University of Illinois Urbana‑Champaign

A Conversation with Catherine Corr, IECAM Co-Principal Investigator

By Brenda Koenig

Head shot of Dr. Corr. She has long blond hair, a large smile, and a metallic medallion necklace.

As a researcher, Dr. Catherine Corr has spent the good part of her career examining how early childhood systems can better support families, especially for children with disabilities. For Corr, an associate professor of special education in the College of Education at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, these earliest experiences with the education system are critical for setting up children for success. “In early childhood we talk about parents being the cornerstone of what we do, and if they are having bad experiences when their children are 17 months old, that’s really problematic for the rest of [the child’s] educational career,” she notes.

Currently, Corr and the graduate students in her research lab are studying the interactions between families and the early childhood system to understand how to make the system more efficient, more effective, and more family friendly. But over the last year and a half, Corr has had the opportunity to gain insight even closer to home when her son, Quinn, was born at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

You have recently become a new parent. How is that informing your work?  

My son is now 17 months old, so I feel like he is in this fun stage where I’m really getting to see these child development milestones that I teach about, so I’m constantly like ‘Oh I should take a video of this for class!’

But as parent, I’m also thinking about how difficult or easy early childhood systems are to navigate for me, and these are systems I’m very familiar with. So even just being able to talk to his child care teachers about how he is doing—I feel comfortable doing that because I have been trained to do that—and it still can feel like an awkward conversation. So I have been thinking a lot about that.

Last year, when Quinn started child care in this crisis, I was just so grateful to have had such a wonderful child care team that were super supportive of me being a parent. I just wish everyone could have had that same experience. They are just so underpaid and undervalued. So I’m constantly thinking about how do we get the care infrastructure we need for folks with working parents.

Yes, I know as a new parent there were times I wanted to shut myself in my room and scream. I couldn’t imagine being a new working parent, especially during the pandemic, without support.  

Right, that first year being in quarantine and being a new mom was in some ways really nice because you didn’t have to leave the house, but it was also really difficult because you didn’t have the community that you normally would.

I find that even to this day—and I have all this knowledge about child development and what’s good practice and how to set kids up for success—what is most helpful is having a supportive community. Sometimes it feels like all the information in the world isn’t going to help, you just need that emotional support.

That’s been one of the hardest things during the pandemic. Places where you would naturally meet other parents and start to make connections, like at drop-off time, because of COVID, there’s no sitting around and chatting— you don’t go in the classroom. All these informal ways you got to feel connected as a new parent isn’t really happening right now.

One thing I noticed when reading your profile page is that it mentions mixed methods research. Can you tell me more about that?

When I became a researcher, one of the interesting things for me was to think about how different methodologies allow you to ask and answer different research questions, which is really important. However, special education is dominated by quantitative methodology, which isn’t a bad thing, but it means that we aren’t asking or answering certain questions. There’s a big connection between certain populations that have never been studied, certain viewpoints that have never been valued, certain approaches to issues that haven’t been utilized before. So for me, using mixed methods has been a way to get at some of the issues I am most interested in to answer my research questions. I teach a class in the college around mixed methods. That’s a really nerdy side of my job!

Funny, I just attended a seminar about data and human behavior, and the takeaway was that data alone isn’t enough to really get at why people do certain things. The only way you can really understand is by asking them in an authentic way.

And that’s why working with IECAM has been so cool! So many people come to IECAM for quantitative data and rely on IECAM’s analytic skills to understand what’s going on in their home community. But (IECAM Director) Dawn (Thomas) and I have been talking a lot about how so many communities are like ‘OK, we have the landscape of what’s happening here, but we need qualitative data, we need to understand why this is happening.’ So it is interesting to see how out in the real world, these data issues are playing out.

Dr. Corr recently was recently awarded an OpEd Project Public Voices Fellowship, a national initiative to help faculty amplify their expertise in ways that can contribute to public conversations about pressing issues. To find out more about Catherine and her research, visit her College of Education profile page.