The Learning Leader: November 2021

Supporting Families and Educators in Early Head Start

Imagine you are a new parent. Your baby has just started walking and talking. Time has already flown by, and you can start to see them on their first day of school. But then you think, how do I know my child will be ready for Kindergarten when the time comes? How do I know if they are where they are supposed to be developmentally? Am I doing the best I can to support my child? These can be scary questions for parents and families, and why we developed Supporting Sprouts to help parents and Early Head Start (EHS) educators improve and track learning and development with infants and toddlers.

Across the country, EHS programs provide comprehensive child development and family support services to low-income families with infants and toddlers under the age of 3 and women who are pregnant. In 2015, the Administration for Children and Families provided funding to four universities to meet a critical, identified need: develop programs that support both parents and teachers in EHS center-based care. Led by faculty at the Children’s Learning Institute (CLI), we investigated how to adapt two CLI-developed interventions [Strategies for Early Education and Developmental (SEEDS), and Play and Learning Strategies(ePALS)] for remote delivery within EHS centers to improve the social-emotional, cognitive, and language development of infants and toddlers.

The family intervention, ePALS, is CLI’s signature parent and family program proven to strengthen the bond between parent and child and to stimulate early language, cognitive, and social development. The program was developed to facilitate parents’ understanding of specific skills for interacting with their infants, toddlers, and preschoolers that lead to better child outcomes, particularly in children from low-income families. The school intervention, SEEDS, evolved from CLI’s Beginning Education: Early Childcare at Home (BEECH) program, a series of online modules and coaching supports that were originally designed for caregivers of young children in home-based settings to build their knowledge in key school readiness areas. CLI offers these resources to infant and toddler classroom teachers and high school parenting programs to support caregivers to build these critical skills.

After six years of studying the intervention, we saw positive outcomes with teachers, parents and families, and children. We were able to overcome obstacles, including setbacks from Hurricane Harvey, changes in staff and leadership both within the study and at collaborating agencies, and finally, adapting to communities with limited high-speed internet. Once sites were recruited, consented, and randomly assigned to either a “continue their practices” or “use intervention” group, teacher, parent, and child behaviors were observed and recorded using standardized assessments both before and after participating. We found that participants in all three groups showed positive effects when using Supporting Sprouts.

Teachers were:
  • More likely to show warmth and be sensitive and enthusiastic when interacting with children, because of what they learned about positive relationships
  • Less likely to demonstrate detached behaviors that indicated they were uninvolved or uninterested in what the children were doing and saying
  • Showing higher overall classroom quality ratings
  • Found to be more supportive of the social emotional development of children in their classrooms
Parents were more likely to:
  • Show more physical affection, use a soft tone of voice, and were warm/nurturing in their interactions with their child
  • Follow their child’s signals/cues and respond promptly to the child’s cues after learning about contingent responsiveness
  • Add to their child’s language by extending and modeling new words and phrases by verbal scaffolding
  • Use hand-over-hand to physically demonstrate and teach actions during toy play
Children were:
  • Using increased language usages such as gestures, words, phrases, and initiated talking more often
  • Engaging more in play and toy exploration
  • Demonstrating fewer behaviors that are considered “red flags” such as post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, depressive symptoms, or sexualized behaviors
  • Showing fewer behaviors that are associated with autism spectrum disorder such as repeating actions or words, appearing to be unaware of their surroundings, limited eye contact, avoiding physical contact
Not only did we see positive outcomes in all groups, but we also learned more about the support teachers and parents need in EHS centers for children to succeed. We are now able to identify areas of growth and opportunities that we can use in these programs as we offer continued support to these communities.
The programs and resources developed for the intervention are now available on our online platform CLI Engage. Learn more about Early Head Start Supports on CLI Engage developed as part of this study: