U team provides daily tips for parenting in a pandemic

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.


When the pandemic hit Utah in the spring, Aaron Fischer and his team at the U’s College of Education recognized an opportunity to help parents—as well as teachers—navigate the challenges of in-home learning and online technology. In this edition of the U Rising podcast, Aaron describes his team’s work with the Granite School District, the daily parenting tips the team is producing and their effort to make these teaching lessons available in as many languages as possible. Recorded on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams, Emily Black and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.

President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising Podcast, where you get to meet some of the people who are helping us achieve great things at the University of Utah. I'm Ruth Watkins, president of the U, and my guest today is Aaron Fischer. Aaron is the Dee Endowed Professor of School Psychology in the College of Education. Welcome Aaron!

Aaron Fischer: Thanks so much for having me.

President Watkins: Oh, delighted to have you here. You are the co-director of a brilliant project here at the University of Utah. I think it's the perfect example of our role as the University for Utah, because it involves a collaboration with local schools. Tell us a little bit about what you're doing.

Aaron Fischer: Thank you. We've been working with Granite School District for about five years, really trying to help teachers in their classroom support—so when students are out of their seats or they're having a hard time attending, trying to help them in the classroom. And then when COVID hit in the spring, we were still involved with schools, but schools transformed into the home and it really changed where education was happening. We really wanted to respond to that. We didn't want to sit back. We knew we had stuff we could offer. And so our project—the Behavioral Response Support Team—created a social media campaign to really try to get into the homes and really connect with families as well as educators during this time around a variety of different topics.

So, things I mentioned like behavior principles in the classroom, how do you do that at home? How do you help keep kids engaged? As well as things like socio-emotional learning, how are you helping their mental health? How are you making sure that they wake up every day and feel good? We've been really focusing on getting these out as well as in multiple languages so that we can support our community, which really needs this. And because we have such a diverse community, we wanted to make sure that everyone could access these things.

President Watkins: Really amazing work. So Behavioral Response Support Team, and I think you say BRST, is that right?

Aaron Fischer: That's right. We call it the BRST Project. We had to think of the acronym. That probably was the hardest part of this whole project!

President Watkins: Well, I can only imagine that the task of behavior in support of learning must be on the minds of virtually every parent right now, as well as teachers, of course, as they think about the complex roles everyone is fulfilling now. I think you're working with some targeted schools. What are those schools?

Aaron Fischer: The schools that we work with are in the Granite School District. They're selected through a collaboration with district administrators. So, folks who are overseeing school counselors, school psychologists, as well as curriculum instruction. And we tend to serve schools that are Title One schools. They have higher needs because they're serving students who are more at-risk for educational risks they may experience. And so we're really trying to support those schools across Granite School District, and if you've looked at the map you would see schools on the east part of town in the Granite School District region as well as on the west side of town. So, we have schools all across the valley.

President Watkins: Okay. Well, and I think we're all learning about some of the assets that technology has that we've been pushed along or nudged along a little bit by the pandemic. I think without some help, though, many people can't realize the opportunities that technology provides. How do you see technology as an asset in learning and education?

Aaron Fischer: I really appreciate this question. I'm biased because I'm a tele-health researcher and I've been doing this for almost 10 years, and so I'm seeing how important this work could be. And I agree. I think technology has so many great ways to not only increase efficiency, we can use these things like apps to just keep track of things, but we can also create connection. And I think during this time what a wonderful thing that we can do with us being physically isolated from one another. And I think what's really important is that we can use these creative ways of using technology to get student engagement, to get parent engagement, and to also deliver instruction in ways that we haven't before. I'm hopeful that more people will see the value of this, particularly around tele-health and instruction. I think you had mentioned this before, but with all those circumstances really propelling our consciousness to seeing how important technology is, I'm at the point where I'm thinking, ‘How can we take this away at this point?’ It's almost like a part of who we are.

President Watkins: Well, I think we're hearing that a lot around the university, certainly from University of Utah Health, that has massively accelerated their tele-health delivery and, of course, our faculty, too, are using many tools of technology to assist with learning. I think it'd be helpful for our listeners if you could maybe give them an example or two of how you're working and helping parents navigate online learning through technology, and maybe for our listeners to hear an idea or two about what you're up to.

Aaron Fischer: Absolutely. Parents have this really hard role because many are having to work and also supervise their child's education, and so I think trying to strike that balance. And what we're trying to do with parents is give them really quick digestible snippets or little nuggets that they can take with them that are really effective and that are those big bangs for your buck. So, things like creating a schedule at home, and maybe that's just for one week because the next week you have to create a new schedule because the routines have changed. Creating time to be away from technology. As much as we said it can be really helpful, it can also be consuming. And for our children, as parents, we would need to make sure that we're creating space where we're having connection face-to-face, laughing and talking about the things that are going on in our lives and experiencing those things.

And so we're really trying to create those opportunities because I think it's very easy as a parent to get caught up in the day-to-day and let the stress that we are all very much experiencing take over. And so we just want to lower the temperature with some of our tools, and we've had some great feedback from teachers and parents who have said, ‘Oh, this is great. This is exactly that thing that I needed to teach.’ Or as a teacher, ‘Oh, I don't have to create this video to teach about how to wear a mask.’ And, again, that's where technology can have that efficiency and really improve outcomes.

