by Andrew Garda

As with many businesses in New Jersey, child care and early education facilities were forced to close in the wake of Gov. Phil Murphy’s Executive Order 107, which included the order to shut down all non-essential businesses, schools and child-care facilities.

That didn’t stop the Ben Samuels Children’s Center at Montclair State University from wanting to deliver support for the close to 150 families the facility serves year-round. Most of the 180 children who attend the center are from surrounding towns like Montclair, as well as children of MSU staff and students.

The center has 12 classrooms in all, serving preschool-aged children.

“We have two infant classrooms, which are for children ages 3 months to 18 months,” explained Lindsay Frigo, interim director for the center. “We have one ‘walker’ classroom, which is an in-between class, and they’re really between 18 months and 2 (years). Then we have four toddler classrooms, ages 18 months to 3 years. And then there are five preschool classrooms … which have children ages 3 to 6 as they get ready to leave and go to kindergarten.”

The facility also has many special needs students as well and wanted to make sure that those children didn’t lose ground with the long layoff.

As soon as the order from Murphy was issued, the staff immediately began researching different ways to support their families. 

“We were recognizing that we had a vulnerable population of children with special needs,” said Myla Yakubov, interim assistant director. “And they were struggling, and the families were struggling, too. Our job was just to help them maintain the progress, we weren’t even worried about gaining traction or moving more in a developmental manner. They can lose skills so easily. So we had to act quickly.”

The staff began by getting familiar with platforms like Zoom, so that they could not only connect with their students and families directly but with other staff members as well. Teachers, physical and speech therapists and support staff all coordinated to find ways to help keep their students and families learning.

One of the ways the center teaches its students is by using the child’s own interests to propel learning in other areas. 

“So for example, if kids in one class are really interested in dinosaurs, everything that they’re learning may be related to dinosaurs, but we’re hitting all of the different domains,” Frigo said. “Literacy, math and social studies, social, emotional learning and art.”

The staff took that foundational premise and applied it to their families remotely. 

Teachers and therapists have been designing various plans, activities and approaches, giving them to the families and letting those families choose the path that works best for their situation. 

“We started off slowly,” Yakubov said. “Reaching out, checking in with each family individually (to find out) how we can support them. We set up times to meet.”

For special needs students, those meetings, held over Zoom, involve therapists and teachers from all different disciplines as well as special education teachers.

“We hear from the family, we learn about their dynamic. We find out what’s in their house,” Yakubov said. “What kind of configuration do you have? What kind of toys? Do you have stairs, do you have a back yard? What can you use, and what can we do to maximize opportunities at home?”

While unable to be physically present, Ben Samuels Children’s Center at Montclair State University knows continued therapy is critical, so occupational therapists like this one implementing a fine-motor activity with a four-year old boy, reach out virtually.
While unable to be physically present, Ben Samuels Children’s Center at Montclair State University knows continued therapy is critical, so occupational therapists like this one implementing a fine-motor activity with a four-year old boy, reach out virtually.

For those students without special needs, the center began simply, with activities like virtual circle time. Then the staff added things like recorded videos so that families could use the lessons when the timing was right for them. For some families, those lessons and activities have to happen when a parent is available, a difficult thing to schedule when many families are working from home and have to balance meetings, phone calls and work with assisting their children.

With slightly older children who need less oversight, parents might be able to have their child sit and watch a video of a teacher, or play an interactive game. For younger or special needs students, parents usually have to be more involved.

“We are offering them ideas and we are now, as educators, teachers and assistants, we were doing research of what could be done at home, but we were also mindful that they would need to use home-based materials,” Yakubov said. “Things that are easy to access and quick to understand, enjoyable and easy but still provide a lot of learning.”

The teachers set up plans on a weekly basis, sending them to the families on Mondays. These plans include things like sample schedules, and samples of different activities that would target different developmental domains.

The families then pick what would work for them.

“One family said, ‘I can’t have live interaction with the therapist for my son because he’s demanding enough without that interruption in our lives,’” said Heather Dibble, a speech/language therapist for the center. “So what they do is, we send them plans and activities suggestions, they choose what they like and what they have the materials for, they record play sessions, then send us the recording. We evaluate it and send back suggestions.”



Dibble said then the staff and the parents meet virtually at a later time, when the parent has a moment to spend with them but without the child. 

One thing the center quickly discovered was how vital the structure they could provide was for not just the children, but for the parents and caregivers as well. Including items like sample schedules gave parents a structure they didn’t have to come up with on their own, while still allowing families flexibility to work in whatever way fit their home best. 

“We were very mindful that a lot of our families are not educators,” Yakubov said. “So, we had to scaffold and really help them to start from scratch. Balancing the educational component and making learning fun, and also managing the stress. Limiting our expectations, slowly growing what we would like them to bring home.”

Many parents across the country are now having to take a more direct hand in their children’s education, and the Ben Samuels staff wants to make sure that the transition to doing so isn’t a major source of stress at an already highly stressful moment. 

“We do see parents now being teachers and therapists for their kid, but that is very intimidating for the parents,” Dibble said. “They think, ‘How can I manage my role as an employee, as a parent, as a spouse, and be the teacher or therapist’ … Really, we’ve adapted to each family’s needs so that the parents aren’t intimidated by the experience of having to fill so many roles.”

While the technology challenges have been difficult for all involved, the center has also used the time to enhance its methods and find new ways to do things.

One such outcome is the family conferences, which normally would be in person throughout the month of April.

While there was no way to meet in person, the staff still met virtually with every family and found that the meetings were just as useful, and in some ways even more so.

“Some people said it was even more beneficial than the regular conferences,” Frigo said. “Because it was more of a dialogue, because parents were able to share what they see and the progress they’ve seen in addition to (the progress) the teachers (saw) prior to this break.”

Frigo said that more than anything, having the connection and constant communication has been key. 

“All of the teachers regardless of the age of the children have done a phenomenal job being available to all families,” Frigo said. “Families of typically developing children, and families of children with special needs, having one-on-one check-ins with them to problem-solve, send additional resources. Even having Zoom or Facetimes with children just so they can interact with their teachers. Having that interaction, five days a week, from your child’s teacher has really been helpful to all the families.”