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Before, During, and After COVID-19: What We can Learn from Illinois Head Start’s Family Engagement and Social-Emotional Learning Practices

August 17, 2021

While the national early care and education (ECE) dialogue during the COVID-19 pandemic has predominantly, and necessarily, centered on the challenges that child care providers faced, there is a critical piece of the ECE landscape that also warrants attention. Not only did Head Start/Early Head Start (HS/EHS) programs serve our nation’s communities that disproportionately faced the negative consequences of the pandemic, but they have served as models of quality and innovation for the broader field of early childhood since long before the pandemic. Inspired by these characteristics of HS/EHS, I based my dissertation study on the ways that HS/EHS centers continued to engage families and support children’s social-emotional development throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Through a longitudinal, qualitative study with 20 Illinois-based HS/EHS directors, my dissertation provides a look into the novel and creative approaches that can inform ECE practice as we seek to recreate a new and improved “normal” in a post-pandemic world. My aim, here, is to provide educators, administrators, and policymakers with several key learnings that they can apply in their engagement of families of young children and provision of social-emotional support.

At-Home Learning Support
Whereas before COVID-19, programs had placed emphasis on in-person, center-based family engagement, the pandemic forced programs to focus their efforts on at-home family engagement. Many directors spoke about program staff finally beginning to view their families as partners and seeing them as an integral part of the work. Programs shifted from just sending home activities, to providing education and confidence-building support to families. One director I interviewed said:

When we make it easier for the parent, they feel more confident doing it. It’s not so much of a task; it’s not a job – it’s just fun. It’s going to be exciting. Just educating our parents. Some of our parents didn’t even graduate high school. They don’t feel confident in teaching the students, nor do they feel like they should. It’s just trying to give them the confidence and encouraging them to keep trying the best way they can.

Looking towards a post-pandemic world, programs may want to rethink the balance of their in-person versus at-home family engagement approaches, particularly with families that face barriers to making it to the center for events.

Resource Provision
Meeting the basic needs of families in Head Start communities has always been a critical component of the model. But during COVID shutdowns, programs were even more intentional about this component of programming. Head Start was well-positioned to be a consistent source of support to families during shutdowns for several reasons including centers having rich, ongoing community partnerships and that they were able to continue paying all staff fully thanks to federal guidance. Directors spoke about the way that providing tangible resources (such as diapers, food, and rent assistance) enabled them to create dialogues with their families that led to other productive conversations about their own well-being and children’s continued learning. One director shared:

We have a lot of community resources in our area and we keep those relationships all the time, not just at the time that there’s something going on because families go through lots of things at many different times, not just the COVID time. It was a tragedy for everyone; we’ve never been through anything like this. But because we are who we are in Head Start, those resources were readily available.

It was inspiring to hear what well-resourced programs were able to continue doing during the pandemic; I want to emphasize that Head Start was really the exception in the ECE world in this regard given their continued federal investment and flexible policies.

Personalized Communication Strategies
One of the major pillars of family engagement in Head Start is “meeting families where they are.” During the pandemic, programs really took this sentiment to heart and piloted novel ways to best communicate with and meet the needs of their families. Directors shared that, prior to COVID, they heavily relied on pick-up and drop-off, as well as pre-scheduled meetings (e.g., conferences or home visits). With the absence of these practices during the shutdown, programs innovated and utilized technology and other avenues, based on their families’ preferences. One director noted, “They’re still checking in with them; however, the parents prefer to be contacted. We’ve got some that like to be texted, some that like to be messaged through Facebook, and some like the calls.”

It is also important to note that most programs talked about the evolution of their strategies over time. When they found that one approach was overwhelming families or was ineffective, they were quick to try something new. Going forward, it seems important that programs continue to innovate with their communication strategies and respond in a timely fashion to familial feedback.

Expanding the Construct of Social-Emotional Learning
When directors shared their pre-pandemic practices related to social-emotional learning (SEL), they most often referenced a specific curriculum or their work with children with challenging behaviors. The COVID-19 shutdown really seemed to shift their thinking of this narrow construct to a much broader one and to get at the essence of the true goal of SEL: to support children’s inter- and intra-personal well-being. One director commented:

When I’m thinking social-emotional, sometimes people think of it as a standard. To me, during COVID, the Fashion Show was social-emotional. The families had been in a house for two months and they couldn’t take it anymore and this was something that got us going and got us outside in our backyard. We tried to find things that would touch, not our standard social-emotional, how we’re always doing it by the book, but something that would also make them want to get outside a little.

Interestingly, some directors did not make the connection between important work they were doing regarding children’s well-being and the construct of “SEL” as they had conceptualized it. This is potentially a rich area for professional development, as is revising standards and guidelines for educators that encourage creativity and responsivity to the current context.

Social-Emotional Learning Starts with Adult Mental Health
Most of my conversations with directors about SEL were really focused on adult mental health, whether regarding parent/caregiver or Head Start staff. Programs paid special attention to the stress levels and well-being of the adults in their community throughout the pandemic, making specific connections to this work and children’s well-being. This ecological refocus on adult well-being was also not just concentrated on trainings or more structured initiatives; rather, it more often took the form of informal check-ins and relationship building. Many directors spoke about relationships improving among staff and with their families during the shutdown given these new tactics, with one sharing: “Those well-checks were the most important thing. Even if you just said, ‘Hi, how are you,’ that was what parents needed.”

It feels critically important that programs continue to build these relationships and commit their attention to adult mental health in a post-pandemic world.

Children Have Shown Incredible Resilience
While adults, both at home and in the center, struggled with their own well-being throughout the pandemic, directors described the extraordinary ways that they were able to come together in support of children to minimize the potential negative impact of the pandemic on their social-emotional development. Every single director I spoke to during the reopening phase described being pleasantly surprised with children’s well-being and lack of challenging behaviors upon returning to in-person during the Fall of 2020. This finding was equally surprising to me, given the great concern that child development experts expressed for young children at the start of the pandemic. One director said:

We just knew three-to-five-year-olds were not going to have these masks on, they were going to lose all that we’ve taught them as far as social-emotional development in school. We were so wrong. Our kids did so well. It was just absolutely amazing…These kids are soldiers…I mean, we do learn a lot from our babies, and we get our strength from them and our courage. They’re amazing little people…I definitely have to say it starts at the top. So, I feel like it comes from our parents. By us talking to our parents about what’s expected and what’s necessary and what’s important, we spoke to and educated our parents on that…As parents and as staff, we modeled that and we taught the students not to be scared, not to be afraid, to be brave. I think that’s how they’re able to handle it so well.

While my study cannot speak to any causal claims, it is likely that the services and continued support that Head Start was able to provide families throughout all stages of the pandemic was instrumental in children’s successful reintegration to center-based learning.

Fund Families’ Futures
The directors in this study provided a unique window into how HS/EHS programming evolved during COVID-19 to continue fulfilling their mission of supporting children and families. This investigation speaks to what was possible for ECE providers who continued to receive full federal funding and ample resources, bolstering the case for broader, cross-system early childhood investments. An adequately funded ECE system would enable providers to innovate, respond to family needs, and support the social-emotional well-being of young children in the ways HS/EHS accomplished during one of our country’s darkest times.

About Dr. Silver
Dr. Silver is a recent graduate from the University of Illinois Chicago, where she earned her Ph.D. in Community and Prevention Psychology. Her work within the field of early childhood primarily focuses on social-emotional learning, infant/early childhood mental health consultation, and exclusionary discipNaline. She is currently a Lead Evaluator at the Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development.

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