Tools of the Mind with Deborah Leong

Tools of the Mind with Deborah Leong

Deborah Leong is professor emerita of psychology at Metropolitan State University of Denver where she taught for 37 years. She is co-founder and executive director of Tools of the Mind, a curriculum and professional development program that was developed more that 25 years ago for early childhood classrooms to improve how children learn and how teachers teach. Dr. Leong also has extensive experience working on and publishing about early childhood assessment and standards. In this episode, we discuss the history and development of Tools of the Mind, brain development and the importance of play, and the role of assessment in early childhood settings.

Making Progress for All Learners through LEAP

Making Progress for All Learners through LEAP

The LEAP program at Cherry Park Elementary in Southeast Portland is one of a handful of inclusive preschool programs in Oregon. Originally designed to support children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the evidence-based model has been so effective that Principal Kate Barker has expanded it to upper grade levels.

LEAP (an acronym for Learning Experiences–an Alternative Program for Preschoolers and Parents) was created at the University of Colorado Denver in 1981 and aims to educate children with ASD alongside their typically developing peers. Programs like LEAP take a comprehensive, integrated approach to educating children in the early years, based on a growing body of research that supports inclusive education practices for children with disabilities.

Inclusion is Key

Very simply, LEAP proponents and researchers have found that children with ASD learn better alongside their typically developing peers, especially in the development of social and communication skills. A unique component of LEAP is that it trains typically developing peers to act as facilitators, or interventionists, in the classroom.  Research shows that typically developing children also benefit from the program, showing higher levels of social competence compared to their same-age peers.

As Barker tells it, “This model works for all children and in all my many years of education, this is the most powerful model I have seen for young learners, including children with non-ASD disabilities and English language learners.”

Peer-to-Peer Learning 

It’s story time in Max Striplin’s preschool class and students are holding pictures that correspond to the book they are reading.  When a girl named Olivia sees her picture come up in the book, she stands up and places her picture on a Velcro story board. 

A few pages later, JJ’s picture comes up. Olivia knows that JJ experiences autism, and may not be able to complete the same task independently. 

Olivia approaches JJ and uses a visual cue card to let him know it is his turn. When he doesn’t stand up, she gently touches his elbow and lifts his arm toward the story board.

Peer-to-peer learning is a key component of the LEAP model

The subtle physical prompt combined with the visual materials help JJ to stand up and put his picture on the story board.

The students cheer for JJ and Striplin praises Olivia for being “a great helper and friend.”

“If we didn’t have LEAP … we would not have the same level of success mainstreaming children with disabilities in our school. We are sending children up through the grades who, before LEAP, would almost certainly have been placed in self-contained classrooms,“ said Striplin.


An example of visual materials used in the classroom

LEAP at Cherry Park 

Cherry Park students speak 26 different home languages, with 75 percent of families living below the poverty line, and 13 percent of students receiving special education. 

The school now operates four LEAP preschool classrooms. Each class cohort is comprised of 12 “typical peers” and five special education students. Children attend school for half a day, four days a week. (Wednesdays are reserved for meetings and home visits.) Other than a $20 supply fee, the program is free and offers transportation.

Teachers have training in early childhood special education and work with two assistants. Students have access to services from a physical therapist, speech therapist, behavior coach, occupational therapist, and mental health and other support specialists throughout the week. 

Multiple Benefits Drive Expansion

Early literacy assessments from 2018 showed that all students who participated in the preschool at Cherry Park hit grade-level benchmarks by the end of kindergarten. At the end of 2019, all but one child reached grade-level benchmarks. Additionally, the school has seen a sharp reduction in behavioral referrals since LEAP was introduced—from 40 down to just six this past school year. 

Barker has been so impressed by the outcomes  that she now dedicates K–5 general funding and professional learning time to bring LEAP strategies into kindergarten and upper grade classes.

