Equips Teachers with New Tools to Better Support Young Children and Their Parents
The COVID-19 pandemic made an enormous impact on many aspects of daily life, and in many industries, but few aspects experienced it as acutely as early education. Multiple research studies within the early childhood education community have cited the loss of learning and social connection during the pandemic years as a hardship for children and families. “The scale of COVID19 has shaken all aspects of young children’s lives, disrupting their education and their psychological, physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development and presents a significant and long-lasting risk to their health and well-being.” (Benner and Mistry 2020; Gromada et al. 2020).
Three years later, the World Health Organization has declared an end to the pandemic, but early educators continue to feel the effects, with many noting more behavioral challenges with the children, and families continuing to need more support. This trend has, in turn, created new challenges for early education centers in terms of teacher retention. Staff attrition in preschools has reached an all-time high, with recent studies estimating annual turnover rates range from 26-40 percent for early childhood educators in licensed facilities. In the United States, 44% of new teachers leave the profession within five years of entry.
According to a nationwide survey of 2,300 educators published by early childhood education resource provider Teaching Strategies, 45% of early child educators are experiencing high levels of burnout and stress. In the same research, 43% of respondents said that staffing shortages are affecting their stress level.
Early education leaders are now having to face the fact that many of the changes resulting the pandemic are not temporary, but instead represent a “new normal” to which children, families and educators need to adapt.
Providing the Right Kind of Support at an Earlier Age
Otter Learning is a best-in-class network of early childhood schools focused on social and academic success, aiming to make students happy and help parents feel confident in the future of their children. With schools in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, and South Carolina, Otter Learning prides itself on its highly trained staff and compelling curriculum.
Danielle Millman, President of Otter Learning, explains, “We’re so much more than just a place where you drop your children off every day. We really believe in the value of our partnership with families in providing education. As an early education provider, one of our goals is to make every decision based on what’s best for children. Providing the right kind of support at the earliest age possible definitely helps to drive positive outcomes for children and families – the earlier, the better.”
Like many early education centers, Otter Learning has seen a sharp rise in behavioral, developmental, and social emotional challenges since the pandemic. “Preschool children are very different now than they were prior to COVID,” says Millman. “They spent 18 months at home without friends, but often with more exposure to technology, so their social interactions, levels of emotional maturity and attention spans looks very different.”
In some of the communities served by Otter Learning, there are programs available to help with these challenges, but there is often a years-long waitlist associated. Child Find, for example, is a nationwide service that points to local resources such as pediatric psychologists and occupational therapists, speech therapists and play therapists.
As Millman explains, “Some of our centers have identified great local resources to help manage challenging behavior, but the majority of these local resources work in person, and we’ve often found that the wait just to get an initial appointment is at minimum six months, ranging up to 18 months in some locations. And that’s just to get an evaluation to determine what kind of support is necessary, it doesn’t even include the timeline toobtaining support. Schools and families who’ve identified a child with specific needs can’t wait that long for help.”
In an effort to reduce these delays, Millman started to investigate online and virtual options that could provide nationwide support for her learning centers. She soon discovered Clay, an early identification platform that provides a comprehensive suite of behavioral and developmental tools for school communities that serve children ages 0-5. In fact, as one of Clay’s earliest customers, Otter Learning was instrumental in shaping Clay’s product platform, which now includes a comprehensive array of features to support early childhood education centers:
Ongoing developmental and behavioral screening and monitoring tools
to support children and educators in the classroom
Peer support chat groups for educators
on behavioral topics and knowledge exchange
Interactive professional development and support for teachers
around behavioral and developmental health
Evidenced-based, personalized interventions and strategies
for parents and educators
for families and educators
“We really vetted Clay carefully, to make sure that they would be a trusted resource for us and for our families. One of the things I appreciate so much about Clay is that their experts come from a medical background, so they understand the urgency of early intervention. Most education technology companies focus on K-12, but there are few out there that focus on young children. However, it’s in those early years that 90% of our brain architecture is formed, determining the way we think, the choices we make, and the way we behave for the rest of our lives. That’s why it’s so critical to provide sufficient support for children in the first five years of their lives.”
Taking a 3-tiered approach
Clay has enabled Otter Learning to take a 3-tiered approach toward managing behavioral and developmental challenges. The first and most foundational tier is to collect more information about each child, which is captured through Clay’s survey questionnaire. “We like to have every family complete it for their child, regardless of whether or not we’ve identified any concerns, because it helps us to better understand the population we’re supporting, as well as the individual needs of the children.”
The second tier in Otter Learning’s approach involves providing the right kind of support and for families. At Otter Learning, families have really appreciated Clay’s ability to identify what is happening with their children in a way that pediatricians don’tnecessarily see. For example, anxiety in pre-school aged children looks very different than it does in older children, and ADHD presents differently in young girls and boys. “Clay is so accessible for parents,” says Millman. “It provides educational content to help them understand what’s happening with their child, and points them to additional resources for more support. It’s a great solution and it really strengthens the partnership all around.”
The third tier is to provide more training and development for Otter Learning’s staff. Says Millman, “Clay provides great training for our teachers. With the increase in challenging behaviors after the pandemic, some teachers were feeling exhausted. Working in a preschool can be a difficult job, and not knowing exactly what’s behind a child’s behavior only makes it harder. Clay has helped our teachers to develop better empathy and understanding, and to feel more confident about what they are doing in the classroom. It legitimizes their recommendations, and provides valuable context.”
By providing an easy way to access a collection of well-validated standardized screening tools recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Clay provides early identification along with resources for families who need more information and concrete recommendations for teachers who want to better support the children in the classroom. As an example, children with shorter attention spans need to move around and use their gross motor skills more. Another example is utilizing fidget tools, which can help some children to focus and pay closer attention, engage more deeply, and remember what they learned.
“We can’t go back to the way things were prior to COVID, but we can approach early education from a different perspective,” says Millman. “By putting the needs of the children first, we sometimes need to accomplish our academic objectives in new ways to meet them where they are. Cognitive science indicates that it takes 10-20 repetitions to learn something new, if the learner is having fun. If not, it takes 400+ repetitions to learn something new. So, we are having to adjust our learning environments to ensure that they are engaging for the children.”
“One of the things I appreciate so much about Clay is that their experts come from a medical background, so they understand the urgency of early intervention. Most education technology companies focus on K-12, but there are few out there that focus on young children. However, it’s in those early years that 90% of our brain architecture is formed, determining the way we think, the choices we make, and the way we behave for the rest of our lives. That’s why it’s so critical to provide sufficient support for children in the first five years of their lives.”
-Danielle Millman, President, Otter Learning