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Preschoolers and kindergarteners need a lot of hands-on attention—difficult to get in a remote setting.
“Friendships, understanding other perspectives, sharing work, and playing together are how kids this age learn, and in a virtual environment that can be challenging,” says Susan Friedman, senior director of publishing and content development for the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington, D.C.
The pandemic forced many school districts across the country to open their classrooms remotely this fall. Online instruction could never fully replicate a traditional classroom for students of any age. However, the challenges of teaching and engaging preschoolers and kindergartners remotely are magnified.
For all involved, consistency is key—with a little wiggle room for age groups that like to wiggle.
Making sure to incorporate some structure into the school day—including personalized lessons and brain breaks—gives young learners a sense of security in this time of great uncertainty.
“Everything runs smoothly when we have consistent routines,” says Alexis Scott, an early childhood special education teacher in the Apache Junction Unified School District in Arizona.
She uses ClassDojo as an online communication platform with parents. Weekly schedules are posted and reviewed each morning—a task on Mondays, an art project on Tuesdays, story time on Thursdays, and music and movement on Fridays.
“Our days are always exactly the same, but with different activities for different days,” Scott says. “We are maintaining expectations around ‘What’s going to come next?’ and ‘When am I finished?’”
Embedding academic goals into games such as “Twenty Questions,” where students develop listening skills while learning how to ask thoughtful questions, can help students with socialization.
Those kinds of games also may cut down on the urge for some to dash into their bedroom to grab a favorite new toy to show the class.
While it’s ideal for children to have a comfortable, dedicated space for learning, that won’t always be the case. For some kids, it’s a win just to show up. Stories abound of students being punished for not wearing shoes, not having their computer camera turned on, or wearing pajamas— things that may have made sense inside the classroom but which to many seem arbitrary for remote learning.
Preschoolers and kindergarteners being introduced to formal education for the first time under these conditions are craving opportunities for building relationships with their teachers and peers.
“There are ways to do it. You just have to be a little more creative and, honestly, a little more intentional, because those connections are not happening naturally behind a screen,” says Tabatha Rosproy, an early childhood educator and 2020 National Teacher of the Year. “Educators and parents are having to think through those in a much more active way than we were before.”
After discovering that one of her students had trouble adjusting to Zoom but was into cars, Apache Junction’s Scott bought several toys from the movie Cars to show him before starting an activity or lesson. For example, when she was teaching about transportation and the color yellow, she brought out the race car Cruz Ramirez, as well as the bus known in the film as Miss Fritter.
“It was a game-changer,” she says. “That got his attention, and he was ready to learn.”
In addition, Scott is working on her mannerisms to keep students engaged—trying to be silly and to exaggerate her reactions. In the same district, kindergarten teacher Shelley Forbes opens her virtual classroom 30 minutes early to help students build relationships. Conversations are usually about what happened over the weekend or about video games. Some have even exchanged phone numbers and met in person to play.
With the increased emphasis on technology, Forbes has made adjustments to support respectful behavior and relationship-building into the future, once children are allowed back into the classroom.
For that reason, Forbes has not pushed learning how to use the “raise hand” icon because she wants them to get in the habit of raising their own hand. “If they get used to the icon, when they go back to school in person, raising their hand is going to feel awkward,” she explains. “They’d have nothing to compare this experience to, so if we start good procedures now, it will be a lot easier for them in the long run.”
The fun factor
Remote learning isn’t typically synonymous with playful learning, which is why prioritizing fun is essential.
It’s important for students to be involved in skill-building activities outside of academics “so that they have the opportunity to talk with one another, hear one another, and be social,” says Chanel Sidbury, executive director of curriculum and instruction for Durham Public Schools.
Greg Smedley-Warren, a kindergarten teacher at JE Moss Elementary School in Nashville, Tennessee, enjoys entertaining his students. On “Mad Scientist Fridays” he wears a white lab coat, wig, and goggles for baking soda-and-vinegar volcano eruptions and other science experiments. He also wraps up some afternoons with a dance party, after changing into his “glow costume”—a black sweatshirt and black sweatpants accented with LED lights.
“I want our day together to end on the happiest note possible,” he says. “I want them to leave excited and happy, so they’re ready to come back the next day.”
