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2. Strategies to Virtually Support and Engage Families of Young Children during COVID-19 (and Beyond) 

Lessons from Research and Considerations for Your Community

For Child Trends by Manica F. Ramos, PhD, Tiffany Bamdad, & Chrishana M. Lloyd, PhD

As preschools and schools continue to reopen, caregivers (e.g., child care providers and teachers) are quickly pivoting to using virtual platforms to support and engage families in children’s learning. This rapid transition has left little time to assess what we know (and do not know) about family engagement best practices within the virtual space.

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This brief from Child Trends offers an overview of four best practices and lessons learned from research and practice to assist caregivers and teachers with the transition to engaging families virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic, and beyond.

In the following sections, we present four overarching strategies that emerged from the literature on engaging and supporting families with young children. These four strategies are listed below.

In each section, we discuss different ways the virtual engagement strategy was described and used across the literature. We also note the extent to which studies found that these virtual supports were feasible to implement and useful to parents (through measures of satisfaction, helpfulness, ease of use, etc.), as well as the extent to which programs integrating virtual supports yielded positive outcomes for parents and children.

Use engaging online lessons to support parent learning and skills

Engaging online lessons can support parent and child learning. Websites can be used to house self-guided lessons for parents to review at times convenient to them, and allow parents to learn skills, behaviors, or practices to support their child’s development. Further, websites can provide digital, learning media (e.g., educational games) for children to use with parent support to make learning at home fun and convenient.

 

Modular and interactive self-guided lessons for parents

Several studies focused on the provision of online learning and training materials to support families in building new skills and/or engaging in at-home activities with their children. These virtual learning programs included features like self-paced presentations with embedded audio that described concepts, techniques, or behaviors parents could try with their children. To accommodate different learning styles and provide real-life examples, many modules balanced written information with videos to model behaviors, steps, or techniques. Incorporating checkpoints for understanding, such as quizzes and opportunities for practice during the lesson or as “homework,” were other techniques that helped reinforce and support learning. Some programs also incorporated questions to help parents reflect successes and challenges after trying out techniques with their child. While these modular lessons varied in structure as well as content, many were adaptations of programs, trainings, treatments, or models typically delivered in-person and with an established evidence base, suggesting that it is possible to adapt established programs and materials typically provided in person to an online learning format.

While all virtual engagement strategies were implemented in programs that aimed to increase parent knowledge, content varied. For example, programs focused on strategies for positive parenting, parent-mediated interventions for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and supports for reducing maternal depression. Despite differences in content, overall, studies identified in our literature scan (and prior reviews) found that it was possible to successfully deliver programs using online learning platforms and families were able to access content without issue. Several studies noted that parents were satisfied with these supports, finding online platforms to be easy to use and convenient. Many studies also found that video vignettes and demonstrations of skills were particularly helpful strategies to support learning through online modules. Even more, studies found that completion of these modular online programs was associated with gains in parent knowledge of intervention techniques and parent reported implementation of positive parenting skills at home, providing evidence that these virtual programs can impact parent behaviors.

Digital learning platforms for children to use with parent support

While most studies examined programs for supporting parents’ learning, online learning programs can also be geared towards children to use with their parent’s support. For example, one successful strategy is to provide families access to an online educational game suite and supplemental information about hands-on activities for parents and children to complete together to build on online learning. Like virtual programs described above that incorporated reflection questions to encourage parents to think about successes and challenges implementing strategies at home, families were also provided an opportunity to meet weekly to connect with other participating families and discuss their progress and experience with the at-home activities. While research is limited, the study provides evidence that online learning programs for children that incorporate parental supports can boost children’s knowledge and mathematics skills as well as parents’ knowledge of strategies for supporting learning at home.

Use virtual communication technologies to

help parents integrate learning into real-life contexts

Using virtual communication technologies like phone or videoconferencing to provide tailored support to families is another common virtual engagement strategy. These technologies can be used to provide one- on-one, remote coaching as an alternative to traditional in-person supports (e.g., clinic-based interventions for children or home visiting). Virtual communication technologies can also be incorporated into online learning programs (like those described above) to support parents’ engagement with learning materials and provide additional education and information tailored to their unique and individual situations.

