Abstract

Staff members' views on developmental assessment in a multicultural early childhood setting are described and analysis of these views used to initiate a critique of current practice in assessment and evaluation of young children. Staff members expressed opinions and beliefs along a range from endorsement to frank rejection of the utility, validity, and ethics of developmental assessment. Those who reject the practice expressed a “theory” of growth and change that is incompatible with current developmentalist orthodoxy. Opinions of “dissenters” (who stated that they do not believe assessment gives meaningful information about children) suggest alternative practice with greater authenticity for families and children who are not from European American mainstream backgrounds.

Editor in charge: Steven J. Taylor

Developmental surveillance of children is a required function within the workscope of staff in most early childhood care and development settings today. The rationale usually given for this practice is that early identification of factors that may lead to later problems, or documentation of existing “developmental delays,” is necessary so that interventions can be designed for prevention or amelioration of “poor outcomes” for children (Frankenburg, Emde, & Sullivan, 1985; McCune, Kalmanson, Fleck, Glazewski, & Sillari, 1990). For example, standards governing the Head Start Program, one of the largest early childhood programs in the nation, mandate “linguistically and age appropriate screening procedures to identify concerns regarding a child's developmental, sensory (visual and auditory), behavioral, motor, language, social, cognitive, perceptual, and emotional skills” (Administration on Children and Families, 1998). Although the standards are not prescriptive of particular assessment tools, and multiple sources of information about child functioning are required, the guidance given regarding assessment strategies uses the language of statistical measurement. Specifically, the guidance document states that “Appropriate procedures . . . should conform to sound early childhood practice and be valid, measuring what they are supposed to measure, and reliable, yielding consistent results over time and across users” (Administration, 1998). Although this sort of vigilance would seem to be clearly in the child's best interest, the matter is more complicated than it might appear. In this paper I take a critical look at this aspect of early childhood practice, using as my starting point an analysis of the beliefs, attitudes, and opinions of a multicultural group of early childhood program staff members regarding the validity, utility, and ethics of such assessment.

Different conceptions of the life cycle—those ideas people hold of how infants become competent children who grow into capable adults—can be described through the study of historical periods and cultural groupings, and different ways of appraising the competence of an individual can be associated with them. Community standards and “folk knowledge” may differ from the views of program personnel in formal systems (e.g., educational, psychological, industrial), with potentially significant consequences (Miles, 1992; O'Connor, 1995; Serpell, Mariga, & Harvey, 1993). Implicit in these judgments are “theories” about how people grow and change throughout the life cycle.

Developmental assessment tools reflect one conception of how children change over time and what is important to follow within this process of growth and change. This conception is not universally held, however (Rao, 2000). When there is a difference with parents, communication between the program personnel and family may be complicated, with potential long-term negative effects for the child. Also, when staff members do not find the theory, tools, or techniques of the program credible, they are unlikely to implement them in the intended manner. Educational programs are increasingly facing these types of “disconnects,” as both staff and families bring ever-widening culturally influenced perspectives to these settings.

In the analysis presented here, I consider one aspect of a larger study of the interaction between early childhood program staff members and Mexican farmworker parents whose children (3 months to 5 years of age) had been labeled “developmentally delayed,” “having special needs,” or having a “disability.” My specific focus in this paper is on staff perspectives on developmental assessment. Because of the central role of assessment in defining individual children's competence and the demonstrated effects of teacher and parent expectations on child performance (Daley & Gross, 1983; Marger, 1991; Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968; but see also Jussim & Eccles, 1995, for a caution), consideration of this area offers the opportunity for us to reflect critically on the effects of a widely endorsed aspect of practice.

The larger study from which this paper is drawn was designed to investigate varying culturally inflected conceptions of competence in children and the congruity (or lack thereof) between the natural decision-making strategies employed by parents in assessing their child's well-being and the evaluative techniques of the educational setting (Schuman, 2000). Primarily of Mexican origin, the parents were all migrant farmworkers.

