Picture a traditional Pre-K or Kindergarten classroom. Did you picture video calls or social distancing? Probably not, and for good reason. Early childhood classrooms are not well-suited for the COVID-19 world. There’s an emphasis on social interactions, exploration through play, and experimentation. All of this requires children to work with and play closely with their peers. And when it comes to screen time, anything more than one hour of screen time per day is typically considered developmentally inappropriate by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Let’s take a quick step back to remind us of what’s at stake for young children. The early learning years are a time to make friends, build block towers, play make-believe—and get ready for kindergarten. Kindergarten readiness and success isn’t just a nice-to-have so a child can have an easier transition into the K-12 education system; it’s an important indicator of later academic and subsequent life success. Responsive relationships and early learning experiences that foster development across the domains of early academic building blocks, executive function, social-emotional, and physical health and well-being are key drivers of Kindergarten readiness. Typically, these skills are developed both in early learning programs (for those that attend one) and at home.

But this year is not a typical year: As of April, 17% of early learning providers have closed to everyone except essential personnel. Of those which have remained open, 85% are operating at <50% capacity. Even children who are lucky enough to attend preschool will have a markedly different experience—masks, social distancing, the inability to share toys and crayons. This makes the home-school connection more important than ever. 

There is no going around parents anymore. We’ve got to work with and through them.

Alejandro Gibes de Gac, Springboard Collaborative,  NYTimes

“Family engagement” is not a new concept, but never has it been as critical to child, teacher, school, and district success than in the COVID-19 era. To succeed in distance learning this year, schools need strong relationships with families, not only to communicate about closings/re-openings/re-closings, but to deliver content and act as a conduit from teacher to student. 

Through our work in the Early Impact portfolio, we’ve sought for many years to support nonprofit organizations that connect educators and families, equipping caregivers with tools to most effectively support children’s early academic and social development. The work of these organizations is especially important this year given mass closures of preschools and daycares due to COVID-19.

Below, we highlight four organizations in our portfolio whose proven experience in connecting families with educators makes them uniquely positioned to deliver meaningful impact for children in an especially difficult time. 

High-intensity parent-teacher connection and coaching

Springboard Collaborative has long believed that connecting home and school was the key to closing the literacy gap. “There is no going around parents anymore,” says Alejandro Gibes de Gac, founder and chief executive of Springboard Collaborative, “we’ve got to work with and through them.” The organization approaches its work by coaching both teachers and family members to develop a reading plan that helps children strengthen their reading skills. Through a combination of personalized instruction for PreK-4th graders, workshops training parents to teach reading at home, and professional development on family engagement for teachers, Springboard Collaborative has shown an ability to replace typical learning loss (usually from summer) with substantive gains.

A recent evaluation showed that across all grades, students who participated in Springboard’s summer programming showed improvement in their reading assessments; the largest gains were for students who started below grade level. 

Image via NYTimes/Springboard Collaborative

Springboard’s plans for this school year include tripling their reach through virtual delivery of the model, ensuring they can continue to help kids meet reading goals, whether they are learning from home or from school. 

ParentCorps transforms the pre-K experience in historically disinvested neighborhoods by helping schools partner with families and take an active role in their children’s education. Complementary social-emotional learning (SEL) programs for teachers, parents, and children ensure that the adults in children’s lives are aligned and have the capacity to support their development both in and out of the classroom. 

Evaluations of ParentCorps have found that children who participated in the program are more likely to read on grade level and less likely to experience mental health problems. Parents and caregivers who participated in ParentCorps are more involved in children’s learning and increase their use of evidence-based parenting practices, which has been shown to increase the likelihood of Kindergarten readiness for children. 

During COVID-19, ParentCorps quickly pivoted to meet NYC’s needs during the pandemic, including providing online Professional Learning (PL) classes open to all NYC Pre-K teachers on topics like self-care, empathy, and child-led play. The organization also created new culturally responsive SEL and family engagement products, such as digital books to support families in processing the pandemic together.

In the next two years, ParentCorps, which is already in New York City, Detroit, and Corpus Christie, expects to grow to three to five new geographies. 

Lower intensity parent-teacher connection and communication

Both ParentCorps and Springboard are higher intensity programs that require parents to commit to both coaching sessions and implementation plans. Given that most parents are under a great amount of stress—more than ever this year—our portfolio believes it’s also crucial to support lighter-touch interventions that still demonstrate an ability to build families’ capacity to support their child’s learning. 

The evidence has long indicated that early learning environments and families are both critical to kindergarten readiness and children’s later success.

One such lighter-touch program is FASTalk, a two-way communication platform aligned to high-quality curricula that connects families and teachers. With the click of a button, teachers can send curriculum-aligned activities and tips to families, which families receive via SMS in their home language. Even though these are just text messages, an evaluation showed that FASTalk helped four times more Kindergarten students meet literacy benchmarks than a matched comparison group, and added 2-3 months of accelerated report card growth for English Language Learners. Keeping parents of early learners in the loop about classroom activities proved to be an impactful way to promote academic achievement.

TalkingPoints is another text message program that focuses specifically on building a strong teacher-family relationship through open channels of communication. TalkingPoints has quadrupled its reach to 2 million families since March and increased its revenue by six times compared to the previous school year, a clear indication that family engagement is a key priority for schools across the country. 

Early data from TalkingPoints show that 89% of families are more informed about what is happening at school, 90% of families felt more included in the school community, and 87% of families had more conversations about school with their children at home, all of which are positive indicators of supporting a strong home learning environment. 

As the Early Impact portfolio looks to 2021, we’re excited to support these organizations as they continue to scale their offerings and strengthen their evidence bases. The evidence has long indicated that early learning environments and families are both critical to kindergarten readiness and children’s later success. We’re excited to imagine what’s possible when those two environments are connected and aligned.