As families count down the days leading up to a new school year, feelings of uncertainty and trepidation are accompanied with eagerness and high hopes for a return to in-person learning and interaction. The challenges of the pandemic will add complexity to an already high-stakes transition, as many children will be entering physical school buildings for the first time and socializing with other children after a year of isolation. This new school year, which promises to be different in many ways, is likely even more critical for our youngest learners, many of whom will be entering with increased variance in their learning needs and levels.

But what remains the same, despite the pandemic, is the importance of opportunities to build the strong foundations for early learning that we know are so fundamental to school readiness and later success. In any given year, too many children enter school without these foundational skills, which include social and emotional well-being, executive function and self-regulation ability, and early literacy, language, and numeracy skills. Children who begin school on-track in these developmental areas are more likely to experience later academic success, attain higher levels of education, and secure well-paid employment. 

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are not yet fully known but learning setbacks have already been documented and tend to disproportionately affect marginalized families: children of color, dual language learners, and children from families with low incomes. A 2020 nationally representative study from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) found only 10 percent of 3-to-5-year-olds continued in the same program on the same schedule they had before the pandemic, which means much of early education responsibilities fell to families, who have had to fulfill the many roles left empty when in-person care and education programs were unavailable. Families stepped up, consistently engaging in learning activities with their children: in the same study, parents of preschool-aged children reported reading to children (80%), telling stories (47%), singing songs (62%), and teaching numbers and letters (61%) at least three times per week. Despite these efforts, parents also had to be attentive to their own roles in the workplace and at home, usually without enough hours in the day to do it all. A NIEER time use study with preschool, kindergarten, and first grade parents found that passive screen time reached as high as 10 hours per day and that children spent about 31 percent of their time during school hours doing activities on their own. None of this is ideal for early childhood learning or development. 

This new school year, which promises to be different in many ways, is likely even more critical for our youngest learners, many of whom will be entering school with increased variance in their learning needs and levels.

While early learning environments provide children with academic skills, they also support early social-emotional development, which is one of the most important drivers of success in school and life. This aspect of children’s learning has become more salient for families during this isolating and stressful year. New research from New America and Rutgers, which our foundation funded, found that 38 percent of parents of children entering Pre-K and Kindergarten believe that spending time with other kids is the top priority for this school year, on par with starting to learn how to read (30%) and learning to manage and express emotions (20%). And recent research from Learning Heroes shows that 72 percent of parents are worried about their children missing out on social interactions, compared to 59 percent the previous year, while 61 percent of parents worried about academic concerns. Sixty-three percent of parents also believed their child would enter the next school year behind.  

In this way, the coming school year is no different: young children will need support both in and out of school to develop academic and social-emotional skills, which means that learning environments must be able and ready to support the whole child. Additionally, it’s likely that the family engagement components that skyrocketed during the pandemic will continue to play a crucial role, with families needing to support learning at home, which will require staying connected to what’s happening in school.  

The Early Impact portfolio at Overdeck Family Foundation funds programs that engage in both types of this work, ensuring that every child has the opportunity for a strong start. This year, with the many challenges and setbacks created by the pandemic, that work is more critical than ever. 

Kaylani Gomez, 4, works on her Waterford UPSTART computer with her mother, Valeria Gomez, Friday, Dec. 27, 2019.

Kaylani Gomez, 4, works on her Waterford UPSTART computer with her mother.

Building the foundation for K-readiness

The foundations for school readiness are built from day one, with programs that support parents to develop strong and responsive relationships with their children through positive parenting practices playing an important role from birth. One such parenting practice is ensuring adults partake in frequent conversational exchanges in the earliest years with their child; 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. LENA, which our foundation has funded since 2017, coaches parents and caregivers to increase conversation with their young children using data from “talk pedometers”—small, wearable devices that measure verbal exchanges. In one study, children whose parents participated in LENA’s Start program accelerated their language development by an average of 31 percentage points and maintained those gains a year later. 

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 has become especially important in the pandemic context. 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 to serve an additional 8,650 children. Despite the shorter timeframe, 86 percent of children met Kindergarten-readiness benchmarks. In all, Waterford Upstart expects to leverage our foundation’s funding along with other private capital and public investment to serve more than 40,000 students across summer 2021 and the 2021-22 school year and seeks to continue growing in the years to come.

Image provided by LENA.

Improving early learning environments

Access is only one part of the challenge for Pre-K programs. Research shows that these educational experiences must be high-quality for students to fully benefit. Yet quality can be highly variable across settings and early childhood educators specifically often lack support in creating high-quality environments that promote exploration, play, and discovery to maximize early learning.  

