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A new medium for early literacy tips: Texting

PHOTO: Logan Zabel

Amy Dusin sometimes takes advantage of the quiet time when she nurses her seven-month-old son Hunter to review the parenting tips she got via text message that week. They remind her to play peekaboo with her baby or describe facial expressions to him when they look in the mirror together.

Dusin, who works part time as a convenience store manager in Greeley, said the texts provide nice reminders about learning activities.

After one recent text, she thought to herself, “Oh man, I really haven’t been playing peekaboo with him, I have to step my game up.”

The weekly text messages come from Bright by Three—formerly Colorado Bright Beginnings– a Denver-based non-profit that provides language and literacy resources to parents of children ages 0-3. The BrightByText initiative, which launched November 10, is part of the organization’s effort to bring a new level of technological sophistication to its 20-year-old program. So far, 285 parents or caregivers have enrolled in BrightByText.

What’s in a name Change?
    Colorado Bright Beginnings changed its name to Bright by Three in November to avoid conflicts with an organization that holds a federal trademark on the Bright Beginnings name. Katharine Brenton, Bright by Three’s director of strategic initiatives, said that organization has been known to send cease and desist letters to other groups with the Bright Beginnings name. “It was just out of an abundance of caution,” she said.

“I think that we are the only ones in the state doing this,” said Katharine Brenton, director of strategic initiatives for Bright by Three. “I think it could be really big for us.”

While advice from a cell phone may not have the warm, fuzzy factor of a one-on-one conversation, there’s evidence it works. Studies of text-messaging interventions—with goals ranging from college matriculation to boosting early reading skills, suggest that the practice can help break down complex tasks into manageable bite-sized steps.

A study released in November found that a text messaging program with advice for parents on building early literacy skills increased the number of home literacy activities parents did with their children, upped parental involvement at school, and led to literacy gains among preschoolers.

“We were pleased that our program worked,” said Benjamin N. York, one of the study’s authors. “We’re a little bit surprised that it worked as well as it did.”

BrightByText 

  • What: A weekly text messaging program that provides tips to parents of young children.
  • Open to: Colorado parents and caregivers of children 0-3 years old
  • Sign up: Text “BRIGHT” to 444999

While that study focused on parents of four-year-olds, not parents of younger children as BrightByText does, York believes text messaging interventions are broadly applicable, and if developed carefully can impact families with children of all ages.

“Texting is really fertile ground to communicate with parents,” he said.

Dusin has already recommended the program to a friend who recently gave birth.

“I think it’s a good tool for parents who are interested in helping give their children the best kind of head start,” she said. “If you want it, you use it. If not, you just ignore the text.”

Updating the model

Throughout its two-decade existence, Bright by Three has relied on direct contact with parents, distributing kits containing books and learning games at annual doctor visits or through home visits by community volunteers. Last year, about 24,000 parents were served this way.

Examples of text messages sent to parents through the BrightByText program.
Examples of text messages sent to parents through the BrightByText program.

The intervention is relatively cheap—about $165 per child over three years—but also low-intensity. At most, parents receive about an hour’s worth of in-person advice each year for three years.

From now on, BrightByText will be a component of the traditional visit-based program as well as a stand-alone offering available to any interested parent. Bright by Three leaders hope to sign up 3,000 stand-alone subscribers in 2015. The weekly texts, which are tailored to the child’s age in months, will allow the organization to “up the dosage” of its positive parenting messages, said Brenton.

It helps that ninety percent of adult Americans own cell phones and 58 percent own smartphones, according to 2014 data from the Pew Research Center. The numbers remain surprisingly high for low-income families, with 84 percent of adults with household incomes under $30,000 owning cell phones.

For recipients, text messages are just plain convenient—available at all hours on a device many people keep within arm’s reach.

Dusin, who participates in Bright by Three’s traditional home visiting program as well as BrightByText, said, “I wouldn’t say that the visit is inconvenient, but I had to have someone come to my house and she was there for an hour….With the text, I can read it when I have time.”

She said some texts affirm things she’s already doing with Hunter, but others suggest activities she never thought about. One recent message encouraged parents to help children understand that storybook pictures represent real things.

She started using the concept while reading, “Where is Baby’s Belly Button?” a lift-the-flap book about parts of the body.

