Spotlight Exclusives

Philip Fisher: RAPID-Early Childhood Survey

Philip Fisher Philip Fisher, posted on

Philip Fisher, Philip H. Knight Chair and Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon, directs the RAPID-Early Childhood survey, which is an ongoing survey of families with young children that assesses child, caregiver, and family well-being and needs and provides immediate feedback to communities and partners during the coronavirus crisis. The survey includes questions about family supports and utilization of resources, caregiver mental health and well-being, and child development including parents’ concerns about their child(ren)’s development. Fisher spoke recently with Spotlight about the RAPID-EC work; this transcript has been lightly edited for length and content.

Tell us how this project got started

The idea for the project started in March, right as everything was starting to shut down. I realized that there was no point in trying to make these plans to continue our federally funded research because every day things were going to change again. I also started to realize that I have no ability to sit still and just hunker down and wait for things to get better. We have to do something. We have a lot of people who work on our project – we have 70 people in our lab – and I just knew that everybody was going to be idle and that didn’t seem to be a good idea. And it also was clear that this was like nothing we’d faced before so there was no data to inform policy towards households with young children. Given that the focus of our research has always been on how early experiences affect subsequent development, with a particular emphasis on brain and biology and how those interact to affect early learning and kids’ life trajectories, I felt like we really needed to talk directly to the types of families that we’ve been studying for years, find out how they’re doing and make that knowledge available. Little kids can’t speak for themselves, so we felt we needed a way to advocate for them and center their voices.

The idea was to do a nationally representative survey. We’ve done a lot of work in the last couple of years to try to expand out of academia and more into the social entrepreneur kind of space because we know that in early childhood, there’s a lot of action in that area. I started reaching out to those individuals and organizations; one of our closest connections was Parents Together, who use an AI-interface to connect with their families by text. I approached them and asked them if they would help us recruit and very quickly, we were able to start thinking about every other week surveys and every other week postings, because we realized there wasn’t the time to formulate all the questions that we wanted to get input from.

How are you presenting findings from your research?

Our Medium page has more than a dozen postings on it from different weeks and we’ve also worked with the Urban Institute, which has also done some blog posts. USA Today also did an article earlier this month that gave more of the big picture on how families are doing.

Let’s use the recent post on the impact on caregivers as an example. Tell us more about that.

What we’ve been zeroing in on is really this chain reaction or chain of hardship. The end of the chain, and our biggest concern, is that very young children, age 5 and under, being exposed to adverse circumstances make for very concerning outcomes. Now I want to be clear, there’s a big resilience story here as well. But little children, when they go through times when there’s chronic activation of the stress response system that’s the result of unpredictability and chaos, even neglect, we see changes at the level of the brain and biology that don’t simply evaporate over time for many children. This is not just a rough patch, and then everything’s ok. This is exactly what people refer to when they talk about toxic stress. Children living under these very challenging conditions, especially when you have adults, with the youngest children, who are just distracted and not able to be responsive, changes stress hormone levels and the amount of brain activity. That particular concern is the end of the chain, but the other thing that’s very well known is that caregivers are instrumental in buffering children from the effects of stress. All children have ups and downs and it’s really the relationship with adults through which children have a sense of relationship and attachment that can make the biggest difference. The question we wanted to ask is if we’re worried about young children, then we need to understand how the adults in their lives are doing. If the adults are experiencing these events as really challenging, that’s going to amplify the downstream effect.

And indeed, what we found is that adults are struggling, and they are struggling in particular because these events are creating material hardship for a large percentage of families with young children. This isn’t just income difficulties; they are experiencing difficulties paying for basic needs, for food, for utilities, for childcare, for medical care, for utilities. The thing that our data has been showing is that if a caregiver notes that they are having these difficulties paying for basic needs within a given week, subsequently, in following weeks, they are more likely to say that they are experiencing emotional distress. And to the degree that they are experiencing emotional distress, that’s predictive of their child reporting emotional and behavioral difficulties in subsequent weeks. It’s really a direct link from that difficulty paying for basic needs to caregivers being stressed out to that being passed on to the children.

We’ve also asked people how worried they are that in the month of September you won’t have enough money for food or rent or that your utilities might get turned off. We had 42% of all caregivers say that they were worried about that. When you look at African-American and Latinx and single-family households, the number goes up to 60%. We previously found lower numbers that were also of great concern, but now, as people look forward and the CARES Act relief begins to expire, the numbers are essentially doubling.

And you find that there’s a geographic component as well? If families are in hot spots, that stress becomes even worse.

Right. The states that did not take seriously the public health measures that were needed were the ones where the infection rates started to skyrocket. And when we tested caregiver stress in those places, we found that it tracked very closely with the infection rate.

Are you able to see the impacts of schools re-opening yet?

We’re working on that right now. It’s a complicated issue at so many levels. For example, childcare providers are treated as essential workers, but for teachers, because they are unionized and they have more protections, there’s been a completely different discourse around what schools should do as opposed to childcares. We’re asking questions about plans for older children, how concerned caregivers are about those plans and whether they dovetail or not for plans for younger children. There are so many questions around people not knowing what to expect or to prepare for and that’s part of the financial difficulty. In a two-wage earning family, does one of the parents stay home? How is this all going to play out in terms of income loss, in terms of gender equity?

What we’ve been saying is that the CARES Act has to be replaced to avoid this becoming a decades-long disaster. And there needs to be much more attention to integrating the childcare and school re-openings with basic public health measures. The attention should not be so much on how to keep a school safe, as the science to make these settings safe and what to do if someone shows up sick and prevent outbreaks, is not that complicated. It’s really the question of is there the political will and the public will to have people behave as they should.

In terms of other potential solutions, is your work leading you in any particular directions for things you’d like to see happen. Are you optimistic at all that ambitious federal legislation might be passed, given the obvious needs of the moment? Is something like a federal child allowance actually possible now?

I think when this started, that’s how a lot of people were thinking; we can build back better. And this is a huge opportunity to shore up what has been an inadequate childcare system. One of the really important points is that education and childcare currently are seen as separate. Education sees childcare as babysitting and not in an educational context and I think there’s a huge opportunity right now because the people who are doing the so-called babysitting are the educational assistants for distance learning. There’s a huge opportunity to elevate the role of early childhood educators, to create much greater supports for the small business owners who are home-based childcare providers, to shore up the informal networks of family, friends and neighbor care. This is the time to understand how vulnerable young children are and then make investments in them that are investments in our future and our future economy.

But that has to be tempered – the challenge is the partisan politics of Congress. And we see the need, what families are going through. We have open-ended responses on our surveys and oftentimes in our work those are left blank. But on these surveys, almost everybody is filling out the questions, even if it’s just a couple of words. I’m reading what families are going through and it just breaks my heart.

I also feel optimistic in another sense. We did one week’s worth of data collection where we focused in on family conflict. And although we found that family conflict levels had increased, especially in more high-stress households, we also found that people were reporting high levels of feelings of affection towards their children. And some our data looking at social support networks suggests that those networks are becoming more hyper local. People are less focused on getting support from co-workers and increasingly seeing their young children, among other things, as sources for emotional support. It’s not just that adults buffer children from stress but there’s data that shows that if you look at adult’s response to stress, it’s diminished when their children are around. It works both ways.

Do you plan to continue this work into the future and track how these children of the pandemic are affected?

We have funding to go through the end of the calendar year and I think this kind of research, at least for the foreseeable future, is essential. We need more research; just to say we’ll follow up at some time in the future doesn’t make sense to me.

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