Combining Care and Cutting-Edge Research

The LSU Early Childhood Education Laboratory Preschool (ECELP) has been a hub for both child development and research since 2015. It’s an unusual combination, maybe, but the preschool serves many families where the parents are LSU faculty, staff, and students, and the research component invites cross-campus collaborations with not just the School of Education, but also the School of Kinesiology, the School of Music, the Department of Communication Sciences & Disorders, Pennington Biomedical Research Center, and others.
 
In order to reopen its doors this summer, the school had to make costly adjustments to operate safely despite the pandemic. It was also critically important to the preschool administration to continue to pay its teaching staff while working remotely. This effort was made easier by two recent awards; an Emergency Child Care Relief Grant from the Louisiana Department of Education and a COVID-19 Safe Operations Grant from Capital Area United Way.

 

Children in masks at ECELP

Children over the age of two are wearing masks all day and not complaining, said Executive Director Cynthia DiCarlo.

 

BATON ROUGE, August 13, 2020

The Executive Director of the laboratory preschool, Cynthia DiCarlo, is the W.H. Bill LeBlanc Endowed Alumni Professor in the LSU School of Education. When she comes to work these days, she continues to be amazed at the resiliency of young children who are wearing masks all day and not complaining. Masks are now required of all children over the age of two.
 
She is keenly interested in their point of view. During the school closure, DiCarlo began a new research project with professors Katie Cherry and Matt Calamia in the LSU Department of Psychology on young children’s perception of the mandated home stay, in which they’ve also involved graduate students.
 
“We’re currently analyzing the data we collected and hope to have a research paper out on this soon,” DiCarlo said. “Children’s perceptions added moments of levity to an otherwise serious situation. Sometimes the comments they expressed reminded faculty at the ECELP of why they selected this profession. One child summed up the home stay as ‘no one can go to the donut store.’”

 

“A challenge in early care environments is the lack of downtime (...) Finding the time to do ‘other things’ is difficult and everything we do has to fit into a normal day, including our research.”—Cynthia DiCarlo


Much has changed at the preschool in accordance with the health and safety guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Louisiana Office of Public Health. Children are brought in separately by age group in the morning; infants, toddlers, and preschoolers go to 15 classrooms that are quarantined throughout the day. The school has erected physical barriers on the playground to prevent cross-contamination, and the teachers wear masks, smocks, and shoe covers and stay with their own, smaller groups all day, never socializing or intermingling with other groups. Instead, they spend a lot of time cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, washing hands, and applying hand-sanitizer. In addition to standard measures, such as handwashing, faculty are also teaching the children about age-appropriate health practices.

The staff and administration continue to explore interventions to help mediate the effects of stress in both teachers and children. They recently published the results of a specific research study, including in a practitioner journal, “Finding the ‘om’ in your ABCs: Mindfulness in the classroom.” There, DiCarlo and her co-authors discuss in detail how simple actions throughout the day can have a significant impact on child and teacher wellbeing.

“A challenge in early care environments is the lack of downtime,” DiCarlo said. “In a typical PK-12 setting, kids go to ancillary activities, which frees the teacher up for planning and meetings. We don’t get that here. Even when the children nap, which may appear as ‘downtime,’ that’s our teachers’ lunch break. Finding the time to do ‘other things’ is difficult and everything we do has to fit into a normal day, including our research.”
 

Masked children play with blocks and dolls at ECELP

A recent reserach study focused on children’s perception of the mandated home stay. One of them summed up the situation as “no one can go to the donut store.”

 

As part of their “om” research, the teachers engaged in mindfulness activities—both on their own (a short, guided walk with headphones on, as part of their lunch break) as well as with the children (a five-minute meditation in the morning and some yoga stretches in the afternoon, or vice versa).
 
“The perceived teacher stress went down by a significant amount and the positivity in the classrooms rose,” DiCarlo said. “We identified a low-cost, low-labor intervention that yielded positive results.”
 
DiCarlo consistently focuses on improving teacher morale. She tells each and every teacher that they have “the best job” and “the cutest class.”
 
“I say it because I really feel this way,” DiCarlo laughed. “I love these kids and feel grateful to be here working with them.”

 

DiCarlo sees research as a means to change the opinion that early childhood education is nothing more than wiping noses, tying shoelaces, and babysitting.


 Since the pandemic started, about 18 percent of the early care industry in the U.S. has permanently shut its doors—one out of every five or six preschools.
 
“Childcare in the United States is in crisis right now,” DiCarlo said. “This is another important difference between the early care industry and PK-12 schools. We’re not a system; we’re a collection of independently owned businesses.”

DiCarlo and her colleagues at the Early Childhood Education Laboratory Preschool have published more than 30 research studies in the last five years. They also work closely with undergraduate and graduate LSU students to give them research experience and get them involved in independent research projects.
 
“Some of our undergrads decide research isn’t so scary, after all, and that they can do this grad school thing,” DiCarlo said. “We encourage them to write a thesis. We give them the option of a non-thesis, but I always say, what’s the fun in that? None of the research we do here is a mere exercise. We’re going for rigor and a publishable product, whether it’s for a research journal or a practitioner publication.”
 
One of DiCarlo’s students, Karley Doyle, recently won first place for the LSU College of Human Sciences & Education at LSU Discover Day 2020 and also placed second overall, a testament to the value DiCarlo places on undergraduate research. DiCarlo sees research as a means to change the opinion that early childhood education is nothing more than wiping noses, tying shoelaces, and babysitting.
 
Despite the restrictions imposed by COVID-19, research at the preschool continues. They can’t receive visitors, but DiCarlo takes parents on virtual tours and records classroom observations for her students, which they’ll use as part of online courses this fall.
 

Cynthia DiCarlo

Cynthia Fontcuberta DiCarlo

 

DiCarlo and co-authors have a book scheduled for release next month with Teachers College Press, an affiliate of Columbia University, called Enhancing Brain Development in Infants and Young Children: Strategies for Caregivers and Educators. It describes educational activities related to physical, social, emotional, cognitive, verbal, and academic progress relevant to brain development at each age and ability level. She also has a fall publication in Child Care Exchange Press, “Navigating Quarantine with Young Children,” which addresses the stress parents have about their children supposedly “getting behind” while they try their best to assume new educational roles and routines at home. Another paper based on recent research, now under review, has quite a catchy title; “Does this professional development make my butt look big?” The paper addresses a critical issue in early care; how to conduct professional development when you have limited time and resources.

 

“As a laboratory, it is important that we not only publish our research findings, but that we communicate these findings to practitioners in the field.”—Cynthia DiCarlo


“In a previous research study, we had our teachers videotape themselves working in the classroom and then review their own performance,” DiCarlo said. “The reason for the title of the paper is because that’s exactly what you think when you’re asked to videotape yourself—no one likes to see themselves on video.”
 
“Of course, everyone hated it at first,” DiCarlo continued. “But what we found was that teachers became more reliable observers of themselves when using this tool and also increased their skills. Overall, we had very positive results.”
 
DiCarlo encourages all of the teachers to conduct research that fits within a typical classroom day. Whenever their work is published, DiCarlo celebrates the occasion by giving them a “published author” sash.
 
“As a laboratory, it is important that we not only publish our research findings, but that we communicate these findings to practitioners in the field,” DiCarlo said.

 

 

Elsa Hahne
LSU Office of Research & Economic Development
ehahne@lsu.edu