Why Teaching Kindergarten Online Is So Very, Very Hard
Teachers, kindergarteners, and parents are trying to make online learning work—and snow days and other future emergencies will likely mean they have to again. But is it really possible?
One kindergarten meltdown has become the stuff of legend. In a story that went viral, a defeated 5-year-old sits in front of his computer screen during class time and simply cries in frustration. The post garnered thousands of sympathetic responses from families across the nation. Teaching our youngest children online, as many parents and teachers can attest, is not quite working out.
And while the pandemic has forced the issue in many U.S. states, there have long been both federal and state programs that have sought to substitute online teaching for in-person teaching for very young learners.
There are plenty of reasons why it leaves some kids crying. Kindergarten teachers have to cover ground that’s taken for granted at other levels: Kids learn how to separate from their caregivers, how to line up, and how to ask to use the restroom. On top of all that, in many cases, kindergarteners are now expected to learn how to read—one of the most cognitively demanding challenges we take on as a species.
Can teachers really convey things like the importance of cooperation and how to resolve conflict when students only see their friends in tiny boxes through Google Meet or Zoom? What about the intense work that’s required to teach a 5-year-old child how to decode words?
And then there’s the children, who aren’t really built for it. “Kindergartners usually need a lot of movement and exploration, and these are things that you can’t really do remotely, especially having to sit and stare at a screen,” said Lily Kang, a kindergarten teacher in the Boston area who’s teaching her students online this year.
Not far away, Catherine Snow, a professor of education at Harvard, agreed: “The biggest worries about missing in-person kindergarten are about socio-emotional development, learning to work in groups, and things like that,” she said.
Having a parent or guardian to assist kindergarten children with online learning makes a big difference.
Sophia Prinzivalli’s son, Sal, started kindergarten virtually this year in Plantation, Florida, a city about six miles west of Fort Lauderdale. Her husband is charged with making sure their son stays on track.
“The big joke in my family is my husband is going back to kindergarten because I told him you need to sit there with him at the laptop,” said Prinzivalli. “And they’re both going to have to be educated together and he’s going to have to help him through it.”
Children with this type of support are more likely to do well with remote instruction, while those without it are more likely to struggle, a fact that further exacerbates existing inequalities.
But even with supportive parents or guardians, Snow says, some things are just hard to pick up online.
“Some kids have a lot to learn about how to operate in group settings where you can’t just jump up and do whatever you want, whenever you want,” said Snow.
So how can teachers make this happen? Coordinating with caregivers and providing opportunities for socialization are key.
Building Relationships With Parents and Guardians
This year, and at junctures in the future when kids this young are working from home, like snow days or other emergencies, it’s important that kindergarten teachers see their students’ parents as partners. Most children at this age can’t sign in to an online class without assistance, although once they get the hang of Zoom or Google Meet, many can learn to turn their camera on and off and mute themselves.
Since many parents are stretched thin working from home while also overseeing their children’s learning, teachers should make things as simple as possible: Cut down on the number of applications you use—you might even reduce it to one or two—and use a single communication channel like email or text. If you use an LMS, streamline it and post at the same time and the same place every day so that everything is easy to find. Embed links to any required documents or references.
When in doubt, keep it simple.
Allison Sawyer is a new kindergarten teacher in Tampa, Florida. She told Jeffrey S. Solochek with the Tampa Bay Times that when her school went to remote learning, she was able to make things better for her students by listening to their parents’ concerns.
“So Sawyer cut back on some of the demands, while keeping expectations high,” Solochek wrote. “She focused on just one platform for interactions and links. And she heightened communication with both children and parents, some of whom needed to learn how to guide their kids.”
Kindergarten teacher Ruth Calkins emails her students’ parents daily. She says when her school went to remote learning last year, she realized that she needed them to make it work.
“It was vital for parents to be a part of the virtual learning experience,” Calkins wrote in Edutopia in August. “Their children needed the help, and I needed a partner in getting the kids to do their assigned work.”
Calkins used the check-in emails to provide parents with a list of her expectations for the following day, along with links to assignments and Zoom classes.
Addressing Students’ Need for Socialization
Janette Morency’s daughter, Olivia, is attending kindergarten virtually this year in Plantation, Florida.
“It’s very sad for me because she’s very social, and being home is not easy on her,” said Morency, who’s a stay-at-home mom of three, raising an issue that resonates with most families schooling the very young from home today.
Teachers are using several methods to try to help their young students like Olivia get to know one another during distance learning. Some teachers ask questions at the beginning of the day such as, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” that are designed to get kids talking and to help them make connections with one another.
At other schools, children are encouraged to come together for virtual lunch breaks. These informal social gatherings allow the students to see and talk to their friends while they’re eating, just like they would at school.
When her kindergarteners were working from home, teacher Samantha Hinds, from New Orleans, provided frequent brain breaks to make sure her young students didn’t sit in front of the computer too long. She also used small group instruction to help her students feel more comfortable with each other.
“It’s definitely harder to socialize online unless you make it a point to do that,” said Hinds. “We spent the first two weeks really getting to know each other. The students greeted each other by name when they came into their small groups, so that they could get to know who their classmates are and what they look like.”
Hinds also used closing questions with her students each day. When she asked the students about their favorite snack, they discovered that a lot of them liked the same foods. Her kids have also worked together to make a list of the qualities of a good friend.
She said these practices worked pretty well, although she’s now back in class teaching full-time.
“They [were] just excited to see other people again, even if it [was] online,” said Hinds.
A Word on Reading and Writing
At many schools, the days of kindergarteners fingerpainting and playing in a dress-up corner are long gone. Increasingly, kindergarten has become more academic, with some educators calling it the new first grade.
Under these circumstances, many kindergarten students are expected to leave the classroom knowing how to read.
Snow finds this troubling.
“All over the world, kids start to learn to read at 6 1/2 or 7,” said Snow. “There’s nothing magic about learning to read at 5 or at 4. The American obsession is how can we do it earlier, how can we do it faster. And that doesn’t necessarily make it better or easier.”
Snow argues that kindergarten teachers can make the most of remote learning by focusing on helping students to develop unconstrained literacy skills, which are things learned across a lifetime, such as vocabulary and background knowledge. She suggests things like having read-alouds and discussions about the content of a book or having students respond to the book by drawing pictures or using invented spellings to answer questions about it. Teachers can also have their students watch educational videos together and then discuss what they learned.
“If we could take kindergarten back to being a place where kids just get to explore a lot of interesting ideas and they were given a lot of resources to do that, I think they would not suffer in the long run,” said Snow.
But teachers in districts that push teaching reading can make it work online. Instructional coaches recommend working with students in small groups to go over phonics. Online tools can be used to replicate things like letter tiles to assist with this instruction. Teachers can also use breakout rooms to listen to students read. Another option is to request that parents take short videos of their children reading and email them or upload them on a platform like ClassDojo.
Teachers can have students practice spelling by calling out words and having students write them down using pencil and paper, which they can hold up to the camera.
While this all might sound daunting, many parents are appreciative of the effort that teachers are putting in.
Prinzivalli said that while online learning is no substitute for “real school,” so far things have been going well.
“Despite hiccups with technology, he is a little sponge soaking up the teaching from his teacher,” said Prinzivalli. “She’s done a great job keeping him engaged and excited about school. His creativity and desire to learn [have] been opened up.”