Screening & assessment involving Indigenous children

Principal Investigator:
Jessica Ball, MPH, PhD

Team members over many years have included:
Sharla Peltier, PhD.
Danielle Alphonse, M.A.
Miranda Rosso, B.A. CYC, John Price, PhD.
Pauline Janyst, M.A.,
Caroline Daniels, Kermode Friendship Society
Brenda Pielle, BSW.
Connie Wilson, Lil'wat Nation

Community partners over many years have included:
B.C. First Nations Head Start Program,
First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, Health Canada
Kermode Friendship Society, Terrace, B.C.
Laichwiltach Family Life Society, Campbell River, B.C.
Pqusnalhcw Child Care Centre (Lil'wat Nation), Mount Currie, B.C.
Tla'Amin Community Health Services (Sliammon First Nation), Powell River, B.C.

Project background

For nearly half a century, there has been widespread concern about the cultural bias built into 'mainstream' tests and measures for assessing children's abilities and identifying children as being 'at risk' or having difficulties/disorders. Nearly all tools that are used by professionals have been developed by Euro-Western trained scientists and educators who have tested their approaches and gathered 'normative' information with relatively privileged, urban children. Are the contents of these tools meaningful to children who are not relatively privileged or not from a Euro-Western culture of origin? Should different tools be developed, or normative data for scoring tests be used instead? Could standardized tools be adapted to make them more culturally meaningful and sensitive to differences in children's experiences in different contexts?

What are developmental milestones for Indigenous children? Early Childhood Development program managers in First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities, in provincial and national offices of Aboriginal Head Start, and at Statistics Canada have asked questions that recognize the cultural nature of development such as:

  1. What are developmental milestones for Indigenous children?
  2. How can we prevent Indigenous and cultural minority children from being over-diagnosed as the result these standardized tools?
  3. How could population-based studies of Indigenous children recognize culturally-specific goals and account for the distinctive ecologies in which these young people may be growing up?

Project goal

Studies in this project area, conducted over three decades, have gathered and synthesized information about screening and assessment experiences from Indigenous parents and children and from speech-language specialists. One goal is to promote critical thinking about the relevance and accuracy of existing assessment methods and tools when these are used with populations that were not included in the development of these instruments. Another goal is to create and identify alternatives to mainstream methods and tools that are acceptable, meaningful, and useful in Indigenous and other non-Euro-western contexts.

Project outcomes

Findings of several studies in this project area underscore the need for community groups to work with diverse professionals to explore ways of mutually informing, re-constructing, or combining European-heritage concepts and methods when assessing child development in an Indigenous context. Methods and tools should reflect local goals for child development. Similarly, local indicators should be considered when measuring and interpreting children’s development milestones, school readiness, self concept, cultural identity, and possible special needs.

The projects have yielded information about what approaches to screening and assessment are being used, in what contexts, and for what purposes. A recurrent finding is that it is not so much the content or scoring standards that are perceived by practitioners and parents as most problematic; rather, it is the high-handed and seemingly secretive process that is often used, especially by professionals, in administering and reporting out on screening and assessment tools with children.
key themes graphic

Safe process for families

Across projects, findings emphasize the need for cultural safety in the way that practitioners and specialists interact with children and their caregivers, including obtaining informed consent before conducting screening or assessment. There is a need to 'triangulate' observations and impressions of a child's development, and especially to obtain commentaries from primary caregivers and others who know the child well. Professionals must know what is 'typical' for a child of that age in the particular community setting in which they are growing up.

Useful approaches have been identified to guide new training and program initiatives. Practitioners' recommendations about the content, structure, and process of developmental assessment in early childhood programs have been reported in publications and at numerous conferences, workshops, and program newsletters and websites in Canada and internationally.


Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada: Major Collaborative Research Initiatives
First Nations Inuit Health Branch, Maternal & Child Health Branch, Health Canada


View all reports and resources related to this project.