Soobin Oh, senior early education advisor for Children’s Institute notes that in adapting LEAP strategies up to later grades, Barker and her staff are addressing instructional alignment through inclusion. That novel approach is of particular interest to him and CI as we launch Early School Success—a new initiative that seeks to improve early grades instructional alignment through district and community-wide approaches.

Funding Considerations

Inclusive programs like LEAP can offer services for special education students in a more cost-efficient manner than one-on-one instruction because the approach improves child outcomes across multiple areas of development.

The ability of administrators to creatively braid multiple sources of funding, as Barker does, is also notable as Oregon struggles to meet the educational needs of children with disabilities. A lawsuit filed in January by Disability Rights Oregon and others cite disparities in instructional time and other supports for children with disabilities, including ASD.

Starting next year, Oregon will invest more in services for young children with diagnosed disabilities and delays.  The Early Childhood Coalition (ECC) and others helped ensure the Student Success Act included full funding for Early Intervention and Early Childhood Special Education. The ECC pointed to research that showed earlier intervention resulted in special education cost savings down the road. Only 13 of 198 school districts in the state graduated 81 percent or more of high school students with special needs in 2018.


Learn More About the LEAP Preschool Model


Parents, Educators Call for “More Time, More Hours” to Improve Early Special Education Outcomes

For Kids Going Back to School, Summer Experiences Matter

For Kids Going Back to School, Summer Experiences Matter

Educators and parents of school-aged children are likely familiar with the term “summer slide”— the loss of skills and knowledge kids can experience over summer vacation. The impact is widespread, with 90 percent of teachers spending at least three weeks every fall re-teaching old material, according to surveys by the National Summer Learning Association.

But the summer slide is steeper for some children than others: according to the RAND Corporation, children from higher-income backgrounds actually gain ground in reading over the summer, while children from low-income families fall behind. A study conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins found that two-thirds of the achievement gaps observed between 9th graders from low-income backgrounds and their higher income peers can be traced to summer learning loss.

Income-based achievement gaps are, in reality, opportunity gaps. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Education found that rising first-graders from low-income families were less likely than their more affluent peers to engage in learning activities over the summer including math, writing, and reading, or to visit museums, libraries, and historic sites.

To prevent summer slide and the resulting achievement gaps, we must provide children from low-income families with access to summer learning opportunities, and we must start early. This summer, we visited programs in Southeast Portland and Douglas County to learn more about their approach to providing young students with summer learning opportunities.

Summer Bookworms at Earl Boyles Elementary

Summer Bookworms, now in its seventh summer, is part of our Early Works initiative, a new approach to early learning and supporting young children’s healthy development. Summer Bookworms serves up to 24 rising first- and second-grade students at-risk of falling behind in reading. During four weeks in July and August, students meet daily with a lead elementary school teacher and receive one-on-one tutoring with Reading Results, reading sessions with SMART (Start Making a Reader Today), and free books from the Children’s Book Bank.

During our visit to Summer Bookworms, Reading Results Executive Director Jennifer Samuels explained the role of each organization: Reading Results employs trained tutors to deliver data-driven, targeted reading instruction that addresses students’ individual learning gaps and capitalizes on their strengths; SMART volunteers provide time for student-led one-on-one reading that emphasizes reading for fun; in-class instruction with a licensed teacher reinforces the reading strategies; and Children’s Book Bank gives students books to bring these learning activities into their homes.

On the day we visited, students worked quietly with Reading Results tutors at tables scattered throughout the school’s library, while others enthusiastically perused book offerings to read with their SMART mentors. When asked about the best book she’s read so far over the summer, one rising first-grader pointed first to Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late! by Mo Willems, but then quickly selected four other books on the table, adding them all to her list of favorites.

Summer Play to Learn in Douglas County

In Drain, Oregon, educators and community members have focused their summer learning efforts on kindergarten readiness. Four years ago, Erin Helgren, the site liaison for Children’s Institute’s Early Works initiative at Yoncalla Elementary School, collaborated with representatives from the nearby communities of Elkton and Drain to secure grant funding from the Oregon Community Foundation for Summer Play to Learn. The program meets twice a week for seven weeks, offering interactive circle time, reading and math activities, play time in the park, free lunch, swimming, books to take home, and training to help parents support their children’s learning. The sessions are developed and taught by early childhood educators in the area.

