Participation Surges as Trainings Supporting Educators and Children Shift Online

By Amy Widner

In a matter of weeks, the Research & Evaluation Division (RED) of the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine in the College of Medicine has shifted these programs online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The surprise? Not only have they been able to maintain these programs, numbers have exploded, with hundreds more asking to participate.

Child welfare experts predict a spike in cases of child abuse and neglect during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, with the right education and tools, professionals can be prepared to interrupt and counteract that trauma. That is, as long as early childhood educators and home visitors are able to continue their work and get the support they need.

“This is a time when the need for support is probably even higher,” said Danielle Thomas, program manager for the Family Map Inventories. “For those families who are stressed because some aren’t able to work, or they’re worried about different things, COVID-related or not — to have someone like an educator still want to be a support system for the family is a good thing. We’re grateful they’re still working, and at RED, we want to support them in turn as best we can.”

The Family Map Inventories provides training and support to early childcare providers and home visitors as they build relationships with families to make childhood education a partnership. The program is continuing through increased online group trainings and a shift to conducting the home visits via video conference or phone call.

For example, part of the training covers the importance of the home environment, like whether there are comforting routines in place and if the child’s basic needs are being met. Topics like that are now covered online via webinars.

“It definitely feels good to be able to support people who are out there trying to continue to make a difference,” Thomas said. “We support them with education, tools and technology, while they’re trying to keep up the work of supporting the families they serve.”

The Family Map is just one example.

Michelle Trulsrud is a research associate with RED who provides much of the technical support for the division. She has been responding to the unique needs of each RED program as they work to continue their missions during the pandemic. For some, on-demand videos are best, like a video on best practices for breastfeeding. Others need webinars or one-on-one videoconferencing.

For Family Map and a similar program, for example, Trulsrud shifted trainings online the last week of March and scheduled dates through the end of April. They are all full, even after she expanded participation from 50 to 200 per class.

“I still get a least 20 to 50 emails a day saying, ‘Can I get into this class?’ And I have to say, ‘I’m sorry, they’re all full,’ which kills me, because I’m a fixer,” Trulsrud said. “The need is still very much out there.”

Another program, Naptime Academy, allows educators to earn continuing education during quick mid-day sessions. Pre-pandemic, a good month for Naptime Academy saw 150 new registrations. In March, it had more than 700. In the first two weeks of April alone, more than 300 new people registered.

Anecdotally, much of the demand is coming from early childhood educators who have seen their hours reduced or cut and have been directed to pursue continuing education credits until they can come back to work. The early childhood programs in RED are trying to step up to the plate to serve this need.

While housing many projects, RED’s uniting focus is on family and environmental factors linked with poor health, growth and psychosocial development. Its researchers test theoretical models and use them to develop evidence-based, innovative interventions and curricula to address unmet needs. Many projects are “translational,” meaning they don’t just stop with research but take the extra step of putting the findings to work.

Like the Family Map, many of the programs use the method of teaching professionals who are already working in the field who can in turn spread best practices to everyone they work with, be it in early childhood care, education, mental health, home visits, shelters, or substance abuse treatment programs.

Its reach in Arkansas is extensive. RED is currently conducting research and projects in 75 counties and more than 300 locations in Arkansas. Most of the childcare programs RED works with serve low-income families and communities.

“Our whole mission is to disseminate evidence-based best practices statewide, so what an opportunity the last few weeks have been for us — but also what a challenge,” said Leanne Whiteside-Mansell, Ed.D., director of RED. “Key members of our staff have been beyond busy and others are retraining and redeploying to support the shift to online. The thing we’re focusing on is how this can be an opportunity to support educators and home visitors who are still in contact with children, and how we can better equip our out-of-work educators with the knowledge they’ll need to help children when regular contact resumes.”

Everyone in RED is, at heart, a researcher so the staff are also using this as an opportunity to research and evaluate best practices for online education. The first survey is being developed and more will follow. Whiteside wants to hone RED’s ability to provide quality online education.

Terese Patrick, program manager for Reaching Educators and Children (REACH), and her team partner with childcare facilities across the state. Over several months they assess needs, set goals, and provide eight workshops followed by both on-site and distance targeted coaching.  The end goal is to promote better social-emotional development for children and help educators manage behavior.

Though her work day now is just as likely to involve tech troubleshooting as it is to include education about child psychology, Patrick is plowing forward. Sites are still engaged and new sites are signing up.

“It almost feels like we’re running a marathon, but everyone at RED is working so hard to make it work and our clients are so eager for the information,” Patrick said. “Our focus on social-emotional development goes hand in hand with early childhood mental health, which is definitely affected by trauma and adverse experiences. Our teachers are even more anxious to know how they can support and help children, and of course, themselves, during these challenging times.

“The rest of the world is discovering that early care and education providers are essential workers,” Patrick said. “At RED, we have always known this and are dedicated to enhancing early educators’ efforts to support young children and their families.