Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children


What do families with young children want?

As we blogged last week, the Massachusetts Partnership for Infants and Toddlers (MPIT) conducted a statewide survey that asked this question and collected feedback from more than 1,200 families. MPIT is a collaboration of 40+ organizations and family engagement specialists.

The survey results were, however, collected, before COVID-19 shut down the country.

So now, to understand what families want in the middle of this pandemic, MPIT has asked its members to share the changes they’ve made in their services.


The Department of Public Health shifts to pandemic protection

At the state level, the Bureau of Family Health and Nutrition, part of the Department of Public Health, addresses the health needs of “mothers, infants, children and youth— including children and youth with special health needs.” Two of the bureau’s core values are culturally responsive family engagement and racial equity.

To do its work during the pandemic, the bureau has set up telehealth appointments via phone or video so that families can access the Early Intervention system, the WIC Nutrition program, and the Home Visiting program.

In Chelsea and Springfield, early childhood coalitions that are supported by the bureau’s MA Early Childhood Comprehensive Systems have distributed food, diapers, and diapering supplies to families, stepping in when grocery store shelves have often been bare.

To provide parents with more information, the bureau’s Division for Children & Youth with Special Health Needs has set up online information sessions for parents and posted new content — “Emergency Care Planning for Children & Youth with Special Health Needs during COVID 19 and Beyond” – on the website.

And the bureau’s Birth Defects Monitoring Program is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to collect data on pregnancy, delivery, and infant outcomes for mothers and babies who have tested positive for COVID-19.

For Monica Bharel, the commissioner of the Department of Public Health, the pandemic hit home in a hard way. Bharel, who is also a parent, contracted the coronavirus and was quite ill, so she speaks from personal experience when she emphasizes how important it is to address the pandemic as a community.


“Families First:” emotional support for parents

Based in Watertown, the nonprofit organization Families First “brings parents of young children together in their communities to strengthen their parenting knowledge, skills, and support systems.”

But when COVID-19 struck, parents made it clear that their lives had grown much harder. They reported feeling extremely isolated, and they were having trouble engaging their children in schoolwork. Parents also felt exhausted from juggling their competing responsibilities, and they were struggling to meet their children’s emotional needs.

In response, Families First has taken a comprehensive approach that includes its COVID-19 Tips and Resources. Families First quickly adapted its Power of Parenting curriculum so that it could be used during virtual sessions that focus more on the unique challenges of coping during a pandemic.

The first session emphasized parental self-care, encouraging parents to “put on their oxygen mask first,” so that they can better support their children. And every session includes stress reduction techniques parents can use.

“I want to thank Families First for making this program available to us even at these unprecedented times,” one parent says. “It’s made a great impact. We learned about our child’s temperament and our own parenting styles. We also learned from other parents who are from different cultures. I wish I had known about this program before my daughter was born. But it’s never too late.”

“Now more than ever,” another parent adds, “parents need to know that they are not alone—we are apart, but we have each other.”


Action at the City Level

Relationships are making a difference in Somerville, where the Somerville Family Learning Collaborative’s deep-rooted connections with families proved to be invaluable in quickly reaching hundreds of families of all backgrounds to help them stay safe and feel supported in the face of the pandemic.

The collaborative is part of the Somerville Public Schools and manages family and community engagement.

To support families during the pandemic, the collaborative has taken a multi-pronged approach, providing multilingual counseling, case management, and support for basic needs.

And thanks to community donations and a partnership with two local non-profits — The Beautiful Stuff Project and Cradles to Crayons – the collaborative distributed more than 88,000 diapers through deliveries to quarantined families and through school-based grab-and-go distribution sites.

Home Visiting programs shifted from in-person visits to phone or video conference check-ins. Playgroups also went virtual. And Parent Support Groups now meet on Zoom, which some parents have noted, makes the meetings easier to attend on a regular basis than in-person meetings.

Somerville’s shift to engaging families on Zoom is part of a larger trend.

“Virtual programming has expanded our reach. Families who would not typically travel to in-person groups due to distance or time constraints now have more opportunities. And with skilled facilitation, more families can be accommodated in virtual parent/child play groups than in-person,” Gail DeRiggi, the Associate Commissioner for Family and Community Supports at Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, says of what she’s seeing across the state. DeRiggi manages EEC’s Coordinated Family and Community Engagement grant program, which provides funds to Somerville’s collaborative and to other programs across the state.

“Facilitators and families do love in-person meetings. They allow for connections among participants that cannot be fully replicated in a virtual environment. But virtual programming is a good alternative. In addition to opportunities for parent/child playgroups, virtual programming affords the convenience of having accessible parent education sessions in the evenings after children have gone to bed. Given what we have learned, many programs will continue to refine and embed virtual opportunities in their ongoing programming to boost access and participation.”


Navigating change

To keep up with the pandemic, Massachusetts is continually changing, which means that families’ needs and challenges will keep changing. MPIT plans to track this evolution and document the many ways that organizations will adapt to meet these needs.

MPIT is also looking for new partners to help do this work, so if you’re interested, or for more information, contact MPIT project manager Titus DosRemedios at or (617) 330-7387.

“Our goal is to create a statewide system that helps programs meet the needs of infants, toddlers, and their families as effectively as possible,” DosRemedios says, “whether that’s in more ordinary times or in the middle of a pandemic.”