George Lucas Educational Foundation
Family Engagement

Empowering Families for Distance Learning in Early Childhood

Prekindergarten teachers can collaborate with families to ensure that young students engage in the hands-on learning experiences they need.

May 6, 2020
Mother and young daughter draw at home together.
Deepak Sethi / iStock

While educators across all grades have scrambled to determine what effective remote learning looks like, early childhood educators have faced a unique challenge. Young students’ learning occurs through hands-on experiences guided by an intentional facilitator, and even the best educational technology cannot replicate this human connection.

The challenge we face, then, is not how to virtually teach our students, but rather how to empower their caregivers with the confidence and skills to implement intentional, hands-on learning at home.

Empowering Caregivers for Distance Learning

Model everything: Educators are taught how to intentionally facilitate and support children’s development. Parents do not have the same training. It can be difficult for caregivers to understand how to frame or facilitate a learning activity effectively without concrete examples, and video examples are the most effective way to demonstrate hands-on learning.

Film yourself reading aloud and asking the kind of open-ended questions that you want caregivers to ask during story time. Make a video of yourself writing and demonstrating phonetic spelling. Set up an open-ended engineering challenge with everyday objects around your home and mess up a few times. Model exploration, experimentation, and failure as parts of the learning process to demonstrate to caregivers that they don’t need to have all the answers to be a fantastic teacher to their child.

Be direct: Speak directly to your caregivers in your videos and messages. Explain the reasons behind your strategies and provide specific prompts and questions they can use when implementing these strategies with their child.

Acknowledge how difficult this work is, and express your gratitude for their efforts and persistence. Provide tips for taking care of themselves during this time, and resources they can use, such as mindfulness activities or free yoga and fitness videos online. Let them know you’re there to support them.

Ensure equity: Not every family is going to have access to the same technology or the time to devote to remote learning at home. We hope that every family and child has access to at least a smartphone if not a tablet or computer. By now you probably know how to best communicate with each family each day, which could be an email newsletter, a Google Classroom community, or a classroom learning application such as Seesaw. Use a system that allows families to access the learning content on their schedules, at their own pace.

Be mindful of the at-home activities you suggest and the materials they require, since many families may not have access to or be able to purchase them. Encourage learning activities that require non-specific or no materials. For example:

  • Families can build their child’s critical thinking and deduction skills through a challenging game of I Spy by providing their child with clues about the function of an object, what an object does not do, and the spatial location of an object in the room.
  • Parents and guardians can be storytellers and create a compelling and suspenseful story off the top of their heads, with no book to read from or paper to write it down on. Children can be storytellers in the same way, and can be actors by using different voices to take on each of the characters in the story.
  • Families can challenge their children to be detectives around their home—searching for specific letters, numbers, shapes, and patterns that already exist all around them, if they pay close enough attention.
  • Send engineering and architecture challenges and encourage families to use items they already have around the home to complete them. It’s even better if you can make a video of yourself using an assortment of materials, to normalize this sort of learning for families.
  • For writing and drawing activities, encourage free-writing and drawing on blank paper. Some families may not have a supply of blank paper and/or writing utensils, so be mindful of the frequency with which you suggest these activities. If you know that parents have access to a tablet, prompt them to download a free drawing application that their child can use to practice writing and drawing with their fingers (for Apple, the preloaded Pages app enables this; for both Apple and Android, the app Kids Doodle is free to download).

Ensuring equity also means being mindful of caregivers’ language and literacy skills. Create videos to model activities and provide instructions in caregivers’ home language, whenever possible, to support their understanding of activities and their implementation.

Create a collaborative community: Invite caregivers to share evidence of their child’s learning with every activity you suggest―they can post a video or a picture of their implementation, or demonstrate a related extension activity.

To promote and normalize this family engagement, provide positive feedback on the students’ work and praise families’ efforts in facilitating their child’s learning. Be specific about the aspects of the facilitation that support children’s open-ended and rigorous learning, and offer examples of ways to push the child’s thinking even further, through additional questions and activities. Always provide this feedback and next steps to keep the learning going. This encourages families to continue their efforts while building your students’ confidence and pride in their accomplishments.

Remote learning is new, but it’s an opportunity for early childhood educators to engage with families in ways that we may never have had the opportunity to do before. Our young students must always be touching, feeling, doing, and exploring concepts for themselves, and they cannot do this at home without intentional facilitation and support. Thus, we must shift our mindset from teaching our students to teaching both our students and their families.

By empowering caregivers with the confidence, skills, and knowledge to facilitate open-ended learning at home, we can ensure that our students’ robust learning is continuing even when they’re not in our classrooms.

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