New apps let you keep tabs on your kids at day care.

When Craig Richardson steps onto the elevator to leave work in downtown Portland, it’s as if he’s already talking to his toddler’s teacher.

With a few swipes on his smart phone, Richardson can see a full rundown on his 2-½-year-old daughter’s activities at day care, including when she napped and what she ate. By the time he gets to the Children’s Garden, also in downtown Portland, he has a sense of his daughter’s mood and questions he might have about her day.

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“You could inquire further, because you already had a conversation going,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, she didn’t sleep. Oh, great.’”

Richardson’s view into his daughter’s school experiences comes via an app called KidReports, which the Children’s Garden adopted this fall. Gone are the days of handwritten notes shoved into diaper bags or lost on the floorboards of cars. Now, an increasing number of day cares and preschools are using apps to communicate with parents, allowing teachers to send real-time updates, photos and videos throughout the day.

Richardson and his wife, Kirsten Eckelmeyer, love the change, especially because their daughter, who was born prematurely, required extra care at feeding time. Eckelmeyer could pull up the center’s app on her computer at work and read updates every time a teacher wrote one.

“It was kind of nice to know how her nap was and what she was eating,” said Eckelmeyer, “because otherwise I would call them all the time.”

As with all things digital, the arrival of new technology brings with it anxiety about screen time, privacy (or the lack thereof) and distracted adults. The New York Times highlighted that nervousness last October when it published a report about tech titans who ban nannies from using mobile devices in front of their charges.

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“Even a little screen time can be so deeply addictive, some parents believe, that it’s best if a child neither touches nor sees any of these glittering rectangles,” The Times wrote. “These particular parents, after all, deeply understand their allure.”

A balanced approach

Freaked out yet? Well, there’s good news.

The point of view in The Times’ story is, well, not realistic for all families and not entirely supported by available evidence, said Caroline Knorr, who evaluates research on raising kids in the digital age for Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that offers consumer advice to parents.

“We think that’s a privileged view point, and a class issue,” she said of The Times’ report on Silicon Valley techies. “They have so many resources, they can start pruning their resources.”

Still, Knorr said she understands the fear parents might have, especially if they’re new. All kinds of research make clear that a loving connection with an adult is what’s best for kids, she said.

But except in the case of children under 2, there’s no evidence that says no tech is good for kids, she said.

“What we’re trying to recommend is balance,” she said. “We’re really modeling the behavior we want our kids to emulate.”

Teachers and schools should keep that in mind, she said, because children shouldn’t operate at day care or preschool as if everything will be recorded and shared with their parents. “Too much of that can make a child feel that they are constantly having to perform,” 
she said.

And, for older children, the point of going to school is to experience some independence. Giving parents too much information can feed their helicopter instincts, she said.

Plus, there are concerns about privacy. Any time a person uploads a child’s photo to the Internet, there’s a risk it could fall into the wrong hands (or the hands of a Facebook-addicted parent of a classmate). So any time a day care or school adopts an app, there should be an option for parents to opt out, said Knorr.

On the ground

Danielle Millman oversees 42 schools in the United States, including Portland’s two branches of the Children’s Garden, from her home base in Georgia.

Parents and teachers can use the KidReports app to check in or check out their children. (Many other apps have similar functions. See Apps at a Glance on page 14.)

So at any given moment, the chief operations officer for the Garden’s umbrella company can evaluate the student-to-staff ratio at all her campuses — a clear bonus owing to state-by-state rules that strictly regulate such matters. (Asked whether Oregon regulators had noticed any improvement in compliance rates regarding ratios since apps gained popularity, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Education, Marc Siegel, said the technology still isn’t used widely enough for the state to gauge apps’ effectiveness in that area.)

Millman said she believed her schools strike the balance recommended by Common Sense Media — and that surveys show parents love the streamlined electronic communication that apps allow. “It just gives you more connection,” she said. (Her schools do allow parents to opt out, she added.)

To ensure children’s safety and privacy, teachers may use only the school’s tablets to take pictures and talk to parents, she said. The tablets also are locked so teachers can’t mess around on the Internet or check their personal email. If a teacher wants to document a particular lesson with children, he or she is encouraged to ask another employee to snap pictures. The teacher would then write a description of the activity for parents during naptime or other breaks in activity, Millman said.

“We don’t want an employee focused on a tablet,” she said.

Neither do they want children to “perform” for the camera. “The last thing we want is someone saying, ‘Everybody stop, I need to take a picture!’”

Via the app, teachers can quickly tell parents that their kids need more diapers at school or that a field trip is coming up; this year, they’ll add the ability to pay monthly bills via the app.

“When you need to be in touch with your parent community quickly, it’s the fastest way possible,” Millman said. “It’s one place where we can communicate everything.”

Still, there are some things that will never be communicated electronically. A significant injury, she said, would always get a phone call and a written report, for example.

Millman is also a parent. “I would not want to see that on my app,” she said.

‘What is it not saying?’

For Sue Pritzker, the head of school at Childpeace Montessori School, the use of apps in early childhood settings raises questions.

Childpeace, which operates in Northwest Portland, prefers to communicate with parents in person. It also sends home written activity reports for toddlers.

She said an app could help some parents feel confident in their choice of school. “You want to know you made the right decision,” 
she said.

But she also wondered whether apps, with their boxes and checklists, could limit the kinds of information a parent gets. “What is it not saying?” she asked.

