Communities of Learning & Research

Community of Learning approach

Community of Learning attendees laughing togetherThe TRC’s research activities are co-created in Communities of Learning (CoLs). As a new effort begins, the TRC Leadership Team draws on its partnership network of researchers, early childhood program and organizational leaders, and federal partners to establish a CoL that will be engaged at all phases of research, including defining goals and priorities, informing methodological decisions and implementation, interpreting results, and guiding dissemination of findings. 


CoL members have diverse professional backgrounds and lived experiences and share a commitment to the health and well-being of AIAN children and families. CoLs are built on a foundation of respect for the knowledge each member brings. By offering knowledge, learning from others, and embracing multiple perspectives, CoL members work to ensure that the needs and priorities of AIAN children, families, programs, and communities remain at the forefront of all TRC activities.

Research on early childhood needs and effective practices, systems, and implementation supports

The TRC aims to conduct culturally and contextually grounded research to identify (1) the needs of young AIAN children, families, and the early childhood workforce, and (2) the effective practices, systems, and implementation supports that foster child development, family well-being, and workforce professional development and well-being.

Family Economic Well-being in AIAN Communities (active CoL)

Family economic well-being (FEW) is central to child and family well-being and a goal for early childhood programs. As a new focus area, the TRC aims to deepen understanding of FEW within AIAN communities and early childhood settings through targeted outreach to partners and engagement of a Community of Learning. We will conduct a scoping review of FEW within tribal early childhood program settings, including peer-reviewed and grey literature. This scoping review will help us understand how FEW is conceptualized in AIAN communities and summarize any outcomes related to FEW and early childhood development. As the scoping review is underway, we will form a Community of Learning to help interpret findings from the scoping review, contribute to additional understanding of FEW in AIAN early childhood programs and settings, and guide future research on measuring FEW in ways that aligns with the cultural and contextual aspects of AIAN communities. For more information about the TRC’s new focus on Family Economic Well-being, contact Chelsea Wesner.

Understanding Early Childhood Needs, Effective Practices, Integrated Systems and Implementation Supports in Tribal Early Care and Education (active CoL)

This developing CoL builds on work of the Tribal Early Childhood Needs Assessment CoL (below), with careful consideration for young child, family, and early childhood workforce needs in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated existing challenges, brought on new challenges, and presented new opportunities. The CoL will consider the following foci as it moves to define its work:

  • Identify and richly articulate the needs of young AIAN children and families with special consideration for needs related to housing insecurity, the development of children affected by alcohol and substance use, and the experiences of infants and toddlers in home-based and center-based care.
  • Identify AIAN early childhood workforce needs, challenges, and opportunities, including those related to staff wellness, recruitment and retention, ongoing professional development, and implementation of the provisions of Child Care Development Block Grant reauthorization.
  • Identify effective early childhood practices, integrated systems, and implementation supports that address child, family, and workforce needs and that promote young children’s development with special consideration for Native language and culture integration and the unique contexts in which tribal early childhood programs operate.

For more information the Understanding Early Childhood Needs, Effective Practices, Integrated Systems and Implementation Supports in Tribal Early Care and Education CoL, contact Dr. Michelle Sarche

The Tribal Early Childhood Needs Assessment (active CoL)

Tribal Head Start, Home Visiting, and Child Care program partners, early childhood program evaluators and researchers, and representatives from related federal agencies convened as a CoL in 2014 to develop recommendations for assessing the availability of early childhood developmental services and needs in urban, rural, and reservation AIAN communities across the country. In 2016, the CoL helped develop a report outlining three “design options” for pursuing a national study of tribal early childhood developmental and service needs. The CoL also helped guide a second report focused on Design 1, which highlights the potential of existing data to inform a national-level understanding of tribal early childhood needs and services. 

To learn more, see:

The CoL undertook additional activities to further address Designs 2 and 3. Qualitative interviews were conducted with parents and staff of programs that serve young children and families in diverse AIAN communities. Participants shared their perspectives on the needs of young children and families, the capacity of early childhood programs to meet those needs, and the supports necessary for strengthening AIAN early childhood programs’ capacity for conducting their own needs assessments. The CoL is currently focused on analyzing data and reporting findings.

For more information about the Tribal Early Childhood Needs Assessment CoL, contact Dr. Michelle Sarche.

Review of Tribal Child Care and Development Fund Grantee Plans (past CoL)

This CoL focused on Tribal Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) programs and synthesized data from 232 CCDF Grantee Plans for a report that offers insight into how Tribal CCDF programs plan for program implementation. The TRC hosted a webinar in 2016 to review the final report, share background on the CoL process, orient participants to the report, and highlight ways in which findings can be used by Tribal CCDF program directors and staff. 

To learn more, see:

Tribal Grantee Plans from the 2014-2015 Child Care and Development Fund: A report by the Child Care Community of Learning

Research on early childhood measurement

Figure showing the relationship between community-research partnerships

Effective research on AIAN children’s development hinges on having measures of development and developmental supports that are reliable and valid for the cultures and contexts in which AIAN children and families live and programs operate. Despite increasing attempts to advance measurement validity for AIAN contexts in research and practice, a significant gap in culturally meaningful measures for AIAN early childhood remains. To address this gap, the TRC employs a measure development cycle framework developed by Drs. Sarche, Barlow, and Whitesell (TRC Leadership Team members) in collaboration with Dr. Melissa Walls (see figure at left, reproduced from Walls et al.) to guide the work of the TRC measurement focused CoLs – all of which aim to increase the availability of culturally and contextually valid measures of early development and developmental supports.

