By Cindy Terebush
I recently participated in an online gathering of early learners. Their teacher was reading a book. The children, in little boxes on the computer screen, were making faces at each other, pointing, dancing and performing other feats of imagination. When the session was over, the teacher asked me, “Why am I doing this? They aren’t listening.”
In other areas where children may have less access to technology, teachers are preparing materials and packets that families can get in the mail or pick up at bus stops. Numerous teachers have shared with me that they are convinced that it is a futile effort because most families are overwhelmed and not doing the activities.
Distance learning for our youngest students has been a challenge. Children who are still developing communication and socialization skills are forced apart. Their education is now in the hands of their overwhelmed families. Teachers are exhausted from the mental effort of putting their own stresses aside while trying to figure out how to help their young students from afar.
It may seem like too big a wheel to invent for potentially very little results. It is, however, essential that we keep trying to connect to young learners and that their families keep the concept of school alive for them. When we connect with students and when families keep the idea of being a student in the forefront, we help them tremendously with their confusion and with, eventually, returning to the classroom.
Staying Connected Dispels Misunderstanding COVID-19 Situations
Early learners, defined as ages birth to 8 years old, struggle to understand the difference between fantasy and reality. They believe in the power of superheroes, the existence of unicorns, Santa and the Tooth Fairy. They make up fantasy worlds as they play. This ability to have dramatic play come to life is both magical and fodder for myths and misunderstandings.
When doing research for my podcast “How Preschool Teachers Do It,” I learned from families that children had many misunderstandings. Among them were:
- Everyone outside my home is very sick.
- My family are the only people who cannot go out.
- My teacher has the virus and that’s why we can’t go to school.
The sudden change in routine was traumatic for everyone, young and old. Children are very confused. They don’t understand why they can’t be with loved ones and peers. They cannot figure out why their families are all home all of the time and no one goes to work anymore. When we help children maintain a connection to school, we provide them with evidence that what they are thinking about what is happening outside their homes may not be true. Educators should stay connected however works for your families:
- Conduct those read alouds and other online gatherings so the children have evidence that people outside their homes are well.
- Let them see your home in the background so they have evidence that we are all at home.
- If technological connection isn’t possible, become pen pals with students. Send letters and include pictures of you at home.
- Students whose families can no longer afford private settings and withdraw or who do not participate in distance learning should still be part of your outreach. These are unusual times and we need to respond differently than we might have when people disconnected in the past. Keep reaching. You never know if they will suddenly reach back
Staying Connected Helps Early Learners Remember School
Memory is a complex system. We take information that is obtained through our senses and store it. Young children need repetition to create the connections in their brains that send experiences into long term memory. The repetition of school routines helps them to be productive students.
Very young children don’t remember snow from one year to the next. As they proceed through the early childhood years, they develop the ability to memorize facts but, if not used, those facts aren’t always retained. Teachers often have to repeat lessons and remind children of past learning and experiences.
Children whose routines are interrupted adjust to new expectations. Teachers often say that children returning from winter break seem to have forgotten all classroom rules and expectations. We are in a long and arduous break during which it is very possible that they won’t remember what it is to be a student and to have to follow the routines of being in school.
There are many ways that educators and families can help children remember the life of a student:
- If possible, use technology to conduct class similarly to how you would in school. Connections should include a variety large group and small group gatherings.
- Remind children about classroom behavior by leading discussions. Most software that allow for live gatherings have mute and unmute capabilities. Use it for conversational turn taking. Children can raise their hands and then teachers unmute the speaker.
- Differentiate learning based on different skill and developmental levels as much as possible. Families may be more likely to participate if activities provided are possible for their children to complete and achieve, even with help. One size didn’t fit all in the classroom and it still doesn’t.
- Help families to keep their children connected by providing a variety of ways to connect their children to their role as students – online, videos sent in email or via apps that connect families and teachers, videos posted to YouTube or Vimeo with links provided to families and/or through traditional mail.
- Encourage families to focus any TV watching on educational programs that have adults in a teaching role. Generations have been students of Sesame Street and other high quality shows that focus on teaching. We need to lean on them now.
- Families can encourage their children to play school. That can help them to keep the concept of school alive in their lives at home.
The connections we are making now can make all the difference when it is time to come back together. It will be a daunting task to leave our homes and to help children leave their families. The more we do now to maintain connections to the concept of school, the quicker children may re-adjust.
Cindy Terebush is the author of Teach the Whole Preschooler: Strategies for Nurturing Developing Minds and the co-host of the podcast “How Preschool Teachers Do It.” She is also the author of the popular blog “Helping Kids Achieve with Cindy Terebush.” Cindy received her Master of Science in Early Childhood Studies from Walden University and has spent more than 20 years working in the field of education.