Qualitative methods were employed, as appropriate to the research questions, which were centrally concerned with developing an understanding of the perspectives and lived experiences of the parents in regard to the designation of their child(ren) as having special needs. The focus in this inquiry was the case, or instance of labeling, rather than the presence or absence of specific variables posited to affect an outcome. My attempt was to understand patterns across cases from the insider's vantage point rather than that of the researcher. In this type of investigation, researchers do not seek broad scale generalizations but, rather, aim to portray and interpret interactions in context, increasing our understanding of the subtleties of critical events and outcomes.

Chief among the data-gathering strategies were semi-structured and unstructured interviews (Patton, 1990, 1999; Silverman, 1993) and participant observation (Spradley, 1980; Van Manen, 1990). Document reviews and content analysis (Carley, 1990) were employed to a lesser degree, primarily as ways to increase confidence in the data.

I carried out fieldwork in 10 sites in two southeastern states over a 2-year period. More than 90 days were spent with parents in their homes and at parent meetings, in classrooms, accompanying staff on home visits, attending child team assessments, and observing staff and children in sessions with specialized service providers (speech and language pathologists, physical and occupational therapists). Preliminary analysis began early in the fieldwork period, allowing for refinement of data-collection strategies throughout the 2 years of the study. I was familiar with the routines and typical concerns of the centers prior to undertaking the study as a result of many years of varied experience in the field.

Family participants were first approached by program staff members who inquired whether they would be interested in meeting with me to discuss the study. If they were interested, I followed up with a meeting to outline the procedures and obtain written consent from those wishing to participate. Staff members, the individuals described in this paper, were recruited based on their positions and on the basis of their close involvement with one or more children labeled as having special needs. At a minimum, semi-structured interviews were conducted with directors and family service coordinators at each site, in addition to the extensive data generated by participant observation.

Written fieldnotes and interview transcripts (totaling more than 159 pages) were entered into Hyperresearch, a computer program specifically designed to assist in the management and manipulation of qualitative data. An initial level of descriptive coding was developed and applied to these materials, based for this paper on close attention to the narratives that staff members produced regarding the set of circumstances and actors involved in the designation of a child characteristic as a “special need” or a “disability.” (When this designation was made within the center itself, it was almost universally as a result of the child's performance on developmental assessment measures.)

Cross-case analytical strategies were applied to data yielded from family and staff informants; and ordering, comparative, and contrastive techniques were employed across the interview and observational data to yield the descriptions and analyses of staff positions presented here. This allowed for triangulation of the data to increase the dependability, credibility, and trustworthiness of the analysis (Marshall & Rossman, 1995, p. 144; Patton, 1999, p. 1192). Member checking, the confirmation of analytical insights with members of the informant group (Patton, 1999, p. 1195), was used to further address issues of analytical fidelity.

Analysis and Interpretation

The following discussion is based on extensive interaction documented in fieldnotes with staff members at all levels. Some of these interactions had formal characteristics (one-to-one, structured, or semi-structured: 35 staff members), whereas others arose spontaneously in such settings as an outside play area. Not surprisingly, certain similarities can be found within workplace roles (i.e., directors, educational coordinators, family service coordinators, classroom staff); this led me to group informants in this manner during the early phases of the analysis. There are also differences within the groups, however, that enhance opportunities for exploration of variation. In this discussion I consider two related narrative strands: how staff describe what families think and how they describe their own attitudes.

Staff Perspectives on Families

Many staff members (all names are pseudonyms to protect the confidentiality of staff members and children) initiated conversation about families with expressions of respect and admiration for their strong work ethic and persistence in the face of many challenges. Directors were typically the source of information about general enrollment questions, patterns of family migration, community attitudes toward farmworkers, and similar subjects. Other staff members offered generalizations about what they understood enrolled families to believe about children's changes and developing competencies; at other times they responded to my questioning about this topic. Frequently, we discussed those cases in which staff members raised concerns about a child's development that parents rejected as being unimportant. For example,

Sally [African American educational coordinator] . . . put it in the context of their lives. . . . They just can't take the time to worry about one more thing. . . . They say “So what, I see lots of kids do that.”