Smedley-Warren sets norms and expectations just as he would do under normal, nonpandemic circumstances. At the same time, he teaches youngsters who, like the boy who recently stood on a chair and mooned his classmates, act their age. He can remind students of the rules but wields only so much authority through a computer screen.
“They’re still doing the crazy things that kindergartners do,” he says. “You have to pick your battles.”
Educators are seeing a huge jump in the need for social-emotional support. Young children are facing increased stressors at home, isolation from friends, and fear and anxiety over a pandemic they are unable to comprehend.
And those stressors need to be addressed before children can fully access the critical thinking skills needed to learn.
“Our role as educators is really shifting,” says Rosproy, who is on a yearlong sabbatical from teaching to promote education and advocate for teachers in her duties as National Teacher of the Year. She taught at a public preschool program housed in a retirement village in Winfield, Kansas. “We need more professional development on how to give these students emotional support and stability.”
Face-to-face time—even if through screens—is necessary for connection, however limited. This connection is important for every child, and even more vital for those without family members who can spend much time with them.
“There should be a group of students assigned to every teacher as a point of contact, every week, to talk about anything going on in their lives that has nothing to do with school,” Rosproy continues. Seeing that teacher as a type of counselor, or confidante, “lets them know they have an adult to talk to outside of their home.”
Aside from using social-emotional and trauma-informed practices, districts also need to make cultural connections, according to Kim Price, social-emotional academic learning manager for Denver Public Schools.
Through a partnership with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning and the Wallace Foundation, the Denver school district has integrated a framework and practices for a positive climate and culture. This integration connects social-emotional skills and academics and cultivates out-of-schooltime partnerships.
It includes a welcoming ritual, offering a space where voices are gladly received; an engaging practice that creates a culturally responsive environment for unhurried, meaningful interaction; and an optimistic closure to help students apply what they’ve learned to the next step—with a favorable viewpoint.
COVID-19 has buoyed interest in developing social-emotional skills. Not generally taught in traditional professional development courses or teacher preparation programs, these skills can help maintain a nurturing learning environment and avoid burnout.
Denver Public Schools has been presenting teachers with probing questions about their own beliefs, biases, and social-emotional competencies.
“We want them to reflect on how they show up in the world in which we live and function,” says Price, “and what might they need to do to be an authentic, open person ready to welcome students no matter what is going on that day, in that moment.”
The coronavirus has magnified inequities in education, making communication and collaboration even more critical than it already is with regard to this population.
Some educators are scheduling remote conferences with parents on a regular basis about developmental milestones and to ask for feedback. Others are surveying parents about the best time for their children to do schoolwork.
Friedman advises putting careful consideration into the ways in which academic progress gets measured, based on what is known about family dynamics in these challenging times.
“How do we respectfully and ethically determine and act on circumstantial changes that might affect a child’s well-being and access to health, food, and education?” she says. Having these types of conversations “might be uncomfortable for a teacher, but there has to be some understanding about that.”
Friedman adds that she has been surprised to learn, from districts of all sizes, that finding out what will work for families “hasn’t been the starting point—what level of support children have, what space they have. Only then can you come up with a schedule that works best for many, if not most, of your students. And then you can build in supports for those who need other ways of interacting.”
Just because a child has access to technology doesn’t mean the academic material is developmentally appropriate. That was the reason Durham Public Schools created instructional packets and pacing guides for educators and parents. “We’re making sure we are touching every child regardless of whether they have a device or are face-to-face,” says Suzanne Cotterman, director of the Durham’s Office of Early Education, “because we know those kindergarten readiness skills are so important.”
To keep track of how they’re doing in that regard, Durham uses Waterford Early Learning’s SmartStart software program, which offers data on how pre-K students are progressing in reading and math.
Flexibility and grace
What districts everywhere need to keep in mind is that educators and parents both are often going above and beyond in countless ways, notes Smedley-Warren, the kindergarten teacher from Nashville.
“Every situation is different, and every teacher and group and student and family is different, so we need flexibility to make this all work,” he says.
Rosproy agrees: “When we assume that everyone is doing their best, our hearts and our minds are more open to the idea of helping each other and having grace for each other. This is never going to feel the way school used to feel, but we can still give kids a semblance of normalcy— and teach them to be resilient.”