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April Crawford presenting CLI Engage

Nurturing new growth

Helping children flourish during the shift to remote learning

School has looked a little different over the past year. As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, living rooms quickly turned into classrooms, and parents transformed into teacher aides. For our youngest learners in their formative years, transitioning from learning in the classroom to learning at home can be difficult. Faculty and staff at the Children’s Learning Institute at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth have made it their mission to help teachers and families navigate this arduous terrain as they nurture these promising seedlings.

“At our very core, our goal is to help children reach their full potential,” says April Crawford, PhD. “We are dedicated to advancing learning and health outcomes, and we do that through a variety of public and private partnerships in research, resource development, clinical programs, and service delivery.”

Crawford also leads the institute’s state initiatives, including CLI Engage, an online platform launched in 2015 that offers free resources to a variety of early learning programs. As COVID-19 swept the world, CLI Engage became an important component in addressing the educational repercussions of the pandemic.

“Having the CLI Engage platform already available enabled us to respond quickly when the educational climate began to shift and schools began preparing for remote learning in 2020,” says Jennifer Lindley.

Within a week of the transition to remote learning, faculty and staff at the Children’s Learning Institute were using CLI Engage to cultivate the new online learning environment and to support educators and families. They focused on supporting teachers in three areas: lessons and curriculum, connection with parents, and professional development. They also expanded existing resources to include information related to COVID-19, such as how to explain the coronavirus to children and how to teach them about germs and hygiene.

Many resources on CLI Engage help educators partner with families so they can work together to support their child’s development. Other resources are available for families to access directly from home.

“Parents are children’s first and most important teachers,” Lindley says. “We want to engage families in their children’s education and support learning throughout the day by linking school-based learning— delivered by teachers—with home-based educational opportunities.”

One of the CLI Engage resources that helps link school-based learning and home-based learning is the CIRCLE Activity Collection: Family. Meant to foster meaningful education for young children, the collection is available in English and Spanish and provides suggested activities for families to complete together. The collection is closely linked to the classroom activity collection— available to more than 35,000 early childhood teachers, specialists, and administrators statewide— allowing children to learn the same concepts at school and at home.

The transition to remote learning was not the only hurdle the Children’s Learning Institute helped teachers and families overcome. Schools also faced the question of how to complete state-mandated progress monitoring assessments on students who were learning remotely. Once again, faculty and staff at the institute rose to the challenge. They developed trainings and released a video through CLI Engage that showcased how teachers and parents could work together to complete the assessment.

“I am inspired by the ingenuity and dedication our faculty and staff have shown over the past year,” says Tricia A. Zucker, PhD. “Most of all, I am encouraged by their passion to help our youngest learners. Each of us is here because we believe in our institute’s mission and the future of these children.”

Though it is not easy to cultivate resources to overcome the learning obstacles sown by a pandemic, it is rewarding to see children across Texas continue to grow and flourish with the proper support.

“This has been a challenging time for all of us, but we are grateful to support teachers and families to ensure children in our communities continue to learn and grow,” Lindley says.

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