At the preschool on the Clark College campus in Vancouver, Washington, teachers use Educa, a web-based program rather than an app, for tracking the development of children and telling parents about group activities and new milestones in their children’s lives. (Disclosure: reporter Beth Slovic teaches at Clark College, and reporter Jeni Banceu’s son attends the preschool.)

Terry Haye, a lead teacher, said colleagues used to have different ways of assessing students’ growth and creating portfolios of their work to share with parents. Educa, which they’ve used in the whole school for a year, allows for consistent assessment across classrooms.

And it’s authentic, too, she said. She and her fellow teachers aren’t just checking boxes. They’re writing stories about a child’s day and incorporating quotes from the kiddos into those stories.

With Educa, parents can write their own stories about their kids at home, filling in gaps in the teachers’ knowledge about their students. “It’s that dialogue between the classroom and the home,” said Haye. “Lots of questions get answered in that process, which is very cool.”

The school still offers regular, in-person meetings with parents. Teachers say Educa complements face-to-face communication, but doesn’t replace it.

“It is a complement to what we’re already doing,” Haye said. “It’s a way to make visible what children are learning … and to consistently show learning over time throughout the classrooms.”

Marsha Kennell, a lead teacher at the Helen Gordon Child Development Center at Portland State University, uses the app Bloomz to communicate with her kiddos’ parents. She’s been a teacher for 40 years and today, she said, it’s tough to get people to look at paper notices.

“It’s a hard sell,” she said.

Recently, after she took a group of children to a concert at the Old Church in downtown Portland, she wrote a summary of the excursion for Bloomz, something that’s in keeping with the community-minded spirit of the center’s Reggio Emilia philosophy.

It was quick and easy, and then she could see how many parents read it.

“It’s so beyond a newsletter,” she said.

Apps at a Glance

it used to be that child care centers sent parents home with little slips of paper that listed what their kids ate, how they napped and when they got new diapers. Those may soon go the way of the phonebook.

Increasingly, day care centers, preschools (and even some elementary schools) are using apps to communicate with parents. Many have similar features for sharing daily summaries, messages, pictures and videos. They create digital archives of children’s activities even as they age and move classrooms, and many of them have backend functions for billing and compliance with state regulations. Here’s a rundown of what’s popping up in the Portland area.

KidReports offers parents daily summaries and real-time reports in 40 languages. Teachers can share photos and videos that families can view and download. Parents, who may choose to get updates through text or email, also can add an unlimited number of family members to their accounts, granting Grandma and Grandpa access to photographic evidence of their little one’s Picasso-like paintings.

Like KidReports, Brightwheel gives parents end-of-day reports and updates as events unfold. Parents and staff use the app to check kiddos in and out of school, too, helping administrators monitor the staff-to-student ratio. If parents need to add adults to the pick-up list, they can do that electronically as well. Teachers also can make calls and send messages directly through the app.

With HiMama, parents can view photos, videos and daily reports through the app or website. Teachers can use in-app email and texting to message individuals — or parents of the entire classroom. The app automatically creates online portfolios for children when teachers tag photos of them or complete developmental assessments. Parents who want to know how their child’s day is going don’t have to wait for the end-of-day report; they can receive timely updates throughout the day.

Bloomz keeps parents up to date with a blog-like timeline that can include pictures of children and their artwork. It also sends daily reports. Parents can use the app’s messaging system to talk with other parents, arranging playdates without ever exchanging phone numbers. Teachers can coordinate conferences and volunteers, and parents not signed up through the app can still receive updates generated by Bloomz through email.

Tadpoles’ website says it aims to reach 100 percent of parents. That’s why, unlike most of the apps, Tadpoles sends information directly to parents’ email as the main form of communication. Along with daily reports, parents can get notes, pictures and videos without going through the app. The app does give parents additional features, such as viewing their child’s full portfolio.

ClassDojo supports more than 30 languages, allowing teachers to share photos, video and updates with individual families, an entire class or an entire school. ClassDojo, which some teachers in Portland Public Schools use, gives older students some control, too. Kids can add pictures or videos to their own profiles. And parents can interact with the material teachers post through “liking.”

Kangarootime technology sends the daily report at pick-up time so parents have the chance to go over it before leaving. If parents want the information sooner, that’s no problem. They can log in and see information as it’s entered throughout the day. The in-app calendar keeps track of events and sends reminders. Need to change pick up plans? Parents can authorize a new guardian using the app as well.

Seesaw encourages students to be more involved in the content creation. It allows teachers and students to build a profile for parents to view together (although the app may be used by teachers alone, too). In either case, parents may view, like and comment on posts. Teachers using Seesaw can access thousands of digital classroom activities on almost 20 subjects, and the app can be used on any device or accessed directly from the Seesaw website.

Educa lets teachers create online “stories” about students with photos and notes, giving parents a view into their children’s world. Families can even add “stories” of their own. Educa software is web-based but parents may access them from any device. Student profiles don’t have to stay digital; parents may print them with a choice of borders, giving families ways to create keepsakes.


Beth Slovic is a former staff writer at Willamette Week, The Oregonian and the Portland Tribune. She teaches journalism at Clark College. Jeni Banceu is the managing editor of the student newsmagazine at Clark. Their kids enjoying playing together in the college newsroom.

Beth Slovic
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