Preschool Distance Learning

image of a woman in silhouette holding a talker up to model on webcam

Let me start with this: distance learning is made possible for our families because I run a preschool classroom, not a discrete trial instruction classroom. My focus is creating access to the rich literacy, math, and play-based experiences that are the foundation for a life-long love of learning. Is distance learning perfect? No. I would much rather have my students in my classroom every day, laughing and making memories together. Is it possible? Yes-ish, or at least as best we can, given the circumstances that we’re in.

Yes-ish: Because distance learning is inequitable. The end. Some families have easy access to internet and multiple devices. Some do not. Some families have time or a stay-at-home parent. Some do not. Some are more worried about health, job security, and food on the table. Understandable. Some students are able to sit and work for a little while. Others need direct adult support for every activity. Some know many words on their device, while others are very emergent communicators. A good classroom for our students is a classroom where universal design and accommodations create access. And not all of the elements needed transfer easily to distance learning.

Yes-ish: Because to try is better than not to try. When possible, I’ve done what I can to make distance learning more equitable. I use a platform that I know all of my families are able to access. I assist them to fill out the information needed to get technology support through the county. I use a combination of asynchronous and synchronous learning, a combination of hands-on and sit-down activities, so that each family is able to flex learning around their needs. But it’s not perfect. And any conversation about distance learning has to acknowledge that. It’s doing the best we can with the hand we’ve been given.

Our Distance Learning Plan

AAC System Support – We started a video-based parent training on AAC earlier this year, and finished out the training modules as schools went into closures. Every two weeks, I will send an activity template that encourages modeling and creating communication opportunities at a specific activity or routine. I also post a video explaining or modeling how to do this, pulling from videos I have of their own students when possible.

Sample Schedule – I sent a sample morning schedule home to families who may be struggling to figure out how to structure their day. I was torn about this, because I don’t want to put pressure or stress on families. But several families asked specifically for some guidance around this. The schedule alternates a more structured activity (e.g., reading a book together) with child-directed play. For example, breakfast – movement activity – literacy choice – play – snack – movement activity – math choice – play.

Activity Menus – This is my favorite. It’s my favorite because 1) it requires no technology or computer, 2) there’s built-in flexibility, and 3) this is where I can list ideas for hands-on activities. I am creating an activity menu every two weeks for families. There are five activity ideas each for literacy, math, sensory, and outside play. Yes, that means that half the menu is movement-oriented. It was a deliberate decision. Activity menus allow me to encourage and describe the more hands-on ways of learning that we love in early childhood in a way that isn’t otherwise easy to capture in a “packet”. All activities have been done previously at school. They typically range from 3-10 minutes in duration. They also can be repeated frequently.

Daily Prompt – Every day I post 1-2 prompts to See-Saw for a quick daily check-in with families. Some days, I connect it to the Activity Menu. For example, I shared pictures of home obstacle courses for inspiration on Friday. I’ve also connected it to communication, such as asking students to share what their favorite snack is using the picture communication board or their talkers. Finally, I’ve sent videos of read-alouds, modeling AAC while singing a favorite song on YouTube, and puppets practicing articulation. All quick and easy. The goal here is not to overwhelm families with a jam-packed schedule, but to provide a variety of opportunities. I want families to be able to design their day. Do they only have time for their child to watch video read-aloud while they fold clothes? Great, done. Do they need more things to fill their day, or are they worried about a specific academic skill? Great, we are building a whole library of prompts that you can go back and revisit anytime you want.

Manipulatives – Guys, if you could see the backpacks. When we first closed, I crammed everything I could. Puzzles. Bingo Dotters. Watercolor sets. Paintbrushes. In an ideal world, I would love to make a little “distance learning kit” that I could drop off at homes. Bubbles. Shaving cream. Water beads. Play-Doh. I would fill it with so much sensory. Preschoolers benefit so much from that sort of hands-on, get messy play. Rich sensory experiences provide communication opportunities, language development, science exploration, build math concepts, and strengthen motor skills — and fun. I’m not sure our society gets this, with how much we have to fight for developmentally appropriate practice. It’s something I am trying to stress with my “everything is optional” and “play is central” and “look, so much movement” activity boards. Because it’s true. Play is the work of childhood.

Office Hours – I’ve set virtual up office hours twice a week where I am available for parents to come, ask questions, share experiences, etc. I am pretty available on See-Saw via