When Young Children Return to the Classroom
A look at how one first grade teacher creates routines and fosters a safe, nurturing environment for her students.
What day is it? What’s the schedule? Are we doing remote, hybrid, or in-person school this week? For some of us, the way school looks has changed frequently this year, to the point where our heads are spinning. Our routines, schedules, ways of teaching lessons, and expectations—of both our students and ourselves—are in a constant state of flux; any day can feel like the first day of school, over and over again. This can be particularly challenging for those of us who teach young children, who thrive on consistent structure and routines.
The day will come when all teachers return to the classroom for hybrid or full in-person learning. If you are one of the many early childhood teachers taking first steps back into the classroom after teaching remotely, you may be wondering how you will establish routines, set up norms, and strive to create a community mid-year.
Make safety protocols fun: Mask wearing, maintaining distance, and hand washing are important in keeping all of us safe at school. When you use kid-friendly language to set the tone and explain these safety protocols, young children can feel more comfortable following the rules.
When students arrive at school, have them check to make sure their “superhero masks” are on right; remind them that all superheroes wear their masks correctly and tightly around their face. On entering the classroom, have them do a wiggle dance as you sing a song to the tune of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” while applying hand sanitizer: “Front, back, and in between, in between...”
When walking in halls or around the classroom, have them “spread their wings or fly like a bird” to give each other space to move around the room and not bump into anyone else.
Offer flexible seating: It can be a challenge for young children to spend a lot of time in an assigned spot. Flexible seating gives them choice in what is most comfortable for them and goes a long way in making a classroom feel more inviting. Bouncy balls, wiggle seats, yoga mats, small rockers, and seating cushions at low tables are all options for making a classroom feel more inviting for your students. Space out sit spots around the room with as much distance as possible between to help create the physical distance needed in the classroom.
Provide individual storage tubs: Children need access to work materials and things to play with, but a shared tub of Legos that draws children together can’t be used right now. Instead, create individual storage boxes so that children can keep all their work materials for the day neatly organized, as well as individual “take and go” play boxes filled with items like Legos, watercolors, puzzles, and pretend animals.
The children can bring these tubs to their work space, so choice time can still happen, even if it’s socially distanced. They’ll still be able to work, play, and talk to each other safely.
Use a long rope for moving as a group: Physical distancing is not an easy concept for young children to understand—they naturally want to run and be close together. When moving from one space to another at school, or while taking walks outside, use a rope with tape holds spaced six feet apart to teach children what a safe distance looks and feels like. Children can hold on to their spot on the rope when moving as a class. This safe, distanced way of moving can be your class train where all are invited to come aboard.
Create a peaceful learning environment: When children return to the classroom for the first time, they will likely experience many emotions. Many of them have not been to school for a very long time. Some younger kids will never have been to a physical school, and some will have experienced severe loss and anxiety. Have calming music or nature soundscapes on when children enter the room in the morning; that sets the tone for a calm day of learning and lets children know that school is a welcoming, peaceful place where they can learn and be with their friends. Play lively songs or soothing meditations during transitions to help keep kids moving, centered, and feeling joyful throughout the day.
Focus on social and emotional connection: In the midst of a pandemic, it’s hard for some students to focus on academics. Reach out to each child and meet them where they are emotionally, whether that’s excited and ready to jump right in or hesitant or even fearful. Building connections among children can ease them back into in-person learning and help them feel safe at school. A class mascot can help with this. Every day, my morning meeting features an appearance by our turtle stuffie, Twiggles, who has been with the class all year, including during remote learning.
Each morning Twiggles asks the kids, “How are you feeling?” The kids talk to Twiggles, and he listens to their answers, and sometimes he asks them funny questions that make the kids laugh, like “I’m a turtle and I’ve never been out to play in the snow before. What should I wear?” In conversation with Twiggles, each child feels valued and heard. We also get to laugh together again, which helps everyone to feel better.
Lower your expectations: All those curriculum projects and activities you’ve done in the past are not going to happen the same way this year, no matter how hard you try. Everything is a bit more challenging, particularly when it can be difficult to hear kids when they’re talking with their masks on, and when small group work isn’t possible because of social distancing.
Take a moment to acknowledge this dramatic shift and lower the expectations you’ve had of what school should look like. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that this year we are all trying our best with what we have. We are constantly discovering new ways to accomplish as much as we can with the children this year, and the rest can wait. You are doing the best you can, and that’s enough.
Get outdoors: There are many benefits to teaching outdoors, including easing of anxiety. Even in the middle of a cold winter day, a short outdoor activity like a snack or read-aloud or playtime can go a long way in building community, resilience, and excitement for being back at school. Time outdoors offers a welcome relief from students’ assigned indoor work spots, and it can give them a chance to take off their masks (at a distance) to take a deep breath of fresh air.