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'A New Industry Overnight': Early Education in A Distance Learning World

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The following article was originally published April 2, 2020, and republished through a collaboration with KPCC and LAist.

Story by Mariana Dale

Teachers and parents everywhere are trying to make distance learning work, but early education poses some unique challenges, from short attention spans to concerns about too much screen time.

We talked to parents and teachers about how it's going so far — and we got some tips from the experts.

Looking for some ideas of what to do at home? We've got you covered here.

Krischa Esquivel, early learning manager at the Child Care Resource Center

After the San Fernando Valley's Child Care Resource Center decided to close its early learning programs for low-income families, teachers started recording videos their kids could watch at home on YouTube.

The most popular one so far is a reading of the classic children's book, "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?"

"They read and it's fun, but they also focus on core knowledge areas that parents want children to learn and that we know children need to learn," Esquivel said. For example, specific words pop up in the "Brown Bear" video to help the children make the connection between an animal, colors and corresponding letters.

At a minimum, teachers are in contact with their families three times a week through phone calls, video chats or messages through an educational app. The center focused on apps accessible on smartphones, which most parents have. It's unclear how many families have internet at home, but nationwide millions lack access.

Mayelle Nguyen, working (from home) mother of Mikayla, 8, Michelle, 6, and Mason, 4

The day starts around 7:30 a.m. with breakfast and teeth brushing. "School" starts at around 9 a.m. Usually Nguyen's mother-in-law helps out with child care, but they're social distancing right now.

Instead, Nguyen's sister-in-law, who's a preschool teacher and currently lives with the family, has turned the living room into a makeshift classroom.

Mason's teacher at Jubilee Christian School in West Covina schedules video chat sessions with the class a few times a week.

"I could hear him shouting at the computer screen 'Hello!' to all his friends and telling them how much he misses them and how much he loves them and his teachers," Nguyen said.

Mason's also working on addition, building Legos and identifying shapes.

Mason Nguyen, 4, practices his math skills at home. | Courtesy Mayelle Nguyen
Mason Nguyen, 4, practices his math skills at home. | Courtesy Mayelle Nguyen

Nguyen's older children attend a Koren immersion program in the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District, and it's been more of a struggle to fill in for their teachers. The girls have already finished the packets of work their teacher sent home when their school closed on March 13.

"I can appreciate the fact that this is unprecedented," Nguyen said.

"It was hard to get prepared for something like this, but at the same time I also feel like I wish there was a little bit more structured support."

Amanda P. Williford, University of Virginia associate professor who researches how young kids can best get ready for school

"As adults and as kids right now, we're kind of balancing wanting to kind of keep routines and emphasize continued early learning, with the fact that we are in a crisis," Williford said. "And that crisis is pretty stressful for everybody."

Williford says normally, one factor of high-quality early education programs is the adult in the room.

"You see teachers who are just very skilled at being able to kind of read where a kid is, and get them to the next step," Williford said.

Here's her recommendation for early educators in this unconventional time: Check in with your families, daily if possible, via phone or video chat. Even just taking a few minutes to sing a morning song can help remind them of a familiar routine.

And it may seem contradictory, but Williford says if parents feel like setting up a new routine adds to the stress, don't do it.

"What is a routine now that helps your current context be the most calm and supportive? I would preference that over anything else," Williford said.

Reject the pressure from social media to have Pinterest perfect projects prepared for your kids each day.

Or in the words of one Israeli mom whose distance learning rant went viral:

"Dial it down, lower expectations."

Jennifer Lopez, teacher, TLC Head Start, and Nhi Tran, teacher, Lokrantz Head Start

Early education programs for low-income families at the San Fernando Valley's Child Care Resource Center closed the week of March 16.

Lopez sent her students, who range from 14 months to 3 years old, home with packets of simple activities for families to do together. One example is running or walking.

"What they're doing is they're playing for their kids, their kids are practicing gross motor skills," she said.

Unlike older kids who can work independently, she says youngsters need play to grow and learn.

Nhi Tran teaches kids 3 to 5 years old at Lokrantz Head Start in Los Angeles.

She provides parents daily activities though the app Learning Genie.

Recently, a parent sent back an image of her daughter sitting with her legs folded, mid-meditation.

"That was really cute that she remembered what she did in school and she did the same at home."
Transitional Kindergarten teacher Marissa Mateo brought some classroom materials home with the hope of recording interactive videos for her students. | Courtesy Marissa Mateo
Transitional Kindergarten teacher Marissa Mateo brought some classroom materials home with the hope of recording interactive videos for her students. | Courtesy Marissa Mateo

Marissa Mateo, LAUSD transitional kindergarten teacher

"The big, big, big goal is to develop language and social skills," Mateo said. "And so it's so hard to do that on a computer."

One challenge: Many of her students at Noble Avenue Elementary in North Hills don't have access to the internet and haven't yet logged on to their online learning site.

LAUSD promised $100 million in new laptops and devices, but the priority is getting high school students online first.

So in the meantime, she's using an app called Remind to communicate with parents through text messages and send videos of activities students can do at home. Pop See Ko and Meow Moo Moo from GoNoodle are a few favorites to get kids moving.

The district is also working with local stations KCET, KLCS and PBS SoCal to offer education TV shows.

Her students also went home with packets of activities like tracing letters and coloring.

This week Mateo has several professional development sessions on different technologies she might use to interact with students like Schoology and Zoom. She's also juggling her own kid's homeschooling.

"I'll say my anxiety level is a little bit high trying to, you know, figure out all of the new technology. But ... I know I can do it."

Losmeiya Huang, campus director at The Growing Place

"We've become almost like a new industry overnight," Huang said. "For 35 years we've honed in our craft in how to teach in person."

The nonprofit center usually serves kids 3 months to 5 years old in Santa Monica, but closed March 16.

Now each team of teachers sends their families a daily newsletter to help guide learning at home. It usually includes a recorded reading of a story, follow-up questions, parent tips and instructions for activities like going on a walk around the neighborhood and looking for birds.

A prime example of cardboard architecture. | Courtesy Mayelle Nguyen
A prime example of cardboard architecture. | Courtesy Mayelle Nguyen

Teachers have also tried virtual versions of their class-wide morning meeting with varying success — smaller groups seem to be more engaging to the kids.

"Young children really have a hard time sustaining focus and attention, and suddenly overnight, we're asking them to do this," Huang said.

The center is also navigating the business challenges of closing. This month they charged parents 75 percent of the normal tuition, with the option to pay 100 percent or more if they have the means.

"School distance learning is really a Band-Aid," Huang said.

"We need this partnership with them to survive as an organization."

Diane Levin, Boston University professor of human development and early childhood education

Levin is the founder of Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children's Entertainment, an organization which provides tips for parents on how to find opportunities for play with everyday objects. The guide on boxes might be handy if you've upped your online shopping lately.

She says for very young children, simple activities like figuring out how to stack one block on top of another teaches valuable lessons.

"That kind of problem finding, problem solving is unique to every child. They continue to grow and develop."

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