How Do You Do Early Childhood Education Online?

This guest post is submitted by Shaon Shahnewaz. Shaon leads the market development team at CloudDesk and closely monitors their distributed workforce behavior.    

Preschool might be the most fluid part of the education system. It’s a mysterious territory where adults give routine and guidelines to the kids but rely on their interests in a better cue of plans. It’s already a robust process to maintain in the school, but what if you have to do it online?

The Teachers College’s Hollingworth Preschool has given some clue to this question, stating that flexibility and creativity on the front and the other sites can make it happen, with the acceptance that three-to-five years old kids have real limits to experience and process information via online instruments.

Lisa Wright, Hollingworth Center Director, went for phone calls with the preschool’s director Heather Pinedo-Burns as well its two headteachers Jenn Lam (master’s student in counseling psychology), and Marisa Chin-Calubaquib  (doctoral candidate in early childhood education) right after hearing about the school close down due to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 8th.

For a school that founded in 1984 by TC Professor of Education James Borland, it was not possible to rebuild a similar classroom with alluring bookshelves and art supplies on the third floor of Horace Mann Hall. But Ms. Wright had a different thought in mind. She believed that not only they could but also bound to offer a regular online-based course to make sure their 34 young students feel safe, connected, and engaged during a tough time.

Ms. Wright knew that disappearing from life without saying goodbye will put some children into emotional unsettlement, and they had to act quickly. Creating an online environment was the number one priority, where children should feel safe and not abandoned after the physical separation from preschool teachers and friends. Preschool is the time for social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development, so wasting time for preparation was not an option. From birth to age five is the most critical period for building foundations, and children will not be getting this time back. So it was a must for preschool educators to narrate down ways to do it- as said by Ms. Wright. 

Children’s’ cognitive and physical requirements seem easy to address. Reading books or engaging them with texts and pictures can be done online, just like in the classroom. The happiness of a child does not ask for big demands- they can start dancing and singing even in a tiny NYC apartment.

On Monday and Tuesday of the first week, Ms. Wright and her preschool teachers created a rough plan for the three-day program. The program was designed to get the children through the week while planning to make a detailed program later. On March 11th, Hollingworth had its first pilot program on Zoom, and each teacher was responsible for their own participation time. The temporary pilot program continued up to the Friday of that week.

Then in the spring break, Ms. Wright and other teachers went through a whole week designing a hybrid program. The program consisted of three daily “synchronous” periods, where children and their teachers can gather simultaneously in a Zoom chat room. It also had three periods of “asynchronous” programs, where the children got to choose activities with pre-recorded instructions posted by the teachers online.

March 30th, 2020 was the birthdate of “Hollingworth at Home”. On each weekday morning, children along with their parents or caregivers would gather in a virtual small group. Some of them may still be wearing pajamas, others finishing their breakfast. Teachers began by asking how the children were feeling and then read a story. At lunchtime, they would gather again and share feelings and concerns online. Maintaining a similar routine of the classroom, like taking daily attendance on Zoom, the teachers managed to foster emotions of safety and predictability among the children.

Lam used her psychological counseling knowledge to address some emotional needs of children. Some of them may carry the anxiety of COVID-19 effect on them and their families. To help them out, Lam recorded simple mindfulness technique exercises that the children could follow to deal with fear. Along with that, she posted online yoga classes for children and their guardians.

Hollingworth Home website also posted some special projects, including science experiments, movement, math, or art projects designed by its teachers, and had videotaped instructions. The teachers managed to post three completely new projects every day and by the 24th April, the children had the option to choose from 60 projects, and they were available at any time. 

Sometimes in the afternoon, Hollingworth children connected on Zoom and went for a virtual field trip designed by the teachers or parents. A live previously scheduled live performance was moved to online as well. On another day, the children went for a virtual trip to Mystic Aquarium and met the penguins and beluga whales.

Ms. Wright is certain that even if Hollingworth opens up in person in the future, they will continue to hold online workshops for parents. It will make it easier for the parents to attend without leaving the house or hiring a babysitter. From her perspective, online meetings allow a distributed workforce to come together without a hassle, and in their case, it will turn the parents and teacher meeting into a marvelous experience.

Whether it is online or in-person, Ms. Wright wants to make it clear that the school of Hollingworth will provide similar thoughtfulness and attention to families as it has given this semester. She believes that the way they are serving will continue to change because her teachers are working as a distributed workforce, who are always learning and responding to new challenges.

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