Education Technology

How To Ensure Early-Years Children Aren’t Left Behind As School Reopen For Seniors

Dr Swati Popat Vats
How To Ensure Early-Years Children Aren’t Left Behind As School Reopen For Seniors

News of COVID started trickling into our country around January 2020, by February we had a few cases and events were held cancelled. By March, it was clear that we would have to close schools and then we went into a lockdown. People still thought this is temporary and schools will open on schedule in June, but it did not happen and many schools were caught unawares and had to start working on their online modules in a hurry, whereas some were ready for a long haul and had everything planned in March. Questions that many asked, especially parents, were ‘So, what if young children miss a few months of preschool?’ ‘How beneficial is virtual learning to young children?’

Well, we are now in November and in a few months, it will be the end of the academic year! With no sign of any solution to the COVID-situation in sight, it only means perhaps we've to encounter another academic year virtually or of click-brick-click, that means a combination of physical and virtual learning.

Let us first answer the question - So, what if young children miss a few months of preschool?

Well, if 85-90% of the brain develops in the first five years then should we let our young children lose one entire year of stimulation? The answer is NO. Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE), as defined by UNESCO, is the “holistic development of a child’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical needs in order to build a solid and broad foundation for lifelong learning and wellbeing.” We know these experiences shape young learners minds, attitudes and often behaviours.

When looking at brain development, Linda Bakken found that “the years from birth to age 5 are viewed as a critical period for developing the foundations for thinking, behaving, and emotional well-being. Child development experts indicate it is during these years that children develop linguistic, cognitive, social, emotional, and regulatory skills that predict their later functioning in many domains.

Does that mean children can be given the same stimulation virtually?

Young children require play-based, project-based approaches, hands-on learning and that is the very reason why going virtual became such a daunting task for early years educators. Early childhood educators rely heavily on openness to free play within carefully curated environments with open-ended materials that provoke children’s engagements with each other and their surroundings. And this was the biggest challenge in virtual engagements for preschoolers.

Ensure that your virtual learning session is not focussed on testing and drill-based learning, not only is it not developmentally appropriate, it will cause stress and anxiety in children and their parents. All-round development and immersion in the learning of the 5 essential skills are essential to be spread over the week. 

  1.      Physical skills
  2.      Social skills
  3.      Emotional skills
  4.      Language skills
  5.      Thinking/ Cognitive skills

To succeed in virtual learning for young children, ensure that the four pillars of learning quality are visible in your virtual program. They are:

1. Engaging: Children learn best when they are ENGAGED in the teaching-learning process with a specific goal in mind. Thus, what matters is the engaging content planned to hold the child’s attention in order to ensure the learning goal. Use puppets, micro-movements, shadow play, and silent gestures to engage children.

2. Actively Involved: This requires children to be involved both physically and mentally during the Virtual Learning. The content should be new, challenging and age-appropriate to keep them actively involved and stimulated for maximum learning outcomes. Some activities can have more physical involvement as compared to mental and vice versa. Yoga, science experiments, music and movement are some ways to achieve this.

3. Social: Children learn best when learning is SOCIAL. Children need to be given opportunities to have high-quality interactions with friends and adults in their environment. 

4. Meaningful: Children learn the best when they are exposed to MEANINGFUL experiences and environment that they can relate to. The content and topics that are conducted with children become meaningful when the people on the screen are familiar like their teacher and friends and the content is integrated with a context that is relevant to children’s environment or lives and takes them from known to unknown.

The Early Childhood Association published a wonderful resource on how to conduct virtual learning for the early-years students and it highly recommends dividing the child’s day into three parts:

  • Teacher-child interaction: This can be virtual on a safe platform.
  • Parent-child interaction: This can be sent by the school and can be in the form of games, activities or videos to co-watch.
  • Child independent activities: These can be simple activities of listening, yoga, home chores, etc. that enhance autonomy in children. Both Montessori and Erik Eriksson stress on autonomy or independent learning as the foundation of life and learning.

The early years are brain development years, so remember brain research and integrate it into your program in the following ways:

1. The brain is social: Just because you are ‘virtual,’ don’t let social learning disappear. Ensure that you stress on social activities during the virtual time or parent-child time. Children learn skills of waiting for their turn, listening to others, etc. during social interactions so plan for activities where they can speak, listen to each other, wait for their turn. Discussion starters help children speak during virtual sessions, and because they have to get an item for the discussion, it helps them look forward and plan for the next day.

