Costanza: Online education is difficult for the smallest learners. Here’s help for school leaders, teachers and families


As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic quickly degenerate, educators face an unprecedented crisis. Hundreds of colleges and universities moved to online education, and to date, governors of 46 states have closed all public schools. According to Education weekthe coronavirus has closed 123,000 schools, affecting 55 million students.

In the mad scramble, pre-K-12 administrators accept a new normal for education, committing to using technology to maintain continuity in education. Administrators are urging teachers to change their lesson plans to virtual classrooms as they hastily prepare their faculty to deliver online learning. They also recommend that students use project-based learning tools for group work despite the widespread lack of high-speed Internet access in some communities.

Unfortunately, early childhood education is neglected for much of this emergency planning. Teaching children 8 and under presents unique challenges, including the fact that their limited attention spans don’t allow them to do one thing for very long. Here are four ways district leaders can consider early learning and development when dealing with long-term school closures:

Help teachers and families tell children about a scary event.

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It’s a difficult time for everyone, but it’s especially scary for young children who, due to their cognitive development, process information primarily in terms of its impact on them.

This is why it is so important that young learners receive a Easy, consistent message from adults – a calm but honest, reassuring but realistic message. School leaders should consult education experts for Age appropriate Language to discuss difficult topics, then share this information with teachers and families.

Give families specific guidelines for implementing learning at home.

Unlike their middle and high school counterparts, preschool and early grade educators don’t have the luxury of uploading assignments into a Moodle or Canvas-like system — they don’t exist for 3- and 4-year-olds. This means that it is up to parents and guardians to ensure that learning opportunities continue at home in the event of long-term school closures.

School leaders can help by providing parents with adequate resources, as a mock schedule of the teaching day – including enough time to rest – to help them maintain a routine. They can also provide families with guidelines for transform small moments home into learning opportunities. For example, folding the laundry is a great opportunity to discuss sorting, and setting the table for dinner can become a way to practice counting.

People outside the field of early childhood education often take for granted the rich body of research that guides the developmentally appropriate practices teachers use in the classroom. But the good news is that these practices can be easily implemented. Families need guidance on what actions they can take to provide children with a variety of developmentally appropriate experiences beyond just filling their time.

Help families find ways to strengthen their interactions with children.

Pre-K education does not translate easily to distance learning. To begin with, research shows that the success of early childhood education depends on face-to-face interaction between adults and children to reach developmental milestones. Experts also recommend limited screen time for young children — no more than an hour a day for 3- and 4-year-olds, according to the World Health Organization. Of course, not all screen time is created equal. Media that help children create and develop positive adult-child relationships should always be a priority.

Administrators can provide families with ways to strengthen their interactions, such as reading together, teaching nursery rhymes, and building on children’s interests. Organizations such as the Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center offer checklists and practice guides to improve these interactions.

Acknowledge that we have no idea how long this will last.

Administrators must prepare everyone—teachers, parents, and students—for the possibility of long term school closures. Even if your neighborhood is already closed, there is still time to helping families integrate early childhood education into the home.

What does it look like? Superintendents and principals could create a blog, updated frequently, that provides parents and caregivers with resources on early childhood education strategies. Teachers can send out weekly emails with recommendations for age-appropriate books or activities that boost language and communication skills as well as cognitive and social-emotional development.

Even in the midst of this public health crisis, we must resist the temptation to standardize remote learning strategies. Our children deserve better than a one-size-fits-all approach to managing this health and education emergency.

Vincent Costanza is academic director of Teaching Strategieswhich provides curriculum, assessment, professional development, and family connections resources to programs across the country. A former kindergarten teacher, he was director of the New Jersey Office of Primary Education and the Statewide Early Learning Challenge Grant.

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