Early Relational Health in AIAN Communities (active CoL)

The Early Relational Health CoL builds on the TRC’s prior measurement research and addresses the need for a culturally responsive framework to understand and measure early development in AIAN communities. Recognizing that existing measures may not adequately consider the cultural context, values, and relationships in AIAN families and communities, this CoL chose early relational health as its focus given its conceptual emphasis on positive, nurturing relationships that promote young child development and overall family well-being. The CoL is creating a framework to explain early relational health in AIAN communities and develop new measures of early relational health that reflect AIAN values and characteristics.

For more information about the Early Relational Health in AIAN Communities CoL, contact Dr. Nancy Whitesell.

Pilot Exploration of Developmental Screening in Tribal Communities (Tribal PEDS) (past CoL)

In 2017, the TRC assembled a CoL of tribal early childhood program partners, academic researchers, and federal funding partners to design a study to better understand developmental screening tools and systems for young AIAN children. The CoL launched the Tribal PEDS study with aims to: 1) explore developmental screening systems and processes in AIAN communities, and 2) pilot methods for collecting developmental screening data from a large sample of young AIAN children (6 months to 5 years of age) in order to inform a larger study to assess how trustworthy current screening tools are for these children.

To learn more, see:

For more information about the Tribal PEDS CoL, contact Dr. Nancy Whitesell.

The Survey of Well-being of Young Children (SWYC) (past CoL)

The Survey of Well-being of Young Children (SWYC) is a freely available, brief parent-report, developmental screener for use with children ages 2 to 60 months. The SWYC screens for social-emotional, motor, cognitive and language delays, as well as autism and family risk such as parent mental health concerns, substance use, food insecurity, and family violence. The SWYC CoL designed and carried out a study to ascertain the promise and fit of the SWYC for use in tribal early childhood contexts. The SWYC was enthusiastically reviewed given its brevity, availability for free, comprehensiveness, and ease of interpretation. However, concerns were raised about the fit of specific questions in AIAN contexts, a focus on problems, and the need for careful consideration for how information could be used in light of often limited developmental services for young children. Findings from this research are reported in a peer-reviewed publication and referenced in the SWYC user’s manual.

To learn more, see:

For more information about the SWYC CoL, contact Dr. Nancy Whitesell.

Research on Native language and culture in early childhood programs

Young Native boy dancing in traditional clothing at powwowA TRC CoL that formed in 2011 to examine the cultural sensitivity of various early childhood research instruments, particularly the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), has evolved and continued to collaborate on activities that collectively examine how Native language and culture support children’s development and well-being. Now recognized as the Native Language and Culture CoL, its members explore issues related to the measurement of Native language and culture at home, in the community and in early childhood classrooms. These activities are important for growing an understanding of how child, community, and program assessments are conducted in AIAN communities. The Native Language and Culture CoL is working toward the development of policy and practice recommendations based upon their findings. For more information about Native Language and Culture CoL activities, contact Dr. Jessica Barnes-Najor.

Culturally-Grounded Interactions in Native Early Childhood Classrooms Pilot Study (current activity)

Building on longstanding work on the CLASS (see Practice Perspectives on the CLASS below), the Native Language and Culture CoL received additional support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through an Interdisciplinary Research Leaders grant awarded to Dr. Jessica Barnes-Najor, Dr. Christine Sims, and Ms. Ann Cameron. With this additional support, the CoL will design and implement a pilot study to test an approach for gathering data using the CLASS, an enhanced Native Culture and Language in the Classroom Observation (NCLCO), and a new measure of culturally-grounded classroom interactions. The pilot will inform the design of a future study with a representative national sample of tribally-run Head Start programs to validate the instruments for use in tribal early childhood classroom settings. Data from the pilot will also be used to explore the relationship between teacher-child interactions as measured by the CLASS, Native language and culture in the classroom as measured by the NCLCO, and children's social-emotional development. The timeline for this work has been extended due to the impact of COVID-19 on the early childhood programs participating in the pilot. While awaiting a safe time to gather data, the CoL has focused on refining and finalizing the pilot study approach and instruments.

AIAN FACES Secondary Data Analysis (current activity)

The Native Language and Culture CoL is using data from the AIAN Family and Child Experiences Survey (AIAN FACES) 2015-16 to add to our understanding of how Native language and culture are important for children’s development. AIAN FACES data are collected through partnerships with Region XI Head Start programs, which are operated by federally recognized tribes, and the data represent the first national study of the Head Start region. AIAN FACES 2015-16 includes data on children’s Head Start experiences and progress over the course of the year. The data are critically important for informing Region XI Head Start policy and practice. The CoL’s recent analysis of this data explored the psychometric properties of the Native Culture and Language in the Classroom Observation (NCLCO) instrument.

To learn more, see:

  • Psychometric evaluation of the Native Culture and Language in the Classroom Observation: An analysis of data from the American Indian and Alaska Native Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey. (This paper is in press. Please check back for updates!)

AIAN FACES Briefs (past activity) 

Using data from the AIAN FACES 2015-16 technical report, CoL members prepared two briefs that described Region XI Head Start children’s Native language and culture experiences in their homes and communities and in their Head Start classrooms and programs. The briefs can be accessed on the Administration for Children and Families AIAN FACES website and here:

Practice Perspectives on the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) (past activity)

Concerns about the cultural appropriateness of the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) in AIAN Head Start and other early care and education settings prompted this work, which began in 2012. AIAN Head Start program directors and academic researchers designed and implemented a survey of Head Start directors whose programs served AIAN children. The survey asked directors to share their perspectives on the CLASS, its use in their programs, and its fit for their cultural and community contexts.

To learn more, see:

Centers for American Indian & Alaska Native Health

Colorado School of Public Health

CU Anschutz

Nighthorse Campbell Native Health Building

13055 East 17th Avenue

Mail Stop F800

Aurora, CO 80045

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