Calm Kits: Response to 2020 Challenges - Creative Family and Community Partnership

Crystal Abbe,
DMPS Early Childhood Head Start Family Engagement Facilitator
Iowa AYEC Governing Board Family Engagement Chair and Vice President-Elect


Welcoming parents and caring grownups into classrooms, programs, and schools is a notorious hallmark of early care and education. The years of Head Start and preschool programming are prime times for creating positive lifelong reciprocal relationships between families and schools. The necessary health and safety mitigation measures due to the worldwide pandemic of 2020 called for creative family engagement and partnership strategies to be designed and implemented. For most programs, social media, virtual technology, phone calls, and quick masked-up conversations at arrival and dismissal replaced daily relaxed, joy-filled smiles and interactions between families and program staff. Home-visits and partnership conferences took place virtually or, if possible, across an outdoor picnic tables. In effort to slow the spread and keep children, staff, families, and communities safe, in-person classroom visits, parent education and community resource fairs were placed on hold. This is a story of how our Head Start preschool program creatively altered a family-community partnership activity from the past.

Des Moines Public Schools Preschool Programs includes 18 Head Start funded classrooms. Prior to this school year, among others, two family engagement opportunities were offered to everyone. Weekly Parent and Child Together Time took place in the classroom; the intended outcomes included extending learning into the home and family culture into the classroom. Monthly “Coffee Connection” resource share-fairs created opportunities to share information and resources while building relationships between families, families and support staff, and community partners. Both PACT Time and Coffee Connection delivery modalities shifted from in-person to a virtual-social media weekly post during the 2020-21 academic year.

Central College students prepared 350 Calm Kits

Prior to this year, education students from Central College in Pella, Iowa supported a month of Coffee Connections. Students hosted interactive tables for parents and children to experience early social emotional and academic play-based activities, which could be replicated at home. In between Coffee Connections (held during arrival and dismissal times), college students met with school family support staff and instructional coach staff and received program overviews. They also visited classrooms, providing literacy-based activity for students. During the 2020-21 school year, COVID-19 protocol prohibited parents and other community members from entering our schools. Through a partnership of creative thinking, Amanda Clark, PhD Assistant Professor of Education at Central College, Laura Corkrean, LMSW Social Worker and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultant at DMPS Early Childhood Programs, and Crystal Abbe, Family Engagement Facilitator at DMPS Early Childhood Programs designed a strategic replacement activity.
Social Emotional Learning and Wellness were identified areas of intended outcomes in need of support. The pandemic begged the questions, What can we do to acknowledge family stress? Are there ways we can build families’ capacities to model and practice calming activities at home? How can we effectively utilize some of the Head Start COVID-related funding to positively support families in their homes? What have parents expressed to us regarding challenges due to increased social isolation? Our answer…a project called, Calm Kits.

The Highlights of Calm Kits included:

As a Family Engagement Facilitator, I believe quality family partnership is like having an extra staff member in the classroom. Teachers get more bang for their buck, outcomes of their intentional teaching are greater when families are able to extend learning beyond the classroom, into their homes and community. While early care and education programs welcome children into programs for a few years, children will be a part of their family for a lifetime. Through Calm Kit distribution and implementation strategies, we hope to have maintained our community partnership with Central College, enhanced school to home connections and built families’ capacities to elevate and nurture social emotional and wellness skills, not only during the pandemic, but with the possibility of lifetimes of success.

This article was first published in the Spring 2021 Region 7 Head Start Association Journal, Sandbox