. . . Explaining the pluses and minuses [of the assessment tool] to parents is difficult. They don't understand what a 2-month delay is.

I ask Teresa [Latina family service coordinator] what she thinks of the [assessment tool]. . . . She says it is hard to explain the results to parents, who don't really understand what a 3-month delay in speech is. Mental health referrals are particularly difficult to explain. Parents say “My child is normal, lots of kids do that.”

Patricia [Latina family service coordinator] said that “a lot of Hispanic parents have biases.”

Parents reject the developmental delay label and the concern it implies. They consider the concern for delay in this area or that area as silly, or incomprehensible, and fear that they are being told the child is “retarded or something.”

At my probe, we discussed parents who were not concerned. Dahlia [Latina family service coordinator] said that they think it is something that is inherited, so it's OK. They say “My husband was like that” or whatever, and that's just how we are.

Several themes recur in these excerpts. The mismatch in views of child development is identified repeatedly, in almost verbatim observations about developmental delay. The strong negative feelings that parents express about mental retardation or mental health problems are noted. Parental use of a comparative strategy to assess their children's status and of familial explanations for children's characteristics are also identified by staff members. These observations are corroborated by the analysis of family data from this study (Schuman, 2000).

Staff Perspectives on Child Growth

Examining staff members' expressed views of child growth and change and their expectations for child competency in the early years is an important part of coming to understand the transactions between parents and program personnel around defining child status. In study programs, the staff is very diverse with regard to educational levels, racial and ethnic heritage, and age (but not gender). Some have master's degrees, whereas others left high school prior to graduation. Most sites have broad representation of Latinas, African Americans, and European Americans, with a growing complement of Haitians in the communities where this population resides. Some have raised children of their own and are now grandparents, whereas others are older teenagers. Some have worked in the fields like the parents of enrolled children do, and some have not. These are some of the factors that may be presumed to have an effect on individual views.

Because developmental screening and assessment are woven into program operations as a nondiscretionary procedure, all sites engage in this practice and most staff members have at least a tangential role in its implementation. Typically, family service coordinators use a screening test at intake and classroom staff complete a normed assessment tool at 4 to 6 weeks postenrollment, explicitly in recognition of the fact that children need time to become familiar with the environment, staff members, and materials in order for the procedure to be “fair.” When children do not perform up to age level, they are referred (with parental permission) to specialized services through early intervention or school systems for confirmation and further specification of assessment results. Parents are encouraged to be part of the assessment, although their demanding work situations often make this impossible. Even with multiple sources of information feeding into the assessment process, many staff members participating in these activities remain uncomfortable with this approach to determining child competence.

Staff members can be divided into three groups, based on their viewpoints: implementers (those who have integrated the assumptions behind assessment into their views of how children change), adopters (those exposed to the procedures who have at least tentatively accepted their premises), and dissenters (those who openly state that they do not believe assessment gives meaningful information about children, or they have serious doubts about the validity of the techniques). Individuals in each of these groups must participate in assessment of children, whether or not they consider it valid or useful because it is standard operating procedure. The following discussion is based on how people described their beliefs about the process, thereby providing a window on the variety of personal developmental ideas held by staff and the various modes of accommodation to this aspect of workplace norms.

Implementors

All 10 directors interviewed appeared to subscribe to the developmental paradigm, although they varied somewhat in how important they considered the screening and assessment process to be. As managers and leadership personnel, they were not directly involved in assessment themselves, but performed general oversight of this and all other procedures. The following are typical of responses made by these personnel:

She (Latina director) is convinced the kids [with special needs] are not there—she has done extensive outreach every year and has rarely found a child with a diagnosed disability. . . . “They're born pretty healthy,” she said. In the past, kids would be labeled “slow” when tested on enrollment by English speakers, but “that doesn't happen any more, thank goodness.”

She (European American director) had been a public school teacher . . . who got interested in speech therapy when her son . . . had problems early on. . . . She left the schools when she was given a really difficult kid (with challenging behaviors) and was more or less refused help by superiors. Her feeling about her own son was to get him help early, regardless of the issue of labeling (he had a specific learning disability).

