With widespread childcare closures, parents of young children have suddenly been thrust into the role of full-time caregiver and educator, solely responsible for furthering their child’s development and early-childhood learning, often while balancing remote work from home.
Although there are myriad online resources for children’s enrichment or entertainment or a combination of both, parents must seek them out on their own and can’t always count on the trustworthiness or quality of what they find.
Thanks to a state grant, an eight-county coalition of early-childhood advocates has launched a text message-based program called Bright by Text, which provides “free tips, information, and resources to help all parents and caregivers give every child a bright beginning.” The information comes from expert sources such as pediatricians, child-development specialists and respected educational content providers.
Bright by Text is a national program, but administrators of Montana’s version will implement curated local content alongside the national resources, including emotional support for parents. The program’s goal is “to make the most of everyday interactions between parent and child.”
“Our text messaging service delivers actionable information from trusted early childhood experts to parents and caregivers of young children — from prenatal to age eight — to support healthy child development and build strong, resilient families,” the Bright by Text website states.
Ned Cooney with the Flathead Best Beginnings Community Council said the coalition started working on the program long before COVID-19, with an emphasis on local child-related event updates. Then the pandemic hit, wiping out events across the state and changing the coalition’s focus, while also expediting the launch date to more quickly provide resources to parents at home with their kids.
“Now we’re shifting our focus to stay-at-home resources and support through COVID-19, and as much as we can linking people to emotional support,” Cooney said. “It can be emotionally isolating to not be connected to childcare.”
To sign up for Bright by Text, text “406parents” to 274448. The program asks for the ages of the child or children to better tailor content to their developmental level. Participating parents and caregivers receive up to five texts a week with information and resources, as well as a link to a landing page with more content, including age-appropriate developmental tips; curated content from partners such as PBS, Vroom and Sesame Street in Communities; educational books and games; extended learning materials, short modeling videos and related resources.
The coalition’s partners are still building out the local resources and adjusting to the realities of the pandemic, which not only cancels events but restricts activity options outside the home. Once the community begins stabilizing after the pandemic, localized messages will include more information about topics such as preschool enrollment periods and free events for families.
More immediately, local information will potentially include COVID-19 updates from the public health department, early-literacy and storytime offerings from ImagineIF Libraries and a list of free school meal pickup locations, among other updates.
Cooney said he welcomes feedback and would like to hear from local service providers who could help with content, such as mental and behavioral health specialists.
“We’re looking to identify local tips and suggestions for helping kids adjust, coming from a local provider that might be a little more trusted,” Cooney said.
In addition to the Flathead Best Beginnings Community Council, the coalition includes Best Beginnings affiliates in Big Horn, Carbon, Dawson, Mineral, Richland, Silver Bow and Yellowstone counties. The Flathead Best Beginnings Community Council notes that 90% of a child’s brain development occurs by the age of 5.
Cooney said the text-based program allows easy access without necessitating a new app or new password.
“It breaks through the noise,” Cooney said. “People pay more attention to a text than anything else. That’s why the technology seems to work as well as it does.”
The program also includes more informal messages, such as a text last week that sent out a “virtual high five” to parents: “There’s no right or wrong way right now. Keep teaching your kids to be flexible and kind. You’ve got this.”
“When I saw that, I thought, ‘That’s exactly what we need right now,’” Cooney said. “Sometimes you just need somebody to say that to you.”