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Delivering HyFlex access to evidence-based, family-focused practices for educators of our youngest learners

Jessica Amsbary, Ph.D., leads the UNC School of Education’s part-time Master of Education for Experienced Teachers program, with a specialty area in Early Childhood Intervention and Family Support. The program, which is designed for working professional educators, moved to HyFlex — hybrid, flexible — format in 2021, enabling students from anywhere in North Carolina to engage with their peers and learn from faculty experts in Chapel Hill either in-person or remotely. Below, Amsbary writes about the HyFlex program experience.

Research tells us that early childhood education is crucial in a child’s development and in future success as an adult. This is especially true for children with developmental delays or disabilities and for children who may need additional support due to poverty, linguistic differences, cultural differences, or additional areas of need. Critical evidence-based early interventions and family support for the most vulnerable children can mean optimal outcomes for all children and families. 

The UNC School of Education’s Early Childhood Intervention and Family Support (ECIFS) specialty area of the Master of Education for Experienced Teachers program works to instill an evidence-based approach in educators working with our youngest learners from birth to age five. The evidence-based practices and learning strategies we explore in our courses — and empower our students to take into their classrooms and work settings — are always family-centered and socio-culturally responsive. We also maintain an interdisciplinary focus, with an emphasis on preparing early childhood professionals to work collaboratively in teams with parents and professionals from a variety of disciplines and agencies. Our curriculum also includes an emphasis on early childhood leadership and social justice.

Our program also offers robust experiential learning opportunities and opportunities to complete some assignments consistent with National Board Certification requirements and to participate in action research projects focused on family-centered practice in a variety of early childhood settings. 

It truly takes a village in the development and nurturing of young children, and that village includes a range of professionals and, most importantly, families – which our Carolina-trained professionals learn to support and strengthen. 

Before 2021, the educators trained in our ECIFS program primarily came from the areas immediately surrounding Chapel Hill. We offered a part-time schedule so working educators could continue their careers. We offered class meeting times after the end of the business day and on weekends so working professionals could attend without having to take time off from work. Sometimes, we had enrolled students from Raleigh or Greensboro, who often struggled to travel to and from campus for our synchronous course sessions.  

It wasn’t until our shift to HyFlex that we were able to serve even more working early childhood educators. The shift enabled our program to expand our reach across the state of North Carolina, providing those educators with the knowledge and tools to best serve children in their communities well beyond the Triangle. 

The part-time HyFlex — or hybrid, flexible — program combines face-to-face and online class sessions or fully remote sessions with synchronous meetings in late afternoons. During the fall and spring semesters, courses meet synchronously approximately once a week in Chapel Hill AND provide a remote option.  

While some students truly benefit most from in-person learning — and the program model allows for that — for several of our students, after a long day at work, logging in to attend class remotely is appealing. The flexibility of the program enables students to choose their preferred method of learning for each synchronous session, with the same experienced instructor and top-notch materials, aligning to students’ individual learning needs and schedules. 

Without the multiple hour commute to attend in-person classes, students from western and eastern North Carolina are able to apply to and attend the program we make welcoming and inclusive, and a place where our students can grow a wider professional network.  

One of our students, who lives in western North Carolina, said this: 

I have loved the Hyflex model. I have always wanted to obtain my master’s degree but living in a rural area, the options were very limited for this dream. The Hyflex model offered by UNC made this dream a reality. I have gained valuable information that is both applicable and inspirational for my current career. My busy family life also makes Hyflex a wonderful option for accessing classes, meeting with cohort members, and interacting in a way that makes me feel completely welcome and integrated into the learning environment. 

That’s exactly how we envisioned this program, and we look forward to continuing this model and bringing early childhood educators from across the state to Chapel Hill, in the format that works for them, so they can gain the tools they need to best serve children and their families and foster nurturing school environments that promote all of their students’ well-being and overall development. 

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By Jessica Amsbary, Ph.D.