In the spring of 2020, early childhood educators faced a daunting task: teaching our nation’s youngest children remotely. Now, many educators face an opposite and equally challenging adjustment: bringing young children back to the classroom after months of learning at home.
To prepare for in-person instruction, preschools across the country are adopting new health and safety protocols. While specific regulations vary by district, common trends include mandated masks, temperature checks, social distancing, increased outdoor learning, and decreased class sizes.
With so many changes, it’s clear that this will be an unprecedented school year. Whether your school year started with in-person learning or that comes later, welcoming preschoolers back into the classroom requires thoughtful planning to ensure that they feel comfortable separating from their families and learning in this new and unfamiliar context. The suggestions below are based on the experience of my school, which reopened for in-person instruction a few weeks ago, after a summer of intensive planning.
Creating a Predictable Transition for Young Children
Partner with families: When transitioning from remote to in-person learning, it’s crucial that children and families know what to expect. Prior to the start of in-person learning, connect with each family. Begin with an email or phone call to each child’s parents or guardians. Introduce yourself and solicit information about the child’s interests, previous schooling experiences, and any major changes that may have occurred at home. Address any concerns families may have about Covid-related protocols and work to understand the safety measures families are taking at home. Ask families how to best keep in contact moving forward, particularly in case of an emergency. If possible, schedule a virtual home visit—a.k.a. a Zoom call—with the whole family so you can meet each child alongside their parents or guardians in the comfort of their own space.
Introduce masks early: During the virtual home visits, try on different masks that you plan to wear in the classroom so children can see what you look like with and without a mask. If a family is unable to video chat, text or email a photo of yourself with and without a mask. For schools that require face coverings for children as well, ask families to submit photos of their children wearing masks prior to the start of school. Create a photo collage with children’s faces with and without masks, and display it in the classroom and send it home to all families at the start of the year to support children’s facial recognition.
Encourage consistency at home: Share specifics about all new health and safety protocols so families can practice and discuss them at home. For example, if your school takes children’s temperatures or uses hand sanitizer frequently, inform families of the exact brands of the thermometer and/or hand sanitizer so they have the option of purchasing these for use at home, too. Record yourself washing your hands in the classroom so families can familiarize their children with proper hand-washing procedures.
Promote friendship pods: Host a class-wide virtual meet-and-greet or orientation so families can get to know each other. Some families are forming pods so that their children can socialize together without masks. To facilitate safe socializing, encourage families to form pods with children in the same class. Compile an address book with families who are willing to disclose their contact information and send it out so families can cultivate friendships.
Curate the classroom: Transitions from the home to the classroom can be difficult in any school year, but this year will likely prove especially challenging for students. Make the classroom as comfortable and enticing as possible by filling it with materials that reflect children’s interests and/or favorite things from home. Ensure that there is a shared comfort zone or peace corner that children can go to if needed.
Create a designated space in the classroom for each child. This could be a stationary cubby or a movable box labeled with the child’s name and photo. Inside this special space, put a photo of the child’s family and a stuffed animal that remains at school in case the child needs a transitional object. If possible, send home blank board books so that families can create “All About Me” books with their children. The children can bring these in to remain at school in their designated space as a reminder of their family.
Welcome children back gradually: If it’s safe and permitted by your school, invite children to return to school gradually (outdoors, socially distant, with masks). Begin with individualized in-person visits in which each child comes to school with a family member for 30 minutes. Next, invite small groups of five or six children and their family members to the schoolyard for 60 minutes of play. After a few successful days of small group play alongside families, request that families separate from their children and drop them off for small group play on their own. Once each small group has successfully separated from their families, bring the entire class together for a full day schedule.
Plan for explicit social and emotional learning: It is difficult to read and express emotions when wearing a mask. To compensate, prepare to teach social and emotional learning skills more explicitly than ever before. Rather than wait for emotional moments to come up organically, implement daily routines in which children periodically check in and talk about their feelings. Incorporate self-portrait drawings and books that teach children how to recognize, label, and regulate their emotions. Post calming and/or problem-solving strategies throughout the classroom. If possible, wear transparent masks for the first day or week of school so that children can clearly see your expressions and decipher your emotions.
While these strategies may ease preschoolers’ transitions back to in-person learning, they won’t resolve all of the anxieties and challenges that this unprecedented time may cause for students. Be prepared to respond to children’s diverse needs in the coming months and stay in close contact with colleagues to determine which strategies work best in your particular school context—and as with everything in the pandemic, be ready to alter course if necessary.