Parents as Teachers: Using Virtual Technology in Service Delivery to Children and Families who are Vulnerable

Published in Children’s Voice, Volume 29, Number 2

by Eric Clark

When the COVID-19 pandemic first began ravaging communities and disrupting the lives of families with young children, Parents as Teachers (PAT), an early childhood home visiting program, moved quickly to scale up its home visiting capabilities by leveraging virtual visits using Interactive Video Conferencing (IVC) technology, as well as phones, to deliver its traditional in-person visits. Headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, PAT employs an evidence-based model to train professional home visitors—known as parent educators—to support parents in encouraging their children’s development from the prenatal stage through age three.

The pandemic has not stopped PAT parent educators from conducting home visits. Instead, it has compelled them to shift their service delivery, which includes home visits, group connections, and developmental screenings, from in-person to virtual visits using laptops, tablets, and/or phones.

Collaborating on Virtual Services
Scaling to virtual services has long been part of PAT’s plan. The 35-year-old nonprofit first piloted a virtual adaptation of its home visiting model in 2015 when it collaborated with the University of Southern California’s (USC) Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and Telehealth Clinic to establish the Parents as Teachers @ USC Telehealth project, an IVC initiative that provided practical parenting support over the internet. Over the past several years of testing, refining, and growing their virtual offerings alongside their in-person program, PAT found that virtual visits were feasible, effective, and most importantly, welcomed and loved by parents. To respond quickly to the COVID-19 crisis, PAT accelerated virtual service delivery across its network, scaling from 1,000 virtual visits over three years of the pilot to 12,000 virtual visits in the first month after stay-at-home orders began.

“The use of virtual visits as an interim delivery mode of in-person visits serves as a vehicle to support the continuity of existing services PAT provides to families, as well as helping to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 infection in the community,” says Angela Rau, director of Program Innovation and Professional Development and a lead virtual parenting education specialist. When state and local closures began in March and in-person home visiting came to an abrupt halt, PAT affiliate sites immediately reported success in reaching more than two thirds of their families using IVC technology. In the very first stages of the outbreak, PAT was providing only virtual visits that used video technology.

Addressing the Digital Divide
As many families do not have access to the internet and technology, affiliates noted that families who experience digital inequity were becoming increasingly isolated during the pandemic. Once again, PAT pivoted and began offering telecommunication visits (or visits by phone rather than video conference). With the adoption of both video and phone visits, PAT has managed to continue to reach isolated families across all types of communities.

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Eric L. Clark is a seasoned journalist who currently serves as the marketing communications specialist for Parents as Teachers National Center, Inc. He has written extensively on matters involving under-resourced communities and the positive effects of early intervention in childrenʼs lives.