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Northwestern Researchers to Create ‘Common Standard’ for Assessing Development in Young Children

University Research Institute DevSci brings transdisciplinary domain expertise to develop ‘Toddler Toolbox’ with $15 million in NIH support

Richard Gershon, PhD, vice chair for research in the Department of Medical Social Sciences, is principal investigator of the new grant.

A new, multimillion-dollar contract led by investigators at Northwestern’s Institute for Innovations in Developmental Sciences (DevSci) will be used to research, design, and validate a novel approach for assessing development in young children.

The National Institutes of Health Infant and Toddler Toolbox is a five-year research project designed to create a new national norm for administering, scoring, and interpreting infant and toddler assessments of cognition, social functioning, language (receptive and expressive), early mathematics/numeracy, self-regulation, and executive function in children between 1- and 42-months of age. Assessments will include direct child assessment and observations supplemented as needed by reporting from parents or legal guardians.

Referred to as the NIH Baby Toolbox (NBT), the project was launched in November with a multi-institutional meeting held at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Organized as five task orders, the NBT contract totals $15 million over five years. In year one, study leaders will identify and establish the requisite resources needed to support and build NBT, including resources to provide infrastructure and support for study conduct, data acquisition, quality and monitoring, and delivery of prototype products. Initial funding through the Indefinite Deliverable, Indefinite Quantity initiative totals nearly $2 million.

Northwestern professor of medical social sciences Richard C. Gershon is principal investigator for the project. “The Baby Toolbox is a natural addition to our production of the NIH Toolbox for the Assessment of Neurological Behavior and Function for ages 3 to 85,” he says. “It’s an iPad-based measurement system distributed by Northwestern and now in use at more than 1,000 institutions around the world. Together, these systems will enable researchers and clinicians to assess functioning at any age and to track neurological functioning across the age span.”

To complete the NIH Toolbox, Northwestern will extend its relationship with Sage Bionetworks, a Seattle-based nonprofit research and development organization specializing in Apple and Android data collection. Northwestern researchers will also coordinate measurement development efforts by researchers at the University of Denver, Florida State University, University of Minnesota, Johns Hopkins University, and New York University.

The Baby Toolbox will rely on experts from numerous domains throughout the nation to come to a consensus on measurement criteria. In-person childhood assessments will be administered on a tablet, potentially including the deployment of eye tracking technology as well as additional data points for better analysis.

Northwestern researchers are working to select scientific and statistical experts for consultation, and identify appropriate measures and hardware to be implemented by NBT. The initial stages will also establish data quality and integrity testing and assurances, produce thorough data documentation, clean and verify data, support administrative and regulatory requirements, and select and secure NBT piloting field sites.

“The goal of this multi-phase project is to develop, validate, and nationally norm an easy to administer, score, and interpret infant and toddler assessment battery of critical skills and functions,” says Aaron Kaat, medical social sciences faculty member and the project’s scientific director. “Five years from now, NBT has the potential to become the standard in research and clinical monitoring of child development.”