This week marks the launch of the Listening to Parent Voices research, a rare opportunity to hear directly from families in early childhood and infant mental health services about how those services can be improved to work better. The research, supported by Perigee Fund and The Ford Family Foundation, finds what worked and what didn’t during the pandemic switch to services like telehealth and what lessons can be carried forward to make programs more equitable and effective into the future.
Researchers from Portland State University, Georgetown University, and the University of Connecticut partnered with seven different early childhood programs across the country and conducted 100 interviews with families and providers. From rural Arkansas, to tribal sites, to urban Washington DC — the research was remarkably consistent on what parents said they really wanted out of these programs: support and flexibility.
During this time of COVID, early childhood programs were able to continue to provide essential material, social and parenting supports to families with young children. They were able to do this by having the flexibility to pivot from the standard 90-minute in-person check-in to virtual visits, sometimes supplementing virtual visits with shorter video calls and small, infrequent check-ins by text and through messaging apps. It turns out both parents and providers loved this added flexibility. In fact, 67% of parents said they would like to continue some support remotely and 68% of providers also in agreement. Families felt like they could attend more consistently as schedules fluctuated. Providers also felt that they could prioritize their mental health and multiple demands with the additional flexibility.
Another surprising finding was about retention in these programs. In a field where providers have long struggled with retention of families, providers were anticipating losing families during the pandemic. But actually the exact opposite happened: providers found that flexible approaches kept families engaged and even attracted new families to participate.
It turns out that flexibility overall helped increase the connection between providers and families during the time of COVID, providers were able to prioritize their own mental health, and most importantly, families felt supported during a time of great uncertainty.
These findings are just the beginning and it is a key time to spread the word. Just as many other services and sectors are incorporating flexibility and hybrid approaches, so too must the fields of early childhood and infant mental health. And both public and private funders and service providers who set many of the parameters are called to embrace flexibility because it is directly connected to access, equity, and centering families and children in the continuum of care. And isn’t that what we’re all about?
All of us in the field understand that the prenatal to age 3 period is one of the most pivotal periods in a child’s life. So in an effort to stay accountable to our families and children 0-3, we need to listen. Uncertainty is guaranteed — from a pandemic to everyday parenting challenges — so how can we center families more in the continuum of care?
Change doesn’t happen overnight, but we can start by listening to our families and finding the willingness to pivot. If you would like to read directly what families had to say, please visit https://perigeefund.org/parentvoicestudy to learn more. And if you would like to join us in changing the field’s perspective on flexibility, please spread the word about this study by sharing these new findings, recommendations, and resources.