Home Visits Are Effective. Here’s Why They Still Make Some Teachers Uneasy.

Early Learning

Home Visits Are Effective. Here’s Why They Still Make Some Teachers Uneasy.

By Rachel Burstein     Feb 19, 2020

Home Visits Are Effective. Here’s Why They Still Make Some Teachers Uneasy.

This story is part of an EdSurge Research series about the early childhood education workforce.

“Sit near the door. Make sure your car has plenty of gas. Park so you can get out. Don’t wear something that can be a choking hazard like a lanyard.” Macy Jones, the Head Start director for the Alexander County Schools in North Carolina rattles off a list of pointers she gives her staff before they begin their home visits each year. Jones has been concerned about keeping the 37 teachers, assistants and home advocates in her program safe on home visits since she assumed her position seven years ago.

In the past few years, her concerns about staff safety during home visits have increased as she has heard more reports of violent crime in the rural county. “Here we are in 2019, and we don’t know what we’re walking into, or when somebody may show up that came to do harm to somebody in the home. So I’m having conversations now that I never had to have in the ‘80s with folks.” Jones says.

Jones, who attended Head Start herself when she was a child and who has worked at Head Start for over three decades views home visits as critical to the success of both staff and students in the program. But without a full-scale training program and set of comprehensive safety procedures, she isn’t convinced her team should be required to visit the homes of their students. “Head Start really needs to start rethinking the whole home visit requirement,” she says, referencing the federal program that provides high-quality early childhood education to more than one million children from low-income families each year.

For now, Jones lets her staff decide whether to conduct home visits, emphasizing the power of these visits for students. “I tell them they can go somewhere else to meet the parents if they don’t feel safe visiting the family’s home. I say, ‘You don’t have to go...but just remember who doesn’t have an option—those babies we let off the bus every single day. They don’t have an option. So if you can do it, go to that home because those kids’ eyes light up whenever their teachers come see them at their home.’”

Why Conduct Home Visits?

The home visits conducted by Jones’ staff, which occur twice a year, are central to the Head Start model of serving two generations—both children and their families. The visits are mandated by Head Start and complement the work that teachers are doing in the classroom by providing an opportunity for teachers to speak informally with parents or other family members they may not routinely see.

Home visits are also mandated for Head Start’s home-based programs, which typically serve children from birth through age five, including those who are either too young to enroll in preschool, are on a waitlist for a preschool spot or from families who prefer to have their children learn at home. For home-based programs, the weekly home visit of 90 minutes is designed to cultivate parents as teachers. A special role at Head Start, the “parent educator,” visits the homes to introduce parents to the science of early learning and provide specific strategies and activities for advancing children’s brain development. Such intensive home visiting programs also offer a chance for parent educators to identify needed areas of intervention and to identify resources for families.

Head Start isn’t the only preschool program that uses home visits as a way of building community and allowing teachers and programs to help meet students and families where they are—quite literally. Home visits are an increasingly accepted part of early childhood education best practice. In addition to early childhood programs, a handful of K-12 districts are also building home visits into their model. Still, Head Start is the largest early childhood education entity conducting home visits. According to data from the National Head Start Association, Head Start staff members conducted approximately 4.6 million home visits in the 2018-19 school year, including families in both center-based and home-based programs.

There’s good reason for Head Start and other programs to dedicate resources to home visits. Research shows that home visits have a range of benefits, whether they’re designed to supplement preschool attendance or to stimulate learning in the home. Although it looked specifically at elementary school children, a 2015 study from Johns Hopkins University showed that absences declined by about a quarter among students in the Washington, D.C., public schools after a teacher conducted a home visit. The study also found positive correlations between home visits and student achievement. Other studies show that regular home visits from nurses or trained parent educators are correlated with positive effects on children’s neural development, even when those babies and children don’t have child care outside the home.

Home Visits Strengthen Relationships

These outcomes are familiar to Allison Edwards, a lead teacher at a Head Start-affiliated preschool in Tulsa, Okla. Edwards’ preschool is run by CAP Tulsa, a non-profit organization. Edwards says that home visits are important for establishing relationships with her students, especially when they occur early in the school year when children are new to her classroom or to school more generally. “[The kids] want to show us their room. And they want to show us their animals a lot of times, or their favorite toy,” she says.

