Growing up in Northern Minnesota, Naomi Youngren discovered she was unique at a pretty young age. While many of her peers had only vague ideas of what their future would look like, Naomi was determined to work in Special Education. After college, a chance to work in Germany with the Department of Defense deepened her commitment to children with special needs. While still overseas she became a deep believer in, and subsequently earned a Ph.D., in Early Intervention and became a champion of the Child Outcomes Summary (COS) process. Learning Links sat down with Naomi to talk about the way COS is helping families and caregivers get a more intimate perspective of their children’s progress.

If you are unfamiliar with it, COS is the process for measuring the results for children who are participating in early intervention programs. Mandated in Maryland, it has become increasingly used through out the country. As Youngren explains, “This is about measured outcomes. Through COS we can look at the overarching goal of all the work the child is doing and know if the team is achieving that goal. ”

Not a dry formal test, COS works as a dynamic process that recognizes that the parents are the key to understanding their own children’s development. As Youngren explains, “ As children and families participate in the program we get a much deeper understanding of how the child has progressed. We discover how the child is functioning in day-to-day actions and interactions relative to our three main outcomes (positive social-emotional skills; acquisition and use of knowledge; and use of appropriate behaviors to meet their needs). It’s far beyond what standardized tests alone can do.”

Youngren’s passion for the process is infectious. She explains that by seeing what works and what doesn’t, COS helps caregivers get “to the meat” of each child’s programs. If things aren’t working for a particular child, COS works like a metal detector, letting the team “drill down and figure out why not.”

This is a group based evaluation system that takes the old adage “teamwork makes the dream work,” to heart. Unlike other evaluation processes that investigate and report to families’, COS puts parents at the center. As Youngren explains “ the parent’s role in the process is monumental. As providers we need to recognize and respect that families know their child better than anybody. If we are going to measure child outcomes, it makes sense to go to the source.”

With parents encouraged and expected to share their day-to-day observations about their children, we were interested to see how technology fit in. While Youngren believes that video is a powerful tool, she is not so sure that it tells the whole story. The best tool, she believes, is the simplest – solid nuanced questions.

Youngren explains, “If we ask the family ‘Does your child play with peers?’ The family might be thinking, ‘Yeah, he plays with peers. The cousins are over all the time. We’ve got great neighborhood friends. Yeah, he plays with peers.’ But if we as professionals are really trying to get at a better understanding of the different ways the child plays, what it looks like, what is the proximity of the play, what is the sophistication of the play, what is the duration, and what does that play look like? We need to be sure that we’re asking questions in a way that families can share the information that’s needed.”

The relationship between nuanced questions from special education professionals and parental observation is the essence of COS. Each side contributes to the whole. As every parent knows, all children act differently in different settings. “Sometimes,” Youngren admits, “the school program may not see something that a family sees. It goes back to the realization that families are good reporters.”

This partnership is on going. “I think it’s really making sure that we are making that opportunity, taking that opportunity to partner with families. That it’s not just drop your kiddo off at school, and then we’re going to send him home afterwards. There needs to be some sharing back and forth, and I know it’s challenging. I’ve worked in preschool programs. But it’s so critically important to develop and build those relationship with families if we’re really going to be able to effectively work together to support the child.”

At it’s essence, COS is about relationships. If you really want to understand COS you need to go back to the original vision of the program to measure outcomes with the help of parental observations. Youngren has a more beautiful way of putting it. “What we’re talking about with families is to sit beside them and get to know their child like they know their child.”