Nobody studies early childhood for purely academic reasons; researchers’ studies hope to improve the lives of real kids. And the pandemic represents a once-(hopefully)-in-a-lifetime opportunity to revisit and reinvent care and education. Portland State University’s Beth Green practices a research method that seeks out and amplifies voices that society generally ignores. “We co-create studies with the populations we’re studying,” she says. “This collaboration generates not just data but actionable recommendations.”
Rooted in Community-Based Participatory Research, this method focuses on how to improve services rather than simply evaluate their effectiveness. Professor Green says it entails more of a partnership than traditional methods of evaluation, working with staff and families to design, carry out and interpret the research. Recently, she teamed up with the Perigee Fund on the Parent Voices Study, which supports efforts to help families with children prenatal-to-3 who have been affected by trauma, racism and poverty.
Elizabeth Krause, director of programs at Perigee Fund, told me, “COVID-19 disrupted the ability of early childhood and infant mental health programs to deliver services as they always have—with regular, in-person visits. With the switch to telehealth during the pandemic, families got to experience a different way of accessing services that not only offered many benefits but also changed the way that parents participate in these programs altogether. This research was an opportunity to hear directly from families what worked and what didn’t work as program providers and funders consider what a post-COVID landscape looks like.”
“RAPID-EC and Parent Voices are both identifying important silver linings of the pandemic. The field is learning new ways of engaging with parents, in ways that hopefully will stick after the crisis is over.” -¬ – Christina Weiland, University of Michigan
Families with infants and toddlers often participate in programs delivered in the home, rather than in a child care setting. How these services shifted during the pandemic was the focus of the Parent Voices study. Professor Green’s team at Portland State University worked with colleagues at the University of Connecticut and Georgetown University to conduct in-depth interviews with 100 parents and caregivers at seven early childhood organizations across the country. Parents acted as consultants to help create the study’s methodology and to understand and share findings. Researchers provided a programmatic stipend to the partner organizations as well as gift cards to participants. Professor Green and her colleagues will present their research at the National Home Visiting Virtual Summit, March 22-24.
Parent Voices Partner Organizations
• Brockton Healthy Families, Massachusetts
• Family Nurturing Center, Oregon
• Healthy Families America, Arkansas
• Inter-Tribal Council, Michigan
• Mary’s Center, Washington, DC
• Family Building Blocks, Oregon
• Southeast Kansas Community Action Program
The interviews yielded three noteworthy, even surprising, discoveries that might inspire further research or, better yet, changes in the ways early childhood home visiting services, and infant and early childhood mental health services, are delivered:
1. There are more similarities than differences among sites. “We designed the study purposefully,” Professor Green explains, “to discover the ways different types of programs have responded to the pandemic.” And yet, in spite of varied service models, geographic locations and family characteristics between, for instance, a program serving Native American families in Michigan and another serving Black children in urban D.C., a great deal of consistency emerged from the interview responses.
The pandemic impacted the health and pocketbooks of families in all different areas of the country, and maintaining a skilled workforce stood out as a challenge in every instance. Not only were the impacts on families similar, but families told similar stories about what did or didn’t work for them as programs pivoted to remote approaches.
2. Flexibility, flexibility, flexibility. Technology can do more than we expected. Parents, caregivers and professionals alike deeply appreciated the extent that teleconferencing liberated them from travel and other logistical challenges of home visiting. “Before the pandemic,” Professor Green says, “all the evidence-based home visiting programs had strict requirements for certain practices, but we discovered that inflexibility was driving away higher-needs families and jeopardizing retention of those families.”
Principles of Community-Based Participatory Research
• Recognizing the community as a unit of identity
• Building on collective strengths and shared resources
• Facilitating partnership and capacity building throughout the process
• Disseminating pertinent information, data and other findings to all participants
• Involving a long-term process and commitment
• Seeking balance between research and action Read more
3. Early childhood programs are a lifeline. The challenges experienced by parents and caregiver go beyond issues that directly affect their children. Work schedules fluctuated. Social services became both urgent and harder to access. Families without broadband were especially isolated. Through this period, clinicians and home visiting professionals provided far more support than what their job descriptions listed.
In Michigan, one tribal parent and caregiver reported, “To be honest, during the pandemic, I was like, I don’t know if I really even want to do this anymore. It’s just on the phone and I’m just telling them about him. They’re not really seeing him. So, I was contemplating ending the program. But I noticed, they do help a lot with just making sure he’s on track with his progress, making sure that he’s meeting the milestones.… I don’t know how to explain it, they’re always willing to work with the kids.”
Another parent’s interview response highlighted the power of a brief text exchange: “When we’re not talking or whatever or I’m having a bad day, I get a text message from her.… It’s like, how’d she know I’m not doing too great?… I can talk to her like she’s my friend, but she’s not my friend. She’s my support person. It’s a big support for sure. I don’t trust a lot of people like I trust her.”
Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.