Yes, parents. There is someone who can help.
As another school year starts, parents and caregivers of school-age children face the realities of schooling during a pandemic. Maybe their children are back in school full time, but with masking and sanitation guidelines that are an integral part of every day. Or maybe they’re fully online, playing whack-a-mole with technological issues. Maybe it’s somewhere in between. But no matter the situation, kids still act like kids and the stress and uncertainty of school can tax the entire family’s emotional, physical and mental strength.
So, I repeat: There is help.
The Behavior Response Support Team (BRST, pronounced “burst), a joint project of the University of Utah’s Department of Educational Psychology and the Granite School District, provides daily tips and teaches skills for managing kids’ behavior amid remote learning, in-person learning and general pandemic conditions. The animated videos, featuring avatars representing diverse children and families, are provided in seven languages and on five social media platforms.
“We think of these videos as foundational skills caregivers can use to help their children,” says Aaron Fischer, Dee Endowed Professor of School Psychology and BRST co-director. “I’d love for people to thrive. That’s our goal, but just to be able to get through all of this, during COVID-19, is key, and hopefully some of these skills get people there.”
Find an introductory video here. Content is available in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, French and Arabic.
The in-school program
The BRST project began as a collaboration between Granite School District and Fischer’s lab, which focuses on the use of technology in education. In 2016, the school district approached Fischer’s colleague Dr. Leanne Hawken, now an emeritus professor of educational psychology, for help in addressing behavioral needs in classrooms. BRST formed to “figure out the best way to systematically provide access to behavior supports for teachers and students,” Fischer says, including Title I schools. “And that really developed into not only behavior supports, but also social/emotional supports; as we know, those things are tied together.”
Now operating in 12 elementary schools, BRST faculty, staff and graduate students work with teachers to learn and implement effective behavioral strategies. The team of five graduate students, a postdoctoral fellow, a staff Board Certified Behavior Analyst and three faculty supervisors from the U meet with district coordinators for curriculum, student support, school psychology and other related fields to focus and refine their efforts with Granite Schools.
“This has been such a powerful partnership with the district because we’ve been able to help so many teachers and students, ultimately avoiding the need for more intensive student services,” Fischer says. “Last spring we felt like we had the BRST program in a great place, and we knew what we were doing—then COVID-19 hit.”
Taking the team online
Despite the many challenges of COVID-19, the BRST team realized that the pandemic offered a unique opportunity. As a technology education and consultation lab, they moved their materials online with the help of creative and knowledgeable graduate students who could bring behavioral and well-being principles to life, and deliver them to parents and caregivers who suddenly found themselves supporting their children’s remote education.
“We were not going to solely look around and consume ourselves with worry,” Fischer says. “Instead, during this time, we came together as a lab and focused on how we could help caregivers and educators.”
New tips and principles are released each day, in the form of a short animated video. The team uses an animation platform called Vyond that streamlines the animation process so students have been able to produce a video in around three hours.
“Part of their training is learning how to use this technology,” Fisher says, and emphasizes that animation can be a powerful and highly customizable teaching and training tool. “We have team members who are just exceptional,” he says. “They have the artistic knack and the videos they produce are just so amazing.”
At first, the tips were presented in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese, thanks to the languages spoken by members of the BRST team. It’s a small fraction of the more than 150 languages spoken in the Granite School District, Fischer says.
“We really wanted to make sure we were connecting with refugee and immigrant families, as well as families we serve who are from marginalized communities. We wanted to make sure that they had access to evidence-based practice resources in ways that were approachable.”
Feedback from followers on social media, particularly from a school district north of Atlanta, Georgia, led the team to add Korean, Arabic and French to their available languages. Additional funding for the project, Fischer says, would allow BRST to hire more translators and expand to more languages.
Getting started is as easy as finding the team on your favorite social media platform, including YouTube. Topics covered in the BRST videos include behavior principles, positive reinforcement, social and emotional wellness—even tackling boredom.
“How do you make a positive environment in your house and get your child to be motivated to do things?” Fischer says. “How do you set up your living space? What does your schedule look like? What do you do when your kids are bored?” Topics also include academics and online safety. “Many of our team members have children of their own. So they empathize on a personal level These are the things that we’re thinking about too, as parents.”
As the 2020-21 school year approached, the team developed new videos to address COVID-19-related precautions associated with in-person learning: physical distancing, mask wearing, handwashing and walking in a line.
“We wanted to have a quick video that every teacher could pull up at the beginning of the day,” Fischer says. Teachers, relieved, have thanked the BRST team for providing a way to teach students these behaviors. “To see that weight lifted is just so fulfilling for me because we’re trying to make the teacher’s job incredibly difficult job a bit easier every day.”
As the team’s in-school efforts continue within the Granite School District, Fischer encourages those who find the tips useful to share them far and wide.
“If you’re interested in this stuff,” Fischer says, “tell your friends who are parents or share that video. They may not all be relevant, but maybe that one skill could be the thing that lowers stress and builds skills for that family. And they can say, ‘Yeah, we can get through this now. We feel a bit more confident.’”