More than halfway through a five-year project funded by a $3 million federal grant, the Ypsilanti-based HighScope Educational Research Foundation has had to find new ways to train teachers and support pupils' social-emotional health during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The nonprofit received a highly competitive U.S. Department of Education Investing in Innovation (i3) grant in 2016 for its project. HighScope was one of only 15 grantees out of a pool of more than 360 applicants.
The program focuses on improving long-term educational, economic, and social outcomes for more than 2,000 preschool and kindergarten pupils in four school districts across southeast Michigan: Harper Woods, Garden City, Lincoln Consolidated, and Ypsilanti Community Schools. The project started in 2017 and is scheduled to wrap up in 2022.
Laura Scharphorn, HighScope research scientist and principal investigator for the project, says a previous HighScope study found that students tended to score lower on self-regulation measures than was ideal. Self-regulation involves skills like planning ahead, thinking critically and flexibly, and regulating one's emotions.
HighScope research scientist Laura Scharphorn.
"Students were scoring lower on these measures, and teachers wanted support dealing with children's challenging behaviors," Scharphorn says.
That led the HighScope research team to go back to the principles of its landmark Perry Preschool project, conducted in Ypsilanti in the '60s, while also adding more recent research about self-regulation that relates to trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).
"That was not part of the research 50 years ago when Perry Preschool started," Scharphorn says. "We're taking into account those findings and incorporating that into our strategies. And that fits so well with the trauma and disruption that children and families have been experiencing during COVID, too."
The project involves group training for teachers in HighScope's Plan-Do-Review (PDR), a curriculum practice that encourages children to make choices about what they will do, carry out their ideas, and reflect on their activities with adults and peers. Teachers also receive group training on conflict resolution curricula, enhanced by the newer trauma-informed research about self-regulation. One-on-one teacher coaching is available as well. External evaluators from Michigan State University will evaluate the program's impact by comparing a participating group with a control group that will wait until later in the study to get training and implement those strategies.
In the second year of the study, HighScope added "teacher collaborators," who gave feedback to trainers and coaches about how the strategies they were learning were working in the classroom.
"We were asking teachers which strategies were usable and feasible in real classrooms, not just based on theory, but based on what's doable with real teachers and children and being responsive to their needs," Scharphorn says.
HighScope staff spent the entire summer of 2020 figuring out how to best continue the partnership with teachers and schools virtually. Madeline Chimka was hired as a project manager for HighScope about six months ago as the nonprofit focused on adapting the training and coaching process to the new realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. She says her work has focused on "transferring the systems that were in places into the virtual world."
"HighScope [principles] are very based on relationships and active learning, so we had to learn how to stay true to those components," Scharphorn says.
Teachers will receive a total of five trainings over the 2020-2021 school year, about one per month, with training now done online via Zoom. Scharphorn says she was worried that she and her colleagues wouldn't be able to replicate the in-person training process virtually, but that hasn't proved to be a problem.
"We've seen a community of teachers develop across the districts, sharing how to support students with self-regulation and all that they're coping with this year," Scharphorn says.
Jennifer Westfall and Jennifer Allred, both teachers who are involved with the project at Ford Early Learning Center in Ypsilanti Township, say that community aspect has been invaluable.
Ford Early Learning Center teachers Jennifer Westfall and Jennifer Allred.
"It's beneficial to be able to talk to other teachers and hear different things happening in other districts and classrooms, and sometimes they come up with [strategies] we didn't think of," Allred says.
The teachers say they were a bit overwhelmed when they were first chosen to participate, because there was already so much going on with adjusting to remote learning.
"But as time went on and we went through the training and talked to the coach, we found it very valuable," Allred says. "It helped us brainstorm, be more flexible, and stay more positive. Even if it's been a long week, it reminds us that this is the work we're supposed to be doing and why we do it."
Westfall says having coaches sit in on the virtual classroom and getting feedback afterward has been useful.
"We use these strategies every day with students. Sometimes it reminds us of information we already know, but during the training, we also pick up other stuff we didn't think of," Westfall says.
The two teachers use the PDR strategy with children multiple times throughout a school day.
"One big thing we do is reviewing different things with our students," Westfall says. "We have them say what they did the day before to keep it all connected. We make sure we're reviewing things every day, throughout the whole day."
For instance, the children recently had a few days off for snow days, and Allred and Westfall asked them to talk about what they did on those days off from school.
"In the beginning, we start out by asking general questions about what they're planning to do," Allred says. "As the year progresses, the questions get more specific, like 'What did you build?' or 'What colors did you use?' or 'Who did you play with?'"
Allred says the HighScope project has challenged participating teachers to find creative ways to keep kids engaged, and she and Westfall are finding that children are making gains in language skills because virtual learning involves so much talking. The strategies also help teachers be more flexible and responsive to pupils.
HighScope project manager Madeline Chimka.
"If we get to the point where they're not paying attention, we can restructure our schedule and put in some breaks, or do songs or activities that will gain back their attention prior to teaching a lesson," Allred says.
Westfall says remote teaching has been harder emotionally, because teachers can't take a child aside to give them a hug or talk about what's bothering them if the child is having a hard day, but there are ways to deal with that in remote learning. The HighScope curriculum trains teachers to help their pupils identify and name their emotions and engage in problem-solving, even at the preschool level.
"Maybe they can't do something they want to do, and one of us will approach them and say something like, 'Are you frustrated?' We'll ask why, and offer suggestions, but we want them to come up with solutions if they can," Allred says.
With remote learning, in many cases, parents are at home with the children and can be recruited to help.
"That's one positive to virtual learning. Parents, in some cases, can support them right then," Westfall says. "The parents can hear how we're [dealing with the situation], and if it works, they'll do it at home with their child."
Chimka and Scharphorn say part of their focus in retooling the program has been making sure teachers feel supported and not overwhelmed as they've participated in the project.
"We were worried that with everything on their plates doing remote learning, teachers wouldn't be able to engage with us and use these approaches," Scharphorn says. "But we've been blown away by their commitment to this work and to their students. They really see that children need these skills in order to engage in learning and be productive learners. We've seen teachers respond really positively to getting the support they feel they need."
More information about HighScope's i3 grant-funded project is available here.
For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at email@example.com.
All photos by Doug Coombe.