Program Director, Teaching, Learning and Technology Program
Professor, College of Education
Developed Parents Plus, a research-driven app for parents with children in need of early intervention for language development.
College of Education faculty member Brook Sawyer admires “brilliant Lehigh students” who use what they feel passionate about to make a difference in their field and community.
Pairing students with faculty — like Sawyer — who are in their own right future makers encourages a mindset of risk-taking, impact, and collaboration. Sawyer’s own research aims to impact families by translating her theories into practice through an innovative mobile app.
Making it new: Support beyond the classroom
After three years of teaching middle school, Sawyer learned that teaching students in the classroom was not the only way she could serve them.
Inspired by her mother’s degree in counseling, Sawyer was interested in how to enhance her undergraduate teaching training to better understand the factors that promote student learning, such as how to build strong family-educator partnerships. She earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology and a Ph.D. in educational psychology, and she began a career in Early Intervention (EI), working with families of children with disabilities up to three years old.
With five years of working with infants and toddlers under her belt, she transitioned to working with preschool-aged children and found that the methods of teaching parents to help their children be successful was very different for parents of preschool children. When children are infants and toddlers, therapies are delivered in the home, which allows parents the opportunity to learn firsthand from professionals how to help their children’s development. However, when the child transitions into preschool, services move to the classroom environment, and the parents lose the direct connection with the provider. With high caseloads, it is challenging for providers to offer the coaching that parents rely on to maintain progress with their children at home.
Sawyer identified a significant need for a new approach and set out to find new ways to help preschool parents be more directly involved in their childrens’ services and support.
Making a difference: Connecting parents with accessible resources
Sawyer’s goal was to provide easy access for families to be involved in their children’s development through an app called Parents Plus. She decided to launch her idea with a focus on language development. Language, she says, lays the foundation for classroom success by enabling relationship building and essential communication of needs.
Along with learning about how to improve their children’s language skills through the app, parents are coached by certified speech-language pathologists who help parents teach their children vocabulary and age-appropriate grammar skills such as different types of verbs, plurals, and pronouns.
Sawyer is extremely conscious of the obstacles that parents face in promoting language development at home. Research shows that life gets in the way of out-of-home training, and it's very difficult for families to consistently attend training sessions.
For this reason, Parents Plus is all online and embeds its strategies into everyday tasks so that parents don’t have any extra routines added to their already busy day. Parents learn foundational knowledge through the app and then access virtual practice-based coaching with certified language pathologists in the convenience of their homes.
Making it together: Forging connections for broader impact
Sawyer’s research-driven concept was made possible through funding from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). To develop the content for the app, Sawyer tapped into insights from families, speech-language pathologists, and teachers to ensure that parents found the information helpful.
Connecting with experts in other industries allowed Sawyer to grow her ideas and make Parents Plus more accessible to families. She partnered with Influents Innovations, a nonprofit that specializes in innovative technologies, to develop a user-friendly app for her content. They completed field tests with families and adjusted the approach based on feedback.
She also utilized the Lehigh Ventures Lab with help from Chris Kauzmann ’13 ’14G, interim director, to create a website and help determine paths that could keep Parents Plus running as a self-propelled business model when the IES-funded research concludes.
Creating something that lives on to benefit students and families is the true mark of success for Sawyer. “I’m not an entrepreneur and not out to make money from it. I just want people to have access to it.” She also hopes to pursue additional funding to further expand the program and allow it to resonate with different populations and their cultural values, such as Spanish-speaking families.
She says she is encouraged by the positive findings in their research, and she can also see the ways Parents Plus is benefiting families. That’s the payoff she aims for. “Families are saying, ‘I like being with my child more,’ and that’s exactly why we did it. You can see the joy in the kids' faces. We are making a difference in relationships.”