in focus beyond the checklist, staff began to ask these questions:

Who are our observations for & who is our audience (the checklist or the child)?
Why are we writing & what is our focus (to check a box or document learning)?
Who is guiding my lens (the checklist or the child)?
Where am I looking and why?

As staff began shifting their questions away from their checklists, they discovered that they started seeing their children differently. Instead of looking for measures, they were looking for how children approached their play. They looked for deep engagement and began to notice creativity, persistence, and relationships– between children and between staff and children.

A New View of Teaching

Maybe most meaningfully, staff began teaching differently. Before, they were focused on “gathering data” each day, making sure they were setting up activities or learning opportunities that would help them “collect” information. For example, they might notice they were missing language and literacy data, so they would plan to look for those one week. This would cloud their lens and prevent them from seeing the whole child.

As they shifted their view, instead of asking, “What measures do I need to observe?” or, “What activity do I need to set up to capture that information?” staff began to focus on the children and ask, “I wonder what they’ll play with today?” and, “I’m curious about what will capture their attention.” Staff also found that they were more reflective about their own practice. They think about what brought them joy throughout the day and moments they were excited to share with families. Those kinds of reflective moments were new, not typically related to standardized assessment tool.

Connecting Learning Stories to the DRDP

“Maybe stories are just data with a soul.”

-Brene Brown

Lindsey views the DRDP as a “footnote in the whole story.” The assessment items are still there, but they aren’t the main focus. She now realizes that it’s, “the child that tells us where to look, while the assessment items inform what we see.” As their lens has shifted over time, it’s gone from what was a spotlight focus – looking for only items in the assessment tool – to looking at the whole child.

This is the flow of the DRDP assessment using Learning Stories in Educa.

Lindsey believes what she calls “the Big D data” is even more accurate with Learning Stories. This is because teachers are observing children closely and spending time reflecting on the whole child. They are writing stories for the children and sharing them intentionally with families. They are  not just jotting notes or checking items off a list. Teachers are authentically listening to and documenting children’s learning, and then planning for what’s next based on that documentation.

The program’s stories tell a story themselves. Lindsey shared that at the beginning, it was clear that they were still very focused on documenting children’s learning tied to the DRDP measures. But over time, as they shifted their focus toward the children, their stories began to reflect the children, rather than the checklist. The stories focused on children’s ideas and their thinking, their imagination and interests, and their persistence and creativity.

Coaching Head Start Staff

Learning Stories provide a helpful starting point for coaching conversations with Lindsey’ staff. She supports her staff in reflecting on learning stories and considering how changes in routines, interactions, or learning environments might impact their plans for what’s next for children’s learning.

Lindsey also writes Learning Stories to the staff she coaches. She shares what she observed and what she learned through the process. Her staff responded that it was wonderful to have someone recognize the things they were doing well. This inspires them to want to give that same gift to the children they work with.
While the training and encouragement for her staff is the big challenge, Lindsey always comes back to Learning Stories.

Lindsey believes Learning Stories bring soul and meaning back to teaching and home visiting practices. It’s the strength of the focus on relationships. Intentionally engaging families in the assessment process. The desire to “see the child and not the checklist.” It’s the power of stories.

The Efficiency of Learning Stories

Learning Stories have forever changed the way this Early Head Start program documents children’s learning and the way teachers and families communicate about that learning. Lindsey is looking forward to supporting the expansion of the use of Learning Stories across the entire program.

The magic of Learning Stories for assessment for Head Start is that they serve documentation and as way to start two-way communication with families. Each story is heart-led and reflective, and so it takes time. But each story is holistic, covering the whole child and therefore serves as evidence of at least 8-10 DRDP measures.  Therefore the Learning Stories approach does not take more time overall.

To see Learning Stories in action, request a free demo here.