High-quality curricula and aligned professional development, specifically, can help support this goal. Tools of the Mind, which we’ve funded since 2021, is one example of quality curriculum and aligned teacher development that equips educators to build the underlying skills students need to become successful learners. Based on the teaching methods of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, the program has demonstrated positive outcomes on executive functions, reading, language, and math. Tools is growing quickly, serving more than 25,000 students in 2020-21 (an increase of nearly 60 percent from the previous year) and aims to expand to over 33,000 students in the 2021 school year.   

Creating aligned environments at home and in school

Teachers’ abilities to create supportive learning environments for their students can only extend so far, and even the best Pre-K programs need to rely on families to create consistency at home and ensure that learning “sticks.” ParentCorps, which our foundation has funded since 2015, is an evidence-based intervention that supports children’s social-emotional learning by building a pre-K experience that centers race and culture, values parents as partners, and strengthens educators’ capacity to engage with children and families in new ways. In this enhancement to pre-K in historically disinvested neighborhoods, educators and families not only learn aligned strategies for skill building, but also develop shared language and mutual respect.  

In previous randomized controlled trials, ParentCorps students were at 24 percent lower risk of reading below grade level through second grade, had 50 percent fewer mental health problems through second grade, and were 44 percent less likely to be chronically absent in 3rd-6th grade. Parent participants were more involved in their children’s learning and increased their use of evidence-based parenting practices, while teachers demonstrated more nurturing interactions and more effective behavior management with their students. ParentCorps currently reaches more than 2,000 teachers and 25,000 pre-K families in New York City, while distributing social-emotional learning tools to 40,000 families nationwide, expanding to 19 Head Start centers in Detroit and looking to grow to three new geographies in the next three years.

Image provided by TalkingPoints.

The role of families in Kindergarten and beyond

Parents’ importance in their children’s learning does not stop when children enter school. In fact, it’s the opposite. When children begin school, a strong connection between the home and classroom environments can supercharge learning. Continuing to build open and supportive educator-family relationships and encourage communication between families and teachers are key ingredients for success.  

Just published research from The Center for Public Research and Leadership (CPRL) at Columbia University highlights the importance and impact of both high-quality instructional materials and family involvement in student learning. The study found that despite the many challenges of remote learning, digitally-accessible high-quality instructional materials that supported families to be active partners increased student learning and engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic. Students from nine school districts and charter school organizations across seven states learned about the same—and sometimes more—than they would have in a “typical” year when they had access to materials that were designed to enhance families’ ability to guide student learning and instruction. 

Enabling two-way communication is an essential first step, especially when families and teachers may speak different languages or simply have different schedules. Programs like FASTalk and TalkingPoints lay the groundwork for partnership, automatically translating text messages from teachers to which parents can easily respond. FASTalk, which we’ve funded since 2020, includes content aligned with high-quality curricula to make it easy for teachers to share what children are learning in class, which helps parents support learning at home and contributes to student literacy growth. Currently reaching more than 30,000 families, FASTalk continues to expand its reach and offerings through new curricular and district partnerships.

TalkingPoints, which our foundation has funded since 2020, is more open-ended in nature, acting as a conduit for conversation between educators and families.  Its platform helps teachers and families communicate in 100+ languages through text message or an easy-to-use mobile app that utilizes human and AI-enabled two-way translation, scaffolded resources, and personalized content that promotes family engagement and drives student outcomes. As schools and teachers were forced to find new ways to connect with families during the pandemic, TalkingPoints grew six times to reach 3 million families, with more than 100 million conversations exchanged between teachers and families. The organization anticipates continued growth at this rate while deepening understanding of impact for students.

Springboard Collaborative takes an even more intensive approach to family engagement, rallying teachers and families around a common goal to support students’ literacy growth. Springboard, which we’ve funded since 2018, has found that when educators work with families rather than around them, students thrive. Springboard students on average achieve a 3-4 month reading gain in just 5-10 weeks. With its strong results and an innovative approach to partnering with families, Springboard is growing: the organization aims to directly help 100,000 students reach reading goals and 30,000 students read on grade level by 2023 and has also shared the core principles of its model for others to implement, broadening access to family engagement best practices.  

The opportunity ahead

Supporting children’s learning at home, creating high-quality classroom environments, and engaging families effectively and equitably in their children’s learning are more important than ever as we seek to give children the strongest possible start. After nearly 18 months of pandemic-driven change, teachers and families are stretched thin. Yet we have witnessed countless bright spots and adaptations among families, educators, and the programs that support them.  

The organizations highlighted here have all found cost-effective ways to progress toward the outcomes that matter most for our youngest learners. By funding programs that support and supplement the strengths, passion, and wisdom that families and educators bring to children’s lives, we can move toward a future where every child has the opportunity to learn and thrive, from the beginning.