Equally important, home visits help Edwards better understand the children she teaches so she can develop stronger relationships with them in the classroom. She might meet a grandparent who never comes to school but who is important in a child’s life. A child might show her a favorite toy that Edwards can reference during the school day. She might see bugs and realize that a rash that she was concerned about likely wasn’t a rash at all and that she should make remember to follow-up with family support services.

Edwards agrees with Jones on the value of home visits for children. She laughs as she recounts a recent breakfast conversation among the three year-olds she teaches. Edwards had visited one child at his home the day before and the other preschoolers demanded to know why their teacher hadn’t come to their homes as well. “You have to work through all that with them and say, ‘Well, you know, maybe next time I’ll come to your house. We’ll see,’” says Edwards.

But for all their benefits, home visits can present challenges for early childhood educators. At the very least, Edwards says that it can be “an awkward thing to go visit somebody in their home, especially when we’ve only known them for such a short time.” Many of Edwards’ students come from families who have had negative prior experiences with governmental agencies such as Child Protective Services and who are wary about letting outsiders into their homes. Other parents don’t speak English and Edwards sometimes has to wait on a translator to be available before she is able to schedule those visits.

Safety Concerns

Though there are clear benefits to visiting the homes of students, many early childhood educators have safety concerns. Head Start has some resources available for educators and agencies, but most of these tips, guidance and requirements explore how to build effective relationships and offer sample activities and conversation starters. Those tips that are explicitly designed to address safety concerns are generally simple lists, not training programs or community-building strategies.

Excerpted from Home Visits Tips and Resources

Edwards follows all of these rules: she writes down her whereabouts, conducts site visits with another staff member so she’s never alone and she knows the emergency code language that she should use on the phone if she finds herself in danger. Edwards is quick to explain that she has never been hurt on a home visit and that the home visits that she conducts are generally “super pleasant.”

Edwards also works for a Head Start agency where she has access to more safety training than many educators. CAP Tulsa staff members who conduct home visits typically receive an hour-long training to both review safety procedures and act out scenarios they are likely to encounter.

But even working in a Head Start school that has access to more home visit safety resources than most, Edwards sometimes feels uneasy. At the end of the day, knowing the safety protocols will only get her and her partner so far if they find themselves in danger.

That experience is typical of early childhood educators EdSurge interviewed. None experienced violence during home visits, though some reported that catcalls or other small acts of intimidation were common. And most had encountered and reported at least one instance of an unsafe condition in a student’s home—perhaps evidence of drugs or failing infrastructure.

Nationally, Head Start does not collect data on reported incidents during home visits. But CAP Tulsa officials confirm that they are unaware of any attacks on staff members or their property during home visits. EdSurge heard similar reports from other interview Head Start center administrators.

At the same time, educators like Edwards find the potential threat to safety concerning. Over the last five years, Tulsa, has averaged more than 60 homicides, nearly 400 rapes, and more than 2600 aggravated assaults each year. Last year the city saw more than 3000 auto thefts. In each category, Tulsa’s crime rate per 100,000 residents is much higher than the national average—sometimes by a factor of three.

“That’s why people get so uneasy, because there is that possibility that something could happen…. You never know. There [are] all these unknowns that float around in your head,” Edwards says. “[Teachers] are always saying that if we have to come up with these strategies to make sure that we’re not hurt during a home visit, then why are we doing home visits?”

Teachers like Edwards are in a bind. They see the value of home visits and have generally had positive experiences conducting them. But at the same time, they feel uneasy about their personal safety. Like Jones, some program directors have created their own trainings and some agencies, such as CAP Tulsa also have formal training sessions. But many see a need for more comprehensive changes to home visit models. These might be large-scale and require significant resources—for example, building deeper relationships between schools and the neighborhoods they serve so that teachers who live outside the neighborhood have an existing support network within the communities where they conduct home visits. Or they might be smaller initiatives—for example, pairing parent leaders with teachers on home visits. But one thing is for sure for educators like Edwards: a focus on safety can’t wait.

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