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Families, Social-Emotional Learning, and the Pandemic

Woman and children at a table with masks on

In this podcast, we speak with Kelly Russell, the program director of CU Early about how the pandemic has changed service delivery for home visits, developmental screenings, and support groups. We also delve into the changing social and emotional needs of families of young children.

More About Our Guest

Kelly Russell is the program director of CU Early, which serves infants, toddlers, and expectant parents in Champaign, Urbana, and Mahomet.



Natalie Danner: Thanks for joining us for a podcast from the Illinois Early Learning Project. Our project is part of the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and funded by the Illinois State Board of Education. On this podcast, we share information about how young children grow and learn as well as strategies adults can use to help them thrive. My name is Natalie Danner.

Welcome to the Illinois Early Learning Podcast. Today we’re talking about families, social-emotional learning, and the pandemic. In very young children, social-emotional learning depends on the positive and nurturing relationships with the adults in their life. Social-emotional development in infants and toddlers includes such concepts as trust, self-awareness, temperament, empathy, and attachment.

Today we’re joined by Kelly Russell, the program director of CU Early. With over 30 years of experience in the early childhood field, she has worked as an infant-toddler teacher, a preschool teacher, a center director, and was the child development services manager at Head Start for 20 years before joining the CU Early team in 2016. Kelly has her master’s degree in early childhood administration. Welcome Kelly!

Kelly Russell: Thank you, Natalie. It’s nice to be here.

Natalie Danner: So I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about CU Early?

Kelly Russell: Sure, I’d love to. So we are a birth-to-three home visiting program housed at the Urbana early childhood school. And that means that we’re a part of the Urbana School District. We’re funded by the Illinois State Board of Education through a Prevention Initiative grant. And our goal is to support and nurture the parent-child relationship.

Natalie Danner: Wonderful, what kind of services do you provide and to whom?

Kelly Russell: CU Early provides home visiting services and parents support groups in Urbana-Champaign. We have four very dedicated home visitors on staff—two of which are bilingual—providing these services to families in our community. Their caseload is between 20 to 25 families, and we implement the Baby Talk curriculum.

Our priority populations include homeless families, teen parents, dual language families, and children who have an identified disability or parents who have a concern with a child’s development. The first step to enrolling a family in CU Early is to complete an eligibility screening, and that is where we determine, based on many different identifying risk factors, whether or not the family is eligible for services. Most of our families are at or below poverty level. So again, we are serving very needy families in our program.

Natalie Danner: Wonderful. So, now that we are in the COVID-19 pandemic, things have changed a little bit as far as service delivery. So can you tell us a little bit about the process that you use to provide socially distanced and virtual visits to families?

Kelly Russell: So, yes, I can do that, yes. Back in March, when things were normal, it seems like so long ago, we were able to provide families with home visits in their homes. Our home visitors would go into the families’ homes at least twice per month at a minimum, and we were also providing monthly playgroups to our families, and we also provide weekly parent support groups to teen parents in all of the local high schools and in all of the alternative schools in our community.

With the pandemic, we now have new rules and regulations that we must follow to ensure that everyone stays healthy and safe, and so our visits have, look quite differently now. So we have been giving parents an option of doing Zoom visits with families, so we meet with families over Zoom, and we, unfortunately, we have not been able to provide any in-person playgroups or parent support groups. However, we have tried to do parent support groups through Zoom. We have tried to connect with families through Zoom, which has been challenging because we are so used to seeing families face to face and having that really good personal contact and connection, which has been challenging.

Natalie Danner: I understand that, and as we move into the winter months here, and as it gets a little bit more chilly, it becomes even more challenging to meet with families. As I understand, previously you were also doing some socially distanced visits outside. Is that right?

Kelly Russell: We were. So, we, it snowed in Urbana-Champaign today, and we were very excited about that. However, it puts a kink in our socially distanced plans, because we have been able to see some of our families in a socially distant manner. So, we will meet with the family, one example is one of our home visitors sat on the family’s porch while the family was inside and they talked through the screen while both of them were wearing their masks.

So our home visitors have been very creative in how they have planned these socially distant visits. And not all of our families are interested in that, and of course, we’re very respectful of what they feel comfortable with, but we have done some socially distant visits. They are not as, not as long as regular visits, which is challenging, too.

One of the things that we have done that one of our home visitors— it’s been very successful—is doing socially distant walks with families. So they meet at a local park, and they walk through the park. The baby’s in the stroller and the parent and the home visitor are able to communicate and have conversations and the parents are able to share anything they’d like to in that way, by doing it outside in the park. (Cross talk.) Our home visitors have been so creative in how they have been meeting with families during this time, for sure.

Natalie Danner: And it sounds like you really give families the options, so that they can really make the best choice for their family and how they want to have that visit too.