Educational coordinators, the senior early childhood educators in each program, oversee classroom operations and curriculum, including the integration of individual goals for children with special needs into daily classroom activities. It might be expected that these staff members would embrace the tenets of developmental assessment because their education and training in early childhood education would favor the developmental approach. The 7 educational coordinators interviewed had diverse views on the assessment process, however, and cannot all be considered implementers. Several appeared to accept it as a routine and well-integrated part of program operations and offered comments that were purely descriptive in nature:

We talked a bit about kids with special needs, but she [European-American educational coordinator] said that she doesn't feel comfortable talking in too much detail; she supervises Individual Educational Plans and Individual Family Service Plans (IEPs/IFSPs). The . . . [therapists] come to the center now . . . [and] do their own testing . . . [which] generally turns out consistent with the program's assessment.

Sabrina [Latina educational coordinator] said that in this center, the family service coordinators do [screening], the classroom staff do [assessment]. . . . They do have leeway with referrals, and often send things like paper and crayon ends home when it's clear kids haven't seen the materials before.

The family service coordinators I encountered were almost all Latinas. Of 19 family service coordinators, 2 were African American women and one was a Latino male. They had a central role in screening children as part of the intake process and in assisting families in accessing services and supports. Family service coordinators expressed more reservations about developmental assessment and skepticism about the designation “developmental delay” than did any other group. There were exceptions, however, and some of them were completely supportive of the developmental approach:

Teresa [Latina family service coordinator] said that she “would definitely see things differently” if she hadn't started working at ______ [program]. With all the training they get “you're almost a psychologist.” She noted that she learned so much that helped her with her own kids and that she's “overwhelmed at how much we get.”

Reina [Latina family service coordinator]: “But I really think, ever since she's been coming to therapy, her language skills, you know, are so so much better . . . and since she started to be able to express herself better, her coping skills and her social skills are, you know so much better. . . . And I think the routine helps . . . her a lot, you know, with her adaptive skills.”

The first family service coordinator stressed the change in her own behavior and beliefs that she attributed to her employment in this environment, whereas the second family service coordinator had clearly adopted the idea of “developmental domains” and employed them in describing the changing behaviors of a particular child. In this short extract, she is employing the linguistic “tools of the trade” in constructing a portrait of this child according to an organized set of assumptions about children's growth. She provided a concrete demonstration of what the first informant described indirectly.

Classroom staff members carried out initial assessment and periodic reassessment for each child. In most centers, staff members have designated children for whom they are responsible. A linkage is then made between assessment outcomes and daily activities for individual children. Some staff members have embraced the technology and become implementers, taking the rationale and organization of the assessment as a descriptive frame for children:

I spoke with Suzanne about David, who was labeled as having mental retardation. Suzanne said that her major concern in the classroom now was his speech. . . . She gave a detailed thumbnail sketch of his performance—he observes, but doesn't imitate, spatial concepts are lacking, he's pretty independent toileting, and engages in some social play.

Adopters

People who have adopted the techniques of developmental assessment as an integral part of their practice but maintain an open ambivalence about their validity were the largest group in all staff roles except directors. Although they endorsed the idea of identifying children early if help is really needed, their experience with this group of children has been that those who fail initially do pass after some (relatively short) period of enrollment:

She [African American educational coordinator] expressed some skepticism about the assessment, but said that she guessed it is good because it does help tell if a child is delayed so they can get help early.

I asked Cristina [Latina family service coordinator] what she thought of the ______ [assessment], and she replied that often the kids do well after a little more time, and those that fail initially do well ultimately.

I spoke with Anne [European American teacher] while the kids were napping. She expressed similar feelings and opinions as the other educational coordinator about testing/labeling, believing that lack of experience was at the base of most delays.

These staff members appear to have based their opinions of the testing protocol on practical experience, which has shown them that children's participation in the program seems to give them the tools needed to perform at age level within a relatively short period of time. Their quarrel appears to be more with the accuracy of the test than with its rationale, constituting a middle ground between those who fully embrace the concepts of developmental delay and assessment and the dissenters, those who openly oppose these constructs.