Developed with the community’s needs in mind, the program is the only one in the area that aims to curb summer learning loss and is free and open to all families. This enables parents with kids at a range of ages to participate, something parent Brenda Russell explains was important to her and many other families. Russell also appreciates the relationships that she’s developed through the program. “You build support here because you learn from one another and you create friendships. It’s a positive thing.”

The teachers leading the program are equally enthusiastic. “I just had an amazing moment in the reading tent with one of my students from last year,” kindergarten teacher Kaaron Lyons told us. “We got to read together and for me as a teacher, it was so amazing to see what she’s learned!”

By providing free learning opportunities for students, Earl Boyles Elementary and the communities of Elkton, Yoncalla, and Drain are helping to nurture young children’s natural love of learning while addressing opportunity gaps and preventing summer slide.

For more on the SMART program and their role at Earl Boyles Elementary this summer, check out our podcast conversation with SMART’s executive director and program manager.

Q&A: A Preschool Teacher in SE Portland, in Her Own Words

Q&A: A Preschool Teacher in SE Portland, in Her Own Words

This summer Children’s Institute is highlighting the important work of early childhood educators teaching preschool through third grade. In this series of profiles, teachers from across the state tell us why they teach young children, what they wish people knew about their work, and what they’ve learned in their jobs.

preschool teacher Andreina Velasco

Andreina Velasco Reflects on the Value of Community and a Supportive Administration


Andreina Velasco is a preschool teacher at Earl Boyles Elementary School. The Earl Boyles preschool offers publicly funded preschool to all children in the school’s catchment area. As part of the Early Works initiative, the program provides families with children from birth to grade three with learning opportunities, health and housing supports, and other resources.

Why do you teach preschool?

I was working at Children’s Institute as the Early Works site liaison and before that the family engagement coordinator, so I had a strong connection with the Earl Boyles community, school, and program. What drew me to teach preschool here was that community—the families, the staff, the strong partnerships between them, and the positive learning environment they’ve created. Preschool is the first connection between children and families and the formal education system, at least here at Earl Boyles, because all kids have access to public preschool. That inspires me because it means that I can be the first positive connection between children and families and the school. I want to make sure that it’s a really affirming, validating, and positive experience for everyone, so that further on in their academic careers they have that as a baseline.

Preschool—at least the way it’s structured here—also allows time and space to partner with families a lot more, which is a part of the job that I really appreciate. We have time for home visits, and to develop curriculum that is responsive to the children’s and the families’ interests. All those factors really inspire me to teach preschool here. I don’t know if that’s the case in all settings, so that’s why I specify that it’s here at Earl Boyles that I’m really interested in teaching preschool, because of those strong partnerships and the time and space given to develop them.

What is one thing about your job you wish people knew?

I always say that it’s the best teaching job in the world. I have so much support in the classroom. I have two incredible assistants who are highly skilled educators, reflective of the community: one is a mom in the school and the other was a student in the school and has siblings here, and we’re all women of color. Having their support in the classroom is phenomenal, as well as the administrative support from [Principal] Ericka [Guynes], who is very responsive to our teaching needs. What I would really want people to know, then, is that teachers can be very happy in their roles if they are supported by their administration and their district. This support allows us to be a fully inclusive environment for kids with special needs, and to serve a highly diverse population in terms of cultural backgrounds, ethnicities, and socioeconomic status. We can have that kind of environment if teachers are really well-supported.

preschool kids at Earl Boyles

“What I would really want people to know, then, is that teachers can be very happy in their roles if they are supported by their administration and their district.”

Can you describe a learning experience you’ve had that has impacted your teaching?

