In this blog, Dr. Laura Bailet — Kaplan's Chief Academic Officer — provides educators with encouraging guidance and strategies for creating preschool classroom communities this upcoming school year, however it may look.
As programs and schools prepare to re-open following COVID-19 closures, it is important to rethink how to build a preschool classroom community in this new environment. Due to the pandemic, routines have been broken and usual opportunities to come together physically (even as a family!) have diminished dramatically. Yet, we need community — a sense of connectedness — more than ever to help us get through these challenging times.
For most of us, as Karen Peterson, PhD explains in Helping Them Heal: How Teachers Can Support Young Children Who Experience Stress and Trauma, the word community refers to a group of people who live in the same area or share common interests or experiences, a place where people have goals and life experiences in common. Early childhood programs, schools, and classrooms are central to children's understanding of belonging with others and what it means to be valued and connected.
Each year teachers and children, likely strangers to one another, come together to grow and learn by collectively creating a new classroom community. The pandemic hasn't changed that. What has changed is how we can build and sustain a sense of place and community that reflects a spirit of acceptance, caring, and predictability, while wearing masks, socially distancing, adhering to increased hygiene practices, and feeling generally uncertain about how the year will unfold.
Whether your center is re-opening, your school is opting for distance learning, or you're navigating a hybrid model, the young children in your care may bring a host of fears and anxieties to their new classroom community. Some may have experienced significant trauma related to family members' health, employment, or loss of income, potentially exacerbating food and housing insecurity. All will have seen frightening media images, heard adults talking worriedly about "coronavirus" or "COVID-19", and experienced a sudden loss of opportunities to move freely about their communities and to see friends and loved ones. As my four-year-old granddaughter said with exasperation, "Coronavirus — everything's CLOSED!" And all have been out of child care or school and at home with caregivers for an extended time, making separation anxiety a near-certainty as the new school year begins.
A Path Forward
Under these most challenging circumstances, familiar rituals and routines, used in new ways, give us a roadmap to welcome children's return, support them and their families in learning new routines and procedures, and respond to children's social-emotional needs.
The first task for teachers is to help children become comfortable and to reassure them you will do everything possible to keep them safe. The National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations suggests helping children understand emotions when wearing masks, having a way of warmly welcoming all children, and using social stories to teach children the skills of handwashing [English, Spanish] and wearing masks [English, Spanish]. Simple and honest explanations help children understand why certain aspects of preschool are different, enlist their help, and reassure them you will work very hard to keep them safe.
Next, implement a curriculum that is based on the research and practice described in The Pyramid Model to provide a framework that promotes children's social-emotional competence. In Unit 1 of Connect4Learning®: The Pre-K Curriculum, for example, much of what teachers and children do supports building a respectful, safe, and fun learning environment. Many of the books read during Read-Aloud lessons are stories of friendship: how to be a friend, how to ask to play, and how to welcome someone into play. While teachers can't assume that all children in their class will be friends, it is important to help children be considerate and see their role as part of "the team" that is the classroom. To do this, introduce your classroom expectations, then consistently teach and guide the children in following them, whether in the classroom or through virtual meetings. Children need to know each other's names and have time to learn about each other through conversation and play. In Connect4Learning classrooms, children write a Meet our Class book together in Small Group and invite families to read it! They explore some of their likes and dislikes as they learn about the senses. Teachers also build classroom community by helping children learn how to think, pair, and share, a process used throughout the curriculum. As a teacher, you will know you have successfully built a classroom community when your children are engaged in learning, behaving in a safe and respectful manner, and fully participating as team members. This will take time, especially with distance learning — your classroom community must be intentionally cultivated.
While nearly all preschool curricula were developed with the assumption that children would be physically present in a classroom each day, hybrid or full-time distance learning approaches are being implemented by many districts across the country. While adapting to these new approaches is not easy, technology affords many opportunities to establish and maintain critical connections between physically-distant teachers and children. Videoconferencing is the best way to establish connections, either individually or in large and small groups. If families have adequate technology capabilities, children can interact with teachers and each other during videoconferences, asking and answering questions and getting to know one another. Children can create drawings or contribute to interactive writing activities during videoconferencing, and share previously completed work samples and photos of themselves at play. Commit to building a classroom community virtually!
The children in your care have only this year to be where they are developmentally (i.e., a four-year old). They are counting on you to make it the best year possible, using a combination of familiar tools applied in different ways. Stay focused on the essential goal of creating a vibrant, productive little community of young learners, and relish the joyful surprises that will happen along the way!
About the Author
Laura Bailet, PhD, Chief Academic Officer, Kaplan Early Learning Company
Dr. Bailet has more than 30 years' experience in the field of early childhood. She earned her BA at Wake Forest University and her MA and PhD from Northwestern University. She is a licensed school psychologist and has expertise on a wide range of early childhood topics and learning disorders, including dyslexia and autism. The former Operational VP at Nemours Children's Health System and Assistant Professor at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science, she has published numerous journal articles and book chapters and has been recognized by many award boards. For her accomplishments, Dr. Bailet was selected as the top "Change Agent" in Jacksonville, FL, in 2006 and is the recipient of Jacksonville's prestigious EVE Award for her success in creating Nemours® BrightStart!, the program to promote reading success for all children. She is a member of the Library of Congress Literacy Awards Advisory Board.