One-one-one coaching in place of in-person visits

Virtual coaching was a strategy frequently described across the literature. Similar to studies that implemented modular and self-paced learning programs for parents, studies of virtual coaching were often adaptations of existing home- or clinic-based programs. Virtual coaching sessions were often used to provide education and information on a variety of topics (e.g., parent-child interactions, parenting, family well-being), teach strategies parents could implement with their child and talk through challenges, develop family goals and discuss ongoing progress, and connect families with resources. Several studies also used video to conduct observations and provide feedback to families. For example, videoconferencing was often used to provide teleintervention services to children with special needs by observing and coaching parents through interactions with their child. Video clips were also used to share additional feedback with parents about what they were doing well and what could improve from self- recorded video or live virtual observations. Together, these studies provide support for the feasibility of using videoconferencing to engage families and provide tailored support. Many studies noted that families were satisfied with the services provided through videoconferencing and some found that parents thought the virtual programs were the same or better than those delivered in person. While focused on children with special needs, positive support for the use of teleintervention was also noted in a prior review of the literature.

Given that practitioners are not physically in the room with parents and children during virtual visits, it is unsurprising that one study noted differences in the time spent on different kinds of interactions during virtual and in-person visits (with more coaching and conversations about intervention strategies occurring in virtual visits and more time spent engaging children in strategies in face-to-face visits). Despite differences in session activities, several studies comparing virtual coaching to traditional in-person delivery reported the same or even better child outcomes through virtual delivery. Virtual coaching may also provide space for parents to take the lead and force more parent-centered interventions. In fact, parents in one study that compared teleintervention to traditional in-person early intervention services for children who are deaf or hard of hearing found that parents reported that they were more involved and learned how to help their child more through virtual compared to in-person visits.

 

Check-ins to support online learning

Remote coaching via phone or videoconferencing was used in several studies as a supplement to online learning programs described above, providing opportunities for staff to connect with parents and provide tailored support. Most programs that included a coaching component to support independent learning incorporated regularly scheduled phone or video check-ins with parents to discuss strategies reviewed in modules, answer questions or review areas of difficulty, discuss how to apply strategies in everyday routines, or observe parents’ use of learned skills and provide feedback (either through videoconferencing or a self-recorded video upload). Overall, programs that incorporated a coaching component to support online learningc were used successfully to reduce maternal depression,9 support parents in implementing intervention practices to fidelity,5,10 and impact child outcomes. Studies also noted that parents were satisfied with these virtual check-ins, rating these components of online learning programs highly or as particularly helpful in supporting their understanding of applying learned skills.

While online learning programs like those described in the prior section are helpful as they allow parents to learn at convenient times and at their own pace, the addition of check-ins and person-to-person connections can support engagement with learning materials and encourage parents to stick through to the end of a program. Studies that compared online learning with a hybrid online learning and coaching approach found that parents who received coaching were more engaged with online learning materials, visiting platforms more frequently and exploring more of the supplementary materials available to them, and more likely to complete the program and use intervention techniques accurately.4,10 A prior review of the literatured similarly concluded that blended intervention approaches that use technology and personal contacts between staff and parents may demonstrate greater engagement and positive outcomes for parents and children.

Use technology to make sure that helpful information

and resources are at parents’ fingertips

Technology can also be used to send helpful resources, information, or reminders to families, so important information is easy to access or sent without parents’ needing to ask. One common way to share helpful information with parents is through regular tips sent via text message. Online resource lists can also be used to compile helpful information in one place for parents to access and explore on their own. Finally, calling, texting, or emailing families to remind them of goals or upcoming meetings, provide suggestions, 

tips, or prompts to try out an activity, or just check in can be used to supplement in-person or virtual interventions keep important information on parents’ minds and encourage best practices.