This year we’ve been starting to think about equity and culturally responsive practices, and I read an article that Children’s Institute published about preschool expulsions. It was shocking for me that the rates of expulsion are so high, especially for African American boys. Learning that really impacted me, motivating me to do a lot of internal work and start leading work among our staff so that doesn’t happen here—to any of our kids, but specifically to African American boys. I want to make sure they come to school and have a very positive and affirming experience.

preschool teacher in SE Portland

For more from teachers in their own words, check out our Q&A with Megan Barber, the lead teacher and director of the preschool at the Early Works site in Yoncalla, Oregon.

Helping Incarcerated Parents Build Bonds With Their Children: A CI Twitter Chat

Helping Incarcerated Parents Build Bonds With Their Children: A CI Twitter Chat

Following the publication of our two-part story on two programs serving mothers at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility and the mothers who have benefited, we convened a panel of national experts to take a broader view of the issues facing incarcerated parents around the country, supports that are needed, and programs in place that are helping this vulnerable population of parents and children. Read the full transcript of our chat below.

Q&A: A Preschool Teacher in Yoncalla, in Her Own Words

Q&A: A Preschool Teacher in Yoncalla, in Her Own Words

Q&A: Preschool Teacher in Yoncalla
This summer Children’s Institute is highlighting the important work of early childhood educators teaching preschool through third grade. In this series of profiles, teachers from across the state tell us why they teach young children, what they wish people knew about their work, and what they’ve learned in their jobs.

Megan Barber Shares Her Work Creating a Playful, Safe, and Loving Preschool Classroom
Megan Barber is the lead teacher and director of the preschool program at Yoncalla Elementary School. Yoncalla is a town of just over a thousand people in rural Douglas County, Oregon. The program is a Preschool Promise site offering publicly funded preschool to children in low-income families living in the district. Yoncalla Elementary School is also part of the Early Works initiative, a prenatal through third grade learning lab demonstrating a new approach to education and healthy development for young children and their families.

Why do you teach preschool?
Most things that have happened in my life have not been planned out but have been more like tripping over buried treasure. I chose my professional path for my undergraduate work by chance, I got involved in preschool work at the Family Relief Nursery (a child abuse prevention agency) by chance, and even finding a home within the community I now work in was not necessarily a part of the plan. Since preschool is not actually part of the elementary school system in Oregon, I never looked at it as a viable career path. However, when a part-time preschool teaching position came up at the Relief Nursery (something I found out by chance when my dad was doing a water damage job at the facility), I said, “why not?” and applied for the job—not thinking much would come from it. My life forever changed when I took that position. Through this work, I got to take a close examination of the families within my community, developing a love and empathy for their unique situations and challenges. I quickly realized that these marginalized families were invisible within the community and lacked any voice or ability to advocate for the needs of their children. I decided from that moment on that no matter what future teaching position I took, the families (especially the invisible families) would come first. I love preschool because I have the opportunity to be the first educational experience for the family as a whole within the community and I will do everything in my power to help it be positive and welcoming—starting parents on their first steps towards being leaders in the school and advocates for their children.
Q&A: Teachers in Their Own WordsI will also admit, I’m deeply in love with preschool because I get to play. It was shocking to me that I had forgotten how to play—silly, crazy play—like children do. Learning real play again became a study of mine, something I practice and invest in. You see, play is where the magic is. Anything can happen for children in play! And when I can help provide children with opportunities for good, hardy, messy, ridiculous, wild rumpus kind of play, I feel like I’ve accomplished my goal for the day. What was so strange to me was realizing that some of the children coming into the classroom forgot how to play. That is all the more reason why play is an absolute necessity, because it creates a space where children bloom and come into their own. We teach children how to use their imagination, how to think deeper about what they are doing and seeing, and how to engage with peers to make their experience more fun.

The other thing I love about children at this age is that they really don’t remember anything about preschool. When children grow up, they cannot recall the letters they learned, the numbers they wrote, and they may not even be able to clearly remember the faces of the teachers they had. What is left behind is this feeling, whether it was a great feeling or a not so great one. I hope my students will feel in later years that they were all a part of something that helped make their childhood a little bit special. Maybe we can all walk away with the feeling of being touched by a little pixie dust.