Dissenters

Those who expressed serious reservations about developmental assessment were quite vocal. The focus of concern was the concept of developmental delay as opposed to observable disability. Some feared the potential negative consequences for children so labeled; others questioned its validity as a concept.

Marcia [African American educational coordinator] said that she really did not like putting labels on kids who may turn out fine once they are exposed to new things . . . assessment and policy force it, but she doesn't like it, so she tries not to do that kind of thing herself.

Patricia [Latina family service coordinator] had been employed as a farmworker herself and had her first child in ______ [this program] at 4 months of age. I asked about her experience with children who had special needs and with kids who came out below on their assessment, and she said “This is a touchy thing for us . . . from Hispanic culture.” In her opinion, Hispanic parents do not have the same expectation of age-oriented skill acquisition, that “some kids may be slower, but they'll learn it eventually.” . . . She further noted that she “sits back” during conversations with parents of kids whose assessment may indicate developmental delay, because she is “not so sure about that.”

Aline (an African American teacher) told about a child in this room who came to them “doing nothing”; he now sits independently. Aline was very positive about the kids and seemed to disapprove of “special needs stuff.” She was updating assessments. [Three months later] I reminded her of my visit with Jacinto's parents the preceding year, when they had been told he would never walk. She attributed this change [his walking] to divine intervention, saying something like “you never know what the Lord may do for these kids,” again expressing a skeptical view of the powers of developmental assessment to tell anything about the future.

Two of these individuals expressed concern with the potentially stigmatizing effects of the assessment process. The first educational coordinator, Marcia, noted the danger of being tracked as having special needs: “Once you are into the process, you never get out.” She explicitly drew attention to what she believes was bad policy. Patricia offered both experiential and cultural groundings for her opinions, and Aline's view was influenced by her religious beliefs; she used the assessment as a tool for documenting progress rather than identifying the need for intervention. All three sounded the now familiar theme of lack of exposure as an explanation for children's performance.

Representatives from each workplace role (except directors) and racial/ethnic group can be found assuming any of the positions in regard to developmental assessment discussed here. Clearly, analysis of these status attributes is not the place to begin developing an understanding of how these different orientations are accommodated. Looking to aspects of workplace culture and the role of individual acculturative status with regard to orientation may help shed light on the process.

Personal Belief and Workplace Norms

Professions, occupations, and individual workplaces can be said to have their own culture, in the sense that they are characterized by identifiable shared beliefs, recognized norms, and distinctive ways of going about their workscope (practices). Preprofessional training serves to introduce individuals into the culture of their chosen work (Larson, 1977), whereas other types of employment may depend solely on inservice or on-the-job training to perform this function. Perhaps the largest body of work on professional culture has been concerned with medicine and how medical school, internship, and residency acculturate individuals to the profession. The field of early childhood education, although some branches of it are more professionalized than others (in terms of required entry credentials), also has a distinguishing set of beliefs and rules governing practitioner behavior. Effective training and supervision may lead to change in an individual's personal beliefs and customary modes of action over time, through supplying new ways of thinking about issues and new models of behavior. At any time, however, people within a particular setting are likely to have different levels of concordance with the goals and ideology of the organization.

A notable proportion of the staff members in the sites described here have expressed beliefs and opinions that are inconsistent with one of the core tenets of the culture of early childhood care and development, and they reject one of its key pieces of material culture—the developmental assessment. Examining these differences through the lens of acculturative status enables us to understand how individuals reconcile this divergence and continue to function in ways consistent with the open and implicit rules of the setting.

Acculturation

The individuals described above and their colleagues expressed opinions about developmental assessment that were part of a broader developmental idea that each person held about how best to account for the changes in children as they grow. Those termed implementers in this paper came to the field of early childhood with a view that was a good fit, essentially a cultural match. The vision of the child as an active learner from birth, both influenced by and influencing his or her social and physical environment, striving for individuation and self-regulation, is the dominant view in the United States and other Northern industrialized countries. It fits well with the cultural emphasis on autonomy and the tendency to privilege the individual above the collectivity.