Text blasts to share information with parents quickly and easily

Texting was used as a standalone virtual support across several studies to share helpful information with families and encourage positive behaviors to support children’s healthy development. The frequency and content of these texts varied but was often used to promote perinatal and postnatal preparedness and health or encourage parents to extend learning at home. Some of the studies identified in our scan explored the use of regularly scheduled (e.g., weekly or daily) “text blasts”e to encourage healthy behaviors during and following pregnancy (e.g., encouraging immunizations, breastfeeding, etc.), 29,30 provide information about important skills their child is developing, suggest parent-child activities, and/or words of encouragement. Overall, several studies noted that parents found informational texts to be helpful and a good way to receive information from a trusted source). Despite being a light-touch support, evaluations of text blasts found that exposure to text messages could impact some parents’ beliefs, for example, about their preparedness for motherhood,29 and even increase parent engagement in activities with their child at home.

 

Resource lists to provide additional information to parents

Several web-based learning programs also included virtual resource pages to share additional information with families. Parents could visit these pages or virtual “resource centers” to find other reading materials and supports related to the program content. These resources varied, but included relevant literature, online resources or toolkits, links to informational websites, information about community events, and/or local services and resources.

 

Calling, emailing, or texting parents to supplement interventions

Several studies have also explored using text messages, emails, and/or phone calls to provide important reminders, additional information, and tips as a program supplement to encourage participation and improve outcomes. Most often, these quick messages or check-ins were used to supplement in-person positive parenting interventions, like home visiting, or group classes. The content and frequency of these communications varied, but generally programs used the supplemental outreach to ensure parents received regular and convenient reminders of the strategies taught and discussed in person (e.g., suggestions for how parents could incorporate strategies in daily routines, prompts to use a strategy or newly learned skill), opportunities to share about skill use and child behavior, and/or encouragement or suggestions for free or low-cost activities in the community. Simply reminding participants of scheduled in-person parenting class meetings via text message was a strategy tested in one study; while families receiving text messages still missed scheduled classes, they were more likely to attend make-up classes and complete the full program compared to families who had not received reminders. Studies examining communication supports as an add-on to home visiting found that families who received regular outreach, or more frequent communications, were more engaged compared to families who only received in-person supports, implementing more of the learned intervention strategies.The uptake of intervention strategies was also related to more positive child outcomes.

 

Sharing important or helpful information through text message has also been used to supplement entirely virtual interventions and encourage engagement and use of available virtual supports. For example, one study that provided families with a tablet containing over 500 children’s books to encourage reading at- home found that using text message reminders to work towards their set reading goal more than doubled the time parents spent reading with the digital library. In addition to text message reminders, parents were 

also able to easily see the progress they made towards their goal in a “virtual goalkeeper” and were recognized with a group text to all participants when they met their reading goal.

Use technology to build relationships and improve a sense of community

While developing strong relationships and a sense of community is often built through face-to-face connections, technology can also be used to support relationship and community building. Online forums and virtual group meetings can be used to support connections between parents and foster a sense of community support. Tailored, two-way communication between providers and parents can also help build relationships between parents and providers and ensure parents have a trusted source to turn to for information and support.

 

Online forums and virtual group meetings

Online forums and virtual group meetings were engagement strategies used to supplement several online learning and virtual coaching programs identified in our review. Virtual “bulletin boards” or forums were common and enabled participants to share their experiences and participate in discussions, sometimes in response to prompts posted by staff, as they completed training programs. In addition to online learning programs, monthly group videoconferences was also used as a strategy in one-on-one virtual coaching programs to allow opportunities for families to connect and support one another.

 

Given that online forums and virtual group meetings were often used to supplement other robust virtual supports, little can be said about the helpfulness of these individual features from the studies described above; however, evidence suggests that establishing an online forum (e.g., a Facebook group) as a standalone support might facilitate social support and feelings of efficacy for certain groups of parents .8 Despite differences in the purpose of the membership groups, online forums across studies helped participants exchange information and connect with others . An online support group that convened women with a shared difficult and rare disorder found that in ad