How do we gauge children’s ability to learn? Not based on how many plastic bricks they can catalog, says Kayla Buswell Khan, director of business operations at Northwest Center, a Seattle nonprofit serving children and adults with developmental disabilities. “Is it really that we need them to know how to sort Legos into the correct colored boxes?” she asks. Khan doesn’t think so.

Focusing on an outcome like that might actually be thinking too far ahead.

Khan and her colleagues are more interested in what happens well before the blocks and boxes come out. First, kids need “to be able to find a calm, regulated state and be able to interact with their teacher,” she says.

Only then can the real learning begin.

What Khan describes here is the early learning modality known as the Connections Model. Derived in part from Dr. Barry Prizant, Dr. Bruce Perry and researchers at the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, Northwest Center uses the approach in working with early learning providers as well as parents of children in their service area.

Khan will be presenting information about the Connections Model at a free virtual Early Childhood Summit Oct. 7-9, hosted by Northwest Center Kids. Professionals from the Early Learning, Early Supports and IMPACT teams will share resources, tools and training for educators, therapists, advocates and families who want to include and support children with and without disabilities in the classroom and community. 

Northwest Center’s early learning programs focus on getting kids to an emotionally regulated, engaged state before any kind of teaching even begins.

“As adults, we’ve learned how to adjust our state to match the environment,” explains Khan. But while this adjustment is key to learning, children are still in the process of mastering it, and “we don’t expect them to be able to do any of this on their own in their first three years.”

Northwest Center Greenwood.  (Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures photo)

Caregivers can support kids in getting to a regulated state with strategies geared toward children’s individual sensory systems and emotions.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach: Different children have different needs. Some may present in what Khan describes as a “low-energy or under-aroused” state; in this mode, babies fall asleep and toddlers might be “just sitting in the corner playing quietly, tuned out, not really engaged in what’s going on.”

Other kids could appear to be “overexcited” — that is, in a hyperactive, sensation seeking, or high-energy state that might be expressed by yelling, or bouncing and crashing around the room.

But whether their energy levels are high or low, kids at either end of this spectrum aren’t ready to learn, and learning can’t happen until a caregiver or educator joins them to facilitate and support a state of regulation. One basic technique, says Khan, is engaging in “a shared sensory experience” in which an educator or caregiver joins in on an activity the child has already initiated.

Once kids can reach an organized state of alert and engaged regulation, the next building block for learning is interaction.


“The Harvard Center on the Developing Child calls it ‘serve and return,’ ” says Khan, which means “you need to get back-and-forth interaction going.” The number of serves and returns that happen in a child’s day is key to educational success later on, says Khan. It can impact everything from language skills and reading to the number of words a child knows.

In the Connections Model, says Khan, regulation and interaction form “the foundation for everything.” That differs from older models. “In the past, we would think more of development as isolated skills” like “communication, fine motor, gross motor, cognition, social-emotional,” says Khan. But the Connections Model “thinks of them all as related learning objectives that kind of fall under this umbrella … you first need to regulate, then you need to interact, then you can learn.”

Northwest Center Greenwood.  (Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures photo)

Khan gives an example of classroom directions. In the past, a teacher might have simply given students a verbal instruction. But with the Connections Model in mind, which emphasizes meeting all kids where they are, a teacher might also include a song, a motion, an image and maybe even something like turning off the lights. This can induce a shared sensory experience in the classroom, one that works for a number of emotional states and learning styles among children.

That versatility is important, because the Connections Model is based on the idea that educators can give “every child what they need to be successful” without leaving anyone out.

“It’s the same for children with different abilities and children with typical abilities,” says Khan. “We want the same thing for all of them … to be able to learn from the people who are important in your life to be able to do the things that are important to you.”

Northwest Center’s therapy, education, and employment services for people with disabilities maximize potential and create diverse schools and workplaces that benefit everyone. Register for our free Early Childhood Summit now.