Teresa, a Latina family service coordinator quoted above, illustrated the situation of those who have undertaken a cultural shift from a prior position into the group of implementers. She noted how much she has learned through working in the program, specifically referencing in-service training as something that influenced her opinions and beliefs. Others have undergone a process of acculturation to these ideas in preservice training, as described by two staff members with early childhood education degrees from community college, bringing them into the implementers group as well.

At the opposite pole are the dissenters, whose reaction to the assumptions of the developmental model of early childhood is one of cultural resistance. These individuals openly question the social validity (Finney, 1991; Wolf, 1978) of major aspects of program functioning. Patricia's attitude, noted above, is a clear example. She appealed first to her original culture for an alternative model and bolstered this opinion with a confirmation based on personal experience with her own child. Her self-reported behavior in conversations with parents about delays in children's abilities is withdrawal; she “sits back,” refusing to participate. Aline also resisted the cultural norm prescribing intervention, advancing religious faith as a more appropriate position.

The adopters used a strategy of cultural incorporation, allowing them to participate in developmental assessment while openly expressing skepticism about the practice. They saw their commitment to the most favorable outcome for each child (a commitment shared by all groups) best supported by a strategy ensuring that special needs are identified when they “really” exist, even if the cost is mistaken identification of many children who actually do not have such needs. They rejected (or openly questioned) the utility of the assessment tool, but were relatively comfortable with the procedural presumptions underlying it.

Each of these stances permits functioning in the cultural milieu of early childhood development, with manageable dissonance for the individual. It is possible to carry out most major tasks of one's role with integrity and without violating personal beliefs about what is best for children and families. Even dissenters can maintain their orientation through resistance and withdrawal from this aspect of early childhood practice while continuing to carry out valued functions.

Discussion

The only position toward intercultural encounter identified by Mendoza and Martinez (1989), as cited in Mendoza (1989), that was not represented in the discussion of staff attitudes presented here is cultural transmutation. This is a syncretic approach that fuses aspects of two or more original positions into a subcultural variation. How would that translate in the case of early childhood care and development settings peopled by individuals from several cultures? Would it create more palatable conditions for parents who currently reject concerns raised about their child's development? Would it create conditions under which staff effectiveness could be enhanced? Can a cultural transmutation approach create practices that are truly both intercultural and facilitative of children's growth, avoiding the implicit deficit orientation toward parental practices or children's original cultural milieu? These are questions clearly worth further investigation.

Even if exposure to preschool education were capable of molding all children to the middle-class American ideal, the costs would be great for society as a whole. Diversity is valuable not just as an abstract, politically correct good, but because it offers society as a whole a wider repertoire of adaptive behaviors and approaches to solving problems (Bonfil Batalla, 1996, p. 159). For the benefits of diversity to be available to all sectors of society, it must be supported. Alternative frameworks for appraisal of competency that equally value children's (and staff members') home cultures would include appraisal of children's status by parents and staff in multiple contexts, incorporating the preferences, expectations, and demands peculiar to each setting. This would provide a baseline for action that is explicit with regard to content and rationale. Proceeding from indigenous concepts and practices and natural environments, this type of appraisal system is grounded in the cultural script of the family and community that has provided the child's first learning environment. Courses of action to promote child growth and competence in the face of increasingly complex demands in different ecological contexts throughout childhood can then be identified. Taking this tack avoids the distortions of the current approach for children and the impasse in communication brought about by the conflict in cultural constructions of child growth and change between the early childhood education establishment and many parents and staff members alike. Within this framework, intercultural negotiation takes center stage, and competency is highlighted.

Note: Research for this paper was partially supported by grants from the Head Start Bureau and the Merck Scholars Program. Interested readers may discuss access to primary data with the author.

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Author notes

Author:Andrea Schuman, PhD, Director, Center for Scientific and Social Studies, 14 Charlemont St., Newton, MA 02461. ctriples@msn.com