Head, shoulders, knees and… tablet? UB receives grant to turn pre-K assessment tool into digital game

Young child sitting down using tablet.

Supported by $385,000 award from the Gates Foundation, study will create and test augmented reality and mobile games to expand reach of HTKS tool

Release Date: August 31, 2021

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Portrait of Claire Cameron.
“HTKS is one of the best tools to measure in children of this age the foundational cognitive skills that are critical to success in school and life. ”
Claire Cameron, associate professor of learning and instruction in the UB Graduate School of Education

BUFFALO, N.Y. – To help teachers determine if their pre-kindergarten students are ready to transition to formal schooling, a University at Buffalo-led team of researchers will create augmented reality and mobile game versions of the Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders (HTKS) assessment, a tool used primarily by researchers to measure skills necessary for success in school. 

Supported by a $385,000 award from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the researchers will develop and test two forms of HTKS-Kids, a more teacher-friendly version of the tool. One form will be an augmented reality game that automates the assessment; the other a tablet-based game that requires children to answer recorded audio prompts by tapping a bear on the screen rather than their own body. 

The HTKS tool – developed by UB early childhood development researcher Claire Cameron and her colleagues – is a 5-minute game designed to gauge the ability of 4-to-8-year-old children to pay attention, remember rules and control impulses, all of which are crucial skills that predict academic growth and readiness for the transition from pre-K to kindergarten.

The original assessment asks young children to follow commands, such as “touch your head,” and progressively becomes more difficult as kids are asked to perform the opposite of what they’re told. Previous research led by Cameron found that the HTKS tool also accurately measures aptitude for math and literacy skills.

The tool has been translated into nearly 30 languages and is used worldwide. Transforming the assessment into a digital game could allow for even broader classroom use, says Cameron, PhD, principal investigator and associate professor of learning and instruction in the UB Graduate School of Education.

“HTKS is one of the best tools to measure in children of this age the foundational cognitive skills that are critical to success in school and life. However, the current version requires a trained researcher to give the assessment,” says Cameron. “This project will examine whether it is possible to create a child-led version, which we are calling ‘HTKS-Kids,’ that needs minimal work or intervention from a teacher and can be used in regular classrooms.”

To evaluate HTKS-Kids, the researchers will test both versions of the game with up to 200 children, and continue development of the more effective game for use in the classroom.

Co-principal investigators on the study include Cameron’s longtime collaborator, Megan McClelland, PhD, Katherine E. Smith Healthy Children and Families Professor at Oregon State University; and Tammy Kwan, EdD, co-founder and CEO of Cognitive Toybox.

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