As we enter our third pandemic year, Covid continues to create urgent and evolving challenges for parents and educators of young children. Many families lack stable childcare, which affects their mental health and ability to work, limiting their ability to be fully present for their children. Educators across the country are overworked and overwhelmed. The stress adults are facing trickles down to the children in their care. In our Early Impact grantmaking portfolio, we fund organizations that support families and early learning environments in expanding their use of evidence-based practices that are proven to make a difference in the early lives of children, setting them on the path toward early and later school success. Under challenging conditions, this can be exceedingly difficult to do.
A longitudinal study found that: starting at three years old, children are already showing income- and stress-related differences in their executive functioning and cortisol regulation; this is persistent all the way to six years old and, those differences go on to predict later adjustment problems when the children are eight and 12 years old. Across the country, we are already seeing the worrying effects of the pandemic on young children’s development.
- Research from LENA and Brown University found that infants born during the pandemic produced significantly fewer vocalizations and had less verbal back-and-forth with their caretakers compared to those born before the pandemic.
- A team of researchers at Columbia University report that pandemic babies scored lower on social and motor screening tests at six months old.
- Children born during the pandemic have reduced verbal, motor, and overall cognitive performance compared to those born pre-pandemic, according to a study at Brown University that is awaiting peer-review and publication.
- Kindergarten readiness assessments are illuminating gaps as children are entering school—if they are entering at all. Pre-K and kindergarten enrollment have been declining since 2020, erasing years of progress.
It’s more critical now than ever that families and educators have the support needed to ensure that young children are on the path to early school success.
Fortunately, early childhood organizations are stepping up. Knowing that we are establishing a “new normal,” these organizations are finding new ways to provide that much-needed support. Many are adapting evidence-based solutions to be shorter, easier to implement, and/or delivered virtually or in a hybrid model. These modifications are designed to meet busy families and educators where they are, but often have an added benefit of being less costly to deliver or easier to scale. Importantly, organizations are also adapting the way they measure impact. In many cases, rapid-cycle data collection can precede more formal research. In each of the following examples, organizations with strong data infrastructure were able to quickly observe whether the program modifications were successful in maintaining outcomes before the changes were rolled out more broadly.
Below are highlights of three Early Impact grantees that have innovated their program models to meet the evolving needs of families and educators.
Each of these cutting-edge solutions has exciting implications for scalability, cost-effectiveness, and the ability of nonprofits to flexibly respond to their beneficiaries, paving the way for expanded impact.
The pandemic has disrupted the already fragile childcare industry, but early educators remain committed to providing the best possible experience for the children in their care. LENA Grow provides in-service professional development for early educators to increase conversation with the young children in their care using data from “talk pedometers”—small, wearable devices that measure verbal exchanges. These “conversational turns” have been shown to shape the structure and function of the developing brain, impacting language development, reading, IQ, social-emotional development, and executive function.
In the face of staffing shortages, temporary closures, and other challenges, LENA adapted the program to better serve busy educators. By converting its 10-week program into two stackable five-week sessions, LENA made it easier for teachers to participate. Using the data systems built into the program, the LENA team was able to closely monitor results in real time and discovered that these modifications didn’t sacrifice outcomes. Teachers in the shortened model made 85 percent of the gains seen in the full program, in just half the time. LENA also expects the cost-per-child to decrease when partners are able to serve more children and find economies of scale. This strengths-based, supportive, and flexible program helps teachers meet their own goals—even amidst difficult circumstances. LENA Grow served more than 16,500 children in the 2021-22 school year, a 36 percent increase over the previous school year, and anticipates reaching even more children per partner with the shortened model.
To support learning at home for children who lack access to Pre-K, programs like Waterford Upstart use technology to provide targeted, child-paced learning resources as well as guidance and coaching for families to support and extend their children’s learning. Waterford Upstart, which our foundation has funded since 2019, achieves impressive results in just 15 minutes a day. While the program is not a replacement for high-quality, in-person Pre-K, it is an effective solution for children who otherwise wouldn’t be in classrooms, and it has become especially important in the context of Covid.
In summer 2020, with rapid response funding from Blue Meridian, Overdeck Family Foundation, and Valhalla Foundation, Waterford Upstart quickly met the moment by launching an expedited summer version of its school-year model, condensing the nine-month program into just three months. Approximately 10,000 families participated in summer 2021, in addition to the more than 30,000 participating in the school-year program. Combined with other scaling efforts, this innovation helped Upstart grow its reach by nearly 300 percent since the 2018-19 school year. Despite the shorter length, 87 percent of children met kindergarten-readiness benchmarks in the summers of 2020 and 2021. While Upstart’s traditional program has rigorous evidence of effectiveness, the organization used its internal data collection systems to track usage and outcomes for SLP as compared to its original model. These positive findings were compelling enough to continue scaling the shortened summer program alongside the school-year model while pursuing further validation through a recently launched randomized controlled trial.
Springboard Collaborative coaches teachers and family members to support students to reach their reading goals. Their methodology, called Family-Educator Learning Accelerator (FELA), is a 5-10-week cycle during which families and educators work together to help students make reading gains. With in-person programming paused during Covid, Springboard Collaborative got creative to rethink how FELA could connect home and school—a link that became essential as families and educators were faced with no choice but to work together during this challenging time. The Springboard team started by centering the voices of those most affected, using family and teacher advisory groups to help make context-specific decisions. They created a train-the-trainer solution, called Springboard Learning Accelerator (SLA), which was implemented virtually as a way to give schools a more flexible, lower-cost solution to effective family engagement.
To ensure SLA still led to meaningful impact, Springboard commissioned an external study. The study, which was national in scope, showed statistically significant reading growth across both program types—FELA and SLA. Participants in the traditional program averaged 3.1 months of reading growth in summer 2021, while participants in the SLA program achieved a comparably impressive 2.3-month reading gain during the same five-week period, essentially achieving 74 percent of the impact at 30 percent of the cost. With the eventual return to in-person instruction and the availability of additional public funding, many districts are returning to the full flagship model, but SLA remains an attractive option, particularly given the potential for future reductions in public funding.
How this work continues
Overdeck Family Foundation is excited to invest in these organizations as part of our Early Impact strategy to develop and scale sustainable parent and educator supports that improve outcomes for our youngest learners. Each of these cutting-edge solutions has exciting implications for scalability, cost-effectiveness, and the ability of nonprofits to flexibly respond to their beneficiaries, paving the way for expanded impact.
The truth is that none of these programs are independently going to solve the major challenges so many families are facing; they are part of a much larger picture. We believe it’s imperative for funders and communities to invest in a range of innovative early learning solutions that can address the needs of families and educators and ultimately lead to strong outcomes for our littlest learners.
Header image courtesy of Waterford Upstart