2.The brain thrives on physical activity and needs it every 10 minutes: Enjoy brain breaks with physical activity like jump, twirl, and dance. This will keep children engaged and active and will break the monotony of staring at a screen! A science activity that they can do along with the teacher also helps.

3. It’s all about song and dance: Because song and dance involve both sides of the brain and when both sides are involved, the child is actively engaged. Try to teach concepts through songs and make math more fun with dance!

4. Between the ages of 2 and 7, children are in the preoperational stage: It is developmentally inappropriate to expect their learning to be entirely screen-based. So include listening activities like Podcasts. Give them podcasts for origami activities, or a 'listen and draw' activity or listen to a story and then draw the story. This helps children develop hearing as a skill. When we use visual skills all the time, children tend to see and learn and focus less on hearing or listening skills, podcasts and other such activities help develop listening and focus on young children.

5. The brain needs ‘serve and return’ interactions: Don’t be the only one talking! Organize virtual field trips where children can see, talk, discuss and get a great immersive experience, augmented reality can also be of help here.

Share a visual like this, so that parents can be educated about the benefits of all the virtual learning activities to their child’s brain development - 

Young children are dependent on their families for their daily needs. In short, families are your partners and hence, it is important to build virtual relationships with them as well.

1. A good early years program emphasises on children’s voices to be heard. To do that, teachers should not be the only leaders in virtual learning and discussions. You can ask parents to submit photos of how children are playing at home. Compare and contrast how children are playing at home and you can use these photos in your daily interactions with children to add more of a personal touch. A child feels great when you are able to comment on their home play habits and choice of toys or themes.

2. Young brains thrive on routine, it gives them a structure. Help parents understand the need for having a fixed comfortable space for children. Also, distractions should be limited during their learning time. Give parents an idea about how to manage their work timing and their child’s virtual learning.

3. Create ‘virtual classrooms’ for children and parents to relate too.

4. Take feedbacks regularly from parents. Many parents are overly worried about making their children ‘sit’ for virtual engagements, whereas children like to slouch, bend, walk around during virtual interactions. Help parents understand that there are different kinds of learners - visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. The auditory and kinaesthetic learners will not ‘sit’ during a virtual session but are still learning and paying attention.

5. Be flexible with parents, they are working from home and working at home and may sometimes miss out on your deadline of sending their child’s work, etc. You can be firm with repeat offenders though!

Assessment is a must to ensure that you are aware of the impact of the virtual learning sessions:

  • Virtual assessment must meet the challenging demands of validity (accuracy and effectiveness) for young children and an approach grounded in a sound understanding of the appropriate methodology.
  • Assessments should be age-appropriate in both content and the method of data collection.
  • Assessments should be linguistically appropriate, recognizing that, to some extent, all assessments are measures of language.
  • Parents should be a valued source of assessment information, as well as an audience for assessment results.

For more details on how to do virtual assessments of children in early years, you can refer to Early Childhood Association manual 'Child Assessment In Early and Primary Years During Virtual Learning' at www.eca-india.org.

Don’t forget to take care of your teachers!

It is extremely exhausting to keep young children engaged in remote learning, children don’t look at the screen, they exit abruptly, there are sounds from the kitchen of each child’s home, etc. Many teachers were not savvy about technology and had to suddenly learn to navigate tech tools. Many had to make do with their own budgets for stationery, etc.

And let us not forget that teachers are also working from home, working at home and juggling their own child’s virtual learning needs!

Be kind to them. Listen to their issues. Don’t expect too much and give them a break whenever needed.

In these difficult times of COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, children have been faced with a change in their routine. Suddenly, there is so much chatter and information around them making them anxious, lonely, and confused, hence, hampering their continuous learning process in these formative years. So choose the activities for their virtual learning wisely, don’t add to their confusion, stress and anxiety.

About the author: Dr. Swati Popat Vats

The author is the President of Podar Education Network that is successfully running virtual learning for more than 45,000 children in its 495 centres across India. She is also the President of Early Childhood Association and Association of Primary Education and Research that have been actively working during this pandemic to ensure that educators have the right research and resources to conduct virtual learning and assessment and have worked on creating educational posters and webinars to help parents, educators, school owners navigate the ‘learning’ storm cause by Covid-19. 

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