If preschool educators are feeling lost about what to do during these closures, developmental psychologist Junlei Li says there are simple and important steps they can take to maintain community among children and families.
“It’s such a big change in the lives of young children,” Li says. “They’ve gotten so used to being with their friends every day, and so to not be able to be with their friends, and for grownups to not be able to tell them when this will end — that has to be so hard. It’s really hard for grownups.”
Li offered three simple ways preschool educators can act as connectors for their students.
1. Help parents and families not stress about formal learning.
When it comes to your young students, while learning their letters and days are important aspects of the curriculum, Li stresses that what young children really need right now are social connections with each other – much more than academic lessons.
Preschool educators can send this message to families and parents by not sending all the lesson plans and by helping families understand that they don't have to replicate formal learning spaces at home.
2. Find ways to create a sense of community.
“What young children miss most is to be able to connect with their friends,” Li says. “Preschool teachers have an opportunity through Zoom or something like that to connect the children.” Li advocates that preschool teachers find and schedule time — 30–60 minutes — each week for virtual meetings among the classmates.
“It’s important for the children to be with each other, hear each other, tell stories about what they’ve been doing at home,” he adds. “Find that way to maintain a sense of community — that should be a priority.”
Once you are on a virtual meeting, resist the urge to start into a lesson right away. Be prepared for the children to be excited about seeing each other, and allocate a few minutes for that time during the meeting. “As opposed to feeling pressure, leave some time and space to let them be happy and see each other on the screen,” Li adds.
Lastly, Li says the mute function can be helpful in allowing each child to have a chance to talk and share, and for the rest of the class to hear each other’s voices. If you only have an hour, spend the first 10–15 minutes to let them be rowdy, hear each other, then give the last five to 10 minutes to let them say bye and give a virtual hug, he suggests.
3. Build reciprocal partnerships with families.
Social networks or perhaps even text chains can help preschool educators develop relationships (if they didn’t already exist) and maintain connections to students’ parents and caregivers. “The key word here is reciprocal. So it's not just sending enrichment materials and activities to families,” Li says.
The idea is to open the lines of communication with parents and caregivers so they can ask questions and share information. The educators can also use this as a way to hear from parents about their children: What are the children asking? What are the parents seeing in the children? What are parents hearing from the children?
Li stresses the significance of using these networks as a way to decrease the social isolation all families are experiencing right now. “Typically in preschool, you have that pick-up and drop off where you get to say a few words to the parents – so this aims to be an extension of that,” Li says, pointing out that families also have limited access to each other now, too. By creating that space, it provides the chance for families to interact and share with one another as well.
Read more in our ongoing series, Confronting the Coronavirus Outbreak, on how schools and communities can prepare and respond, support young people, build resilience, and keep the learning going.