What is one thing about your job that you wish other people knew?
I wish people could really see the work that my staff and I do together. Not only do we train together, purposefully build our skills and philosophy together, and communicate frequently—we work like a well-oiled machine. Rarely needing to actually say a word about what is needed, we can pretty much read each other’s minds in order to be where we need to be, identify a need of a student, assess what is to be done when a situation arises, or how to be flexible or change plans on the fly. My three teacher aides are what makes the program work as it does. They invest in the mission just as I do, they see it work, they are honest about what needs to change, and they give everything they’ve got. For us, this is not a job—it is something we are called to do. And when you have a group of people who are dedicated to children and families, I just don’t think that there is anything we can’t do!

On the same note, I think it is only logical to state that we work so well and push so hard to do our best because teaching preschool is much harder than many think it is. Yes, we get to play—but play is actually hard work. We are right alongside the children, helping them plan, problem solve, engage, be responsive; we are scaffolding, observing, and assessing. When children come in, they have their own anxiety and stress that they bring through the door and we work so hard to download our calm, to make their burdens light. Our days feel long sometimes, our feet are tired, and we are probably pretty gross when all is said and done. Working in preschool is not for everyone because it is some intense, powerful work when done right. In other words, we should all give props to the preschools and their staff. The work is hard but rewarding.

“Teaching preschool is much harder than many think it is. Yes, we get to play- but play is actually hard work.”

Can you describe a learning experience you’ve had that has impacted your teaching?

I have been very fortunate to work in the field of trauma, which has opened my mind to better understanding my community and the children I serve. Through my education, I have learned so much about best practices, how to refine my work to best meet the needs of all students, and how to provide an inclusive environment. It feels like everything I learned was tied together last summer, when I took a week-long training in Arkansas to learn about Dr. Becky Baily’s work in Conscious Discipline. (She is now my personal hero.) I knew that her work in social and emotional development was the key that had been missing in my practice. Even though I had the education behind me regarding trauma, special needs, best practice, therapeutic language, brain development, etc., I had been missing the practical application of this knowledge in a way that works best for children. Though there’s still so much more for me to learn, I couldn’t help but dive in the moment school started. I designed a safe space within my classroom that was a purposeful place for me to talk with students about our emotions and how they can co-regulate. I trained my staff on what this looks like, so we can all engage with children in a way that is nurturing rather than punitive. I made sure that each child has a choice in how they want to be greeted and engage in “I love you” rituals for children walking into the classroom with anxiety, stress, fear, or sadness. We bond each morning with a unity song that emphasizes how we love and care about each person in our school family and how we will keep it safe for each other. The students now know how to show empathy for each other, leading their own “Wishing Well” experience for children who are upset or needing help. The students themselves have become the nurturers for each other and have truly embraced the idea of family. I love the concept of creating this family and unit within the school because it fills in the gaps that children experience within their home life—fully meeting the needs of each child.

What I especially love about Conscious Discipline is how appropriate it is for all children (heavens, it meets our needs as adults, too). Many autistic children learn specific facial expressions so that they can better identify what another person’s experiencing emotionally. Children with behavioral issues (who are frequently kicked out of preschool programs) learn how to be able to calm, use their words to express their needs, and have “loving eyes” for others so that they see from their perspective. Children who have experienced trauma (which is more of the norm than the exception in my classroom) can have their fragile hearts addressed and cared for and are provided the safety of being able to express themselves in a way that is safe but also meets the needs of the child and the family. Conscious Discipline also engages parents to take part in the school family and practice the language and purpose of the method to benefit children when at home. It is a healing experience for families. There is no way to experience the practice and not walk away unchanged. Conscious Discipline is a heart thing. It is a love thing. This is how we raise children to change the world.

Q&A: Teachers in Their Own Words

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