Kelly Russell: Absolutely. We have some families that are not interested at all in socially distant visits. They’re not interested at all in a Zoom visit. They prefer texting, and we’re perfectly fine with that. Our goal is to continue the support and communication, and we will do that in any way the family feels comfortable.

Natalie Danner: Being so flexible for families is really important during this time.

Kelly Russell: Absolutely, our home visitors are used to being flexible anyway, and this pandemic has, they have learned to be even more flexible, so I’m so grateful for that.

Natalie Danner: So what I’ve also learned from your website is that CU Early parents come alongside the families in their journey. And we know the parents have social and emotional needs of their own. That must be not in order for them to have those optimal parent-child relationships, and for them to positively impact their child’s development. Can you tell us about some of the social and emotional needs that parents of very young children have in general and then maybe tell us how those needs have shifted or changed during COVID-19?

Kelly Russell: So, as wonderful as it is to be a parent of a child under the age of 3, it can also be really very challenging. You’ve got children that don’t sleep through the night, you’ve got children that may be fussy eaters, you’ve got children that have typical toddler development and it’s all about them and they’ve got temper tantrums. And so, as wonderful as it is, it also can be very challenging, and this pandemic has amplified the challenges because families are now feeling so socially isolated.

And so that has been one of the challenges, and parents really do appreciate the reassurance that we give them by saying to them: They know their child best. They, um, you know we reassure them with that a lot. They also appreciate knowing the fact that they’re not alone. So when we meet with them, you know, we reassure them that they are their child’s first teacher. They know their children best, and just, I think that reassurance really does provide a lot of impact to families feeling comfortable and going through this situation.

Natalie Danner: Yeah, I know that a lot of families are experiencing a lot of stress, especially from being at home alone with young children who might be experiencing some challenging behaviors themselves and being isolated and just having that person to reach out to ask questions to must be a great comfort to them.

Kelly Russell: It is, you know, and our home visitors, one of our home visitors in particular has said, that her parents have told her how much they just appreciate the fact that she’s still wanting to reach out and connect with them. And it means so much because there is, there are so many feelings of isolation. So, just having that phone call, knowing that someone’s thinking about them, and, you’re right, just these feelings of isolation can be very, very difficult to deal with. So knowing that we’re there to help support them through this has been a great help for them.

One of the ways that our home visitors’ work with families has changed during this pandemic is that we’re providing a lot more support with resources that we might not have done previously. For example, we, um, many of our families are now unemployed, and half of our families speak Spanish. And so there’s a language barrier, and there’s also a barrier with understanding the process of completing applications. So our home visitors have assisted families with that process.

So whereas before when their focus was mainly on the parent-child relationship, it’s now on how do we help parents who are having these other issues? How do we help them so that they can in turn help their children? And so, so that was one of the things that one of our home visitors has helped with is completing an unemployment application, which they have never really done before.

Natalie Danner: It sounds like you’re really providing a lot of support to the family so that they can gain more stability in their home life so they can provide that stability to their child. And eventually, provide that optimal parent-child relationship, which is the goal of your program.

Kelly Russell: Absolutely, we, you know, we talk with parents a lot about self-care. And that, in order for them to care for their children, they first have to care for themselves. So whether, you know, whether it’s helping them complete an unemployment application, or maybe they need assistance with figuring out how to get more SNAP benefits, or even if it’s just goals on how do I get outside and take a walk by myself? How do I carve in some alone time? Our home visitors help with those kinds of strategies now, where maybe that wasn’t necessarily a need before.

Natalie Danner: So thanks for sharing so much about how you provide those services to parents and how you’ve kind of shifted your services. But CU Early also provides different services directly to the young children, like developmental screenings and playgroups, and you said that that has slightly shifted as well. Can you tell us a little bit more about those services and how they’ve shifted during COVID-19?

Kelly Russell: So we provide, we do provide developmental screenings, we use the Ages and Stages developmental screening tool, and in normal times, we do that alongside the parents. So we bring the screening tool into the home and we actually work with the parent on the tool together with it, with the child. But we have not been able to do that and we’ve met as a team to talk about creative ways that we can still do these screenings and make sure that we are providing these tools to families.

And so we have done the screenings over Zoom, which has been, I mean, it’s worked. It’s worked. It’s not ideal, but it’s worked. And we, if a parent is not interested in doing a screening, we respect that and we just put in our notes that, you know, it wasn’t a good time, and we make sure that when things do go back to normal that we make sure that we complete those screenings. But again, ISBE requires us to do developmental screenings at least twice a year with families. How we get those done is really up to us and what’s best for children and families. So again, it’s all about being flexible and meeting families where they’re at, not wanting to give them more things to be stressed out about. And so we have worked really hard to find creative ways to do the requirements that we are charged with.