President Watkins: I think that fun, having a little bit of sense of humor and joy in the process, is also pretty important and you touched on it there. I heard that one of the ways you're releasing tips and sharing principles and practices is short, animated videos that can get produced actually pretty easily. I'd love to know how to do that. So tell us a little bit about it.

Aaron Fischer: Yeah, thanks. So, we stumbled upon this software called Vyond and it's available online. It's a subscription-based service, and essentially it makes anyone like a really good animator. So we have this really great team of graduate students and undergraduate students here at the U who are really creative, so they bring that to the table, and then we essentially have this excellent software, and you could compare it to PowerPoint, but for animation, and then they can just do all these amazing things. Of course, there's little tricks that they have to learn from the developers, but it makes it super accessible, and we really appreciate that because if you had to go out and do videos, especially during this time, it would be really slim pickings about who could star in your show. So this one allows us to create our own avatars and customize those avatars to really look like the people who we're trying to serve and so that they can relate with these characters based on how they look and their backgrounds as well as just the cultural experiences that we really want to tie into some of these videos.

President Watkins: I'm going to see if I can learn Vyond or get some of our presidential interns to help me because they could probably learn it much more quickly than I could. But we, too, find that when we want to reach the campus with information and even just what's going on and messages, it really helps to use video tools. So, I think animation would be a new tool in our tool kit.

Aaron Fischer: Absolutely.

President Watkins: Now, you mentioned avatars that better represent the community we serve, and also you spoke about the diversity in Granite. I believe that there are many different languages used and spoken in Granite schools. As you think about using technology and helping and assisting and supporting teachers and parents, how does the cultural competence and linguistic diversity play into your work?

Aaron Fischer: This is such an important piece and we really wanted to be intentional on the front end because, like you said, there are 150 languages spoken in the Granite School District. This was so shocking for me, and as we started to try to approach how we would do this work, we said, ‘Well, what are the big impact languages?’ And so we started with Spanish and we started with Chinese and Portuguese because those were dual immersion programs that they had within the district. And then we put some information out, we put our feelers out nationally through our social media campaign and said, ‘Well, what other languages are we missing?’ And we found Korean, French and Arabic as other additional ones. And we picked those also because for those 150 languages, when we have immigrants and refugees, we know that this is going to help to at least be maybe a second language. It may not be the predominant language they're speaking, but could be another point of contact, and so we were really trying to do that.

Our goal, of course, is to try to get as close to those 150 languages. That might take a long time, but I think the more accessibility, the more impact we'll have. And then, I think our pie in the sky goal is we're doing this work as it pertains to folks in Granite School District. But let's say someone speaks Portuguese or speaks Korean, what does the school look like for our videos in Korea or in Portugal or in Brazil and what are we going to do to try to make it seem extremely relevant to that audience? So, I think our pie in the sky goal is to try to expand this work, to have some more of that validity internationally.

President Watkins: So, tell me a little bit about that. And this is a question from my own interest related to culture and behavioral expectations. I would imagine not only the linguistic elements, but teachers and family expectations of student behavior probably are different in different cultures.

Aaron Fischer: Absolutely, and I think we always have to be cognizant that we are always imposing our Western view of what behavior should look like in our public schools. And when we have a really diverse community of students, we really have to take a step back and say, ‘Well, what are these norms, and what are the implications of these norms, and how can we get to know our families and our students and what are their norms, and how can we help to create environment that is inclusive, that helps students feel safe, and want to come to learn?’ And a perfect example for me is we might say, ‘We really want eye contact when you're talking to a teacher,’ but we may have a student who, by making eye contact, that could be one of the most disrespectful things you could do to an adult. And if we're imposing that, there's a lot of confusion, at least for me. Anytime I'm confused, I don't do a very good job of learning and so I think that really helps to mitigate some of the educational discomfort around a new experience.

President Watkins: I think, Aaron, that is why you're good at what you do, because that ability to step back and integrate different cultural backgrounds and expectations in addition to the linguistic elements is really important in being effective. I think this edition of U Rising is going to be very interesting to many listeners. If we capture some listeners who want to learn more, where can they go?

Aaron Fischer: We have our lab website, the University of Utah Technology and Education and Consultation Lab, and I'd encourage folks to go on that website to check out not only all of our resources, but we have a whole page dedicated to diversity. So, if you're interested in the social media aspects of it, you can check out Twitter or Facebook, whichever platform you're interested in. But also you might say, ‘I don't want to have a handout. I want an infographic,’ or maybe you're like me and say, ‘Well, what's the literature say about that?’ There's all those resources and links so you can dive in as deep as you'd want to go. And if you're just in for the one minute, very approachable video, that's on all of our social media platforms.

President Watkins: My guest today, Professor Aaron Fischer. Aaron, thank you so much for joining me today, but even more for what you're doing for our communities. We appreciate you very much for your timely work.

Aaron Fischer: Thank you so much. It's my pleasure.

President Watkins: Listeners, thanks for joining us, and I hope you'll join for the next edition of U Rising Podcast.