“I’ll compare the pictures that we’re reading about to him,” she said. “I’ll grab his feet and say, ‘These are your feet’…I know he doesn’t get it yet, but the more you do with him, the more you interact…the better it is down the road.”

Careful crafting

Firing off text message tips sounds fairly simple, but experts caution that such programs must be developed thoughtfully.

York, who’s planning further research on texting interventions, said his team put lots of time into developing and sequencing the content, and determining the thrice-weekly dosage.

“One of our concerns to be quite candid…is that organizations will just start texting parents in a more casual way not having gone through a process like we went through,” he said. “The devil is in the details.”

While text messaging programs for parents are not exactly common, one national program is Text4Baby, sponsored by the Johnson & Johnson company. The focus however is mostly on health topics, not early learning.

In the case of BrightByText, messages are based on the well-respected “LearningGames: The Abecedarian Curriculum,” which is also used for Bright by Three’s printed parent kits. In addition to one- or two-sentence tips about singing, playing or reading with children, each text includes links to “landing pages” that provide more information about each activity.

Bright by Three officials hope to offer Spanish-language texts sometime this spring, and eventually links to 100 videos modeling the activities and resources such as local library story times. All that development will be resource-intensive at first, but once everything’s in place it’ll cost almost nothing to run, said Brenton.

She said the organization’s robust in-house data system will help determine whether text message outreach is making a difference.

“Over the last couple years, we’ve made database to measure every single interaction and engagement we have with parents…a system capable of looking at what moves the needle.”

 

All over the map

What do children need to know when they start kindergarten? You might be surprised.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

How many letters should kids recognize when they enter kindergarten? Should they be able to cut with scissors? How long should they be able to sit still?

Such basic questions seem like they should come with clear-cut answers, but parents and teachers — and even Colorado state standards — differ widely in their expectations for entering kindergarteners

Early childhood leaders in Larimer County discovered just how much variation exists after they surveyed 800 local parents, preschool teachers and kindergarten teachers in 2015.

“The answers were all over the map,” said Bev Thurber, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County. “A lot of times it was way above what research says is developmentally appropriate.”

Such findings spotlight the lack of consensus about what it means to be ready for kindergarten. The survey found parents and preschool teachers generally had higher expectations for youngsters than kindergarten teachers or state standards, suggesting that some parents and preschool teachers may be focusing too much energy on teaching academic skills to young children.

“Our concern is not only do you have this variability, but also this pressure on the academic side … when that’s really not the most important thing, especially at this young age,” said Thurber.

To help parents sort it all out, Thurber and a team of early childhood teachers and advocates created a new eight-page parent guide called “Ready Set Kindergarten.” Available in English and Spanish, the whimsically illustrated booklet gives parents tips for building academic and social-emotional skills — things like simple counting, recognizing the letters in a child’s name, naming feelings and taking turns. It also includes a month-by-month schedule for the pre-kindergarten year highlighting logistical details like registration windows and meet-the-teacher opportunities.

All three Larimer County school districts, — Poudre, Thompson and Estes Park — have agreed to use the guide, which is being distributed through preschools, elementary schools, doctors’ offices and libraries.

But some experts say too much emphasis on getting children ready for kindergarten relieves schools of their obligation to serve students regardless of their background or experience.

“It’s critical for schools to take responsibility for being ready for children – not the other way around,” said Sherry Cleary, executive director of the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute at the City University of New York.

Cleary reviewed the guide and worried that it would create unneeded stress for families and set up teachers to have unrealistic expectations for kids.

Thurber said many teachers and parents already have unrealistic expectations for entering kindergarteners, according to survey results. The guide scales those back, she said, and offers a more reasonable list of activities that are based on state standards and Colorado’s early learning and development guidelines.

“This is what experts have said is developmentally appropriate,” Thurber said.

“I completely buy in that schools have to meet kids where they are at,” she said. ”However, within that, there is a certain anxiety among families when you have all these differing expectations.”

Karen Rattenborg, executive director of the Colorado State University Early Childhood Center and an assistant professor at the university, saw the disparity in expectations when she analyzed the survey data.

Take letters, for example. State standards say kids should recognize at least 10 letters when they start kindergarten, specifically the letters in their name. Survey results showed most parents and preschool teachers believed entering kindergarteners should recognize more than 20 letters. Kindergarten teachers opted for a lower 11-20 range.

The same dynamic held true for counting — about half of parents and preschool teachers thought kids should be able to count higher than 20 while state standards say 10 is enough.

In some cases, both preschool and kindergarten teachers placed a high value on tasks that state standards and other common benchmarks don’t mention. Both groups rated cutting with scissors as the second most important fine motor skill for entering kindergarteners, but state standards and the state’s early learning guidelines are silent about scissors.

“It’s things like that where we had these a-ha moments,” said Rattenborg.

In some cases, there was agreement. For instance, the vast majority of both preschool and kindergarten teachers said the ability to communicate needs and wants was the top communication skill kindergarteners need.

Rattenborg said the diversity of views made one thing clear.

“We realized having a common guide throughout Larimer County would be helpful for virtually everyone involved,” she said.

Diane Umbreit, a kindergarten teacher at Kruse Elementary School in Fort Collins and a member of the committee that conceived the guide, agreed.

Over the years, she’s seen plenty of confusion and anxiety among parents. Some push their kids hard to acquire new skills before kindergarten. Some want to do learning activities with their children, but aren’t sure where to start.

Others, she said, are “shocked that their child needs to know the letters in his name.”

Umbreit said of the new kindergarten guide, “Hopefully, it evens the playing field.”

Teaching teachers

How a Memphis pre-K giant is changing the way early childhood educators are taught

PHOTO: Porter-Leath
Porter-Leath's new training program places emphasis on early literacy.

Morgan Bradley thought that teaching children at her church’s Sunday school would have prepared her to work in early childhood education.

But the recent college graduate was shocked by all she learned at a recent training at Porter-Leath’s new Early Childhood Academy.

“I thought I knew how to work with little kids, but I didn’t know how much a child’s brain develops during those years before kindergarten,” said Bradley, who will be helping in a Head Start classroom through AmeriCorps. “I’m realizing now how necessary good teaching in pre-K is to getting a baby ready for kindergarten, especially when it comes to using my words to build a child’s vocabulary.”

Bradley is one of more than 500 educators who will go through Porter-Leath’s training this year in an effort to boost the quality of early education instruction in Memphis. Porter-Leath is the city’s largest provider of early childhood education and has a partnership with Shelby County Schools for Head Start and other services, including training.

The program comes as Tennessee grapples with a low literacy rate and mixed quality of early education programs. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has emphasized the need for better early childhood education across the state for Tennessee to improve as a whole.

Porter-Leath’s trainings are held almost monthly and revolve around four tenets: socio-emotional learning; literacy; health; and STEAM, or science, technology, engineering, art and math.

The socio-emotional and literacy pieces are what make the program different from usual professional development for early educators, said Rafel Hart, vice president of teacher excellence for Porter-Leath and the training program’s leader.

“When we think about professional development in early childhood, we think about training on CPR and first aid,” he said. “That’s important, but Teacher Excellence focuses on classroom practices. How do we make our quality of instruction better?”

A Memphis organization since 1850, Porter-Leath serves about 6,000 children in its preschool program and employs 670 people. It serves students in some of Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods who may be dealing with the trauma of food or home insecurity at early ages. This makes training teachers in socioemotional learning especially crucial, said Hart.

Porter-Leath’s program draws from organizations like Acknowledge Alliance that trains teachers to help students regulate their emotions and learn self-awareness.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
AmeriCorps members who will work in Porter-Leath classrooms are among more than 500 educators to go through the training.

“I’ve been in early childhood for 25 years, and socioemotional learning is rarely used,” Hart said. “That’s a tragic mistake we’re correcting. Students can’t grow to develop strong academics if their emotional health isn’t growing first.”

All new Porter-Leath and Shelby County Schools early childhood educators will go through this training, but it’s also open to and encouraged for longtime teachers.

Kelly Thieme, a former literacy specialist and now Porter Leath instructional coach, is especially excited to see the focus on literacy.

“A lot of people don’t understand literacy starts from birth, and speaking to children makes reading and literacy easier,” she said. “We go through current research on how young children learn to read. To me, this helps us and others understand that we’re not just babysitters; it helps us professionalize our profession.”