One of the other things that we really do miss is our monthly playgroups. So we, we love our playgroups. They are a really integral part of CU Early, and it’s an opportunity for families to come in and meet with other families to build a connection with other families. And it’s also a way for children to get an opportunity to socialize with other children. And they’re here at the early childhood school, so it’s a way for parents to become familiar with a preschool setting. So they are able to come in and see the gym and we set up the gym. Kind of like an early, you know, an infant-toddler classroom. So we have lots of different developmentally appropriate activities going on to give the parents experience with that and the children experience with that, while also trying to get along with others.

So, we haven’t had an opportunity to do our playgroups since January, which is really hard. What we have done though is we’ve shifted and we have now started parents support groups through Zoom. So it’s shifted now from providing these playgroup opportunities to more of a parent support group. Parents connecting with one another through Zoom.

One of our home visitors has a lot of children on her caseload that are around the 1-year age and just starting that whole toddler developmental stage, and so she thought it would be a good idea for those families to get together to know that they’re not alone. And you know, working, and you know being a parent of a toddler, of a 1-year-old, can be very challenging and just having that opportunity to talk with other parents about strategies that work for them, challenges that they may have and how they work through those. So our home visitors are really cognizant of the needs of the parents and trying to shift that to what would be most beneficial for them during this crazy time.

Natalie Danner: Wonderful. A lot of shifts have happened for you and also for families, too. But it sounds like you’re making the most of it and using the technology to connect with families and have them connect with their peers as well, which is a great thing, especially if you’re experiencing social isolation to know that there are other people out there that are going through similar events in their life and, and in their parenting journey as well.

Kelly Russell: Absolutely, we reinforce all the time you’re not alone in this journey of parenting, and it’s not an easy journey. It’s a rewarding journey, but sometimes it’s not easy and just reinforcing that you’re not alone. You know, you’ve got support, you’re not alone.

Natalie Danner: So I know that you give lots of tips to families who are either socially isolated or who are at home with young children. And we have lots of families that listen to this podcast and others that we do. So what tips do you have for families who are at home during the pandemic and, in particular, what can you recommend related to social-emotional well-being?

Kelly Russell: So, first of all, I think it’s really important for parents to be patient with themselves. The same kinds of strategies that they’re working on their own babies and toddlers with. Being patient, being flexible, taking a deep breath, all of those things, you know, giving themselves grace, allowing themselves time to be by themselves and take a walk. Again self-care, you’re not able, parents are not able to care for their children unless they take some time to care for themselves.

And so we really do stress the importance of self-care. Figuring out how they can take a bubble bath or reading a book or, you know, connecting with another mom and having a socially distant play group, or you know, a play experience. Those are the kinds of things that we stress with parents. Now more than ever. Just the whole idea of self-care. It’s okay to feel the way you’re feeling, it’s okay to feel stressed out and acknowledge that. And it’s also okay to figure out strategies to help yourself. So, we just stress that all the time with our families, just the importance of self-care—and it’s just so important.

Natalie Danner: I know we’ve talked a lot about the challenges, and you’ve shared some great tips for families, but are there any positive nuggets that you’ve discovered during the pandemic that you hope will be able to continue even after COVID-19 is eradicated?

Kelly Russell: So with COVID, we have, many of our families, as many of the challenges that they’ve had to face in these last months, there have been really, some really great things that have come out—nuggets as you said—have come out of them being at home with their children. And they’ve reported to us that they are really spending quality time with their children.

They’re able to read a whole book or they’re able to have a breakfast during the weekday, something that they were never able to have previously because everybody’s always on the go. You have to get ready for work, you have to get ready for school. And so parents have many more opportunities just for that bonding and attachment that they previously didn’t have. And the other thing is that we’ve noticed siblings, if we have families who have siblings, their connection has now gotten stronger because they have more time to interact with one another, to have more positive experiences with one another.

So we have seen strengthening between siblings. We’ve seen strengthening between the parent-child relationship. We stress the importance of having fun, and you know now, I don’t know if we’ll ever get an opportunity like this again to be at home this much with our children. So we should be taking advantage and really celebrating the time that we have had that we normally would not have had.

Natalie Danner: Great points and really good positive nuggets that you shared there. So if people want to connect with CU Early, if they’re interested in more information, how can they do that?

Kelly Russell: So they can go to the Urbana School District web page, and there will be a link under the early childhood page where they will be able to find our website. We also have a Facebook page. If you do a search for CU Early. And you can call us at the Urbana Early Childhood School and the number is 217-384-3616.

Natalie Danner: Well, thank you so much for being here with us on the podcast. We really appreciate having you here.

Kelly Russell: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

Natalie Danner: And until next time, keep early learning at the forefront.

You have just heard a podcast by the Illinois Early Learning Project. For more information, please visit us at illinoisearlylearning.org where you can find evidence-based, reliable information on early care and education for parents and caregivers and teachers of young children. Thanks for listening and for helping the children in your home, classroom, and community have a strong start in their early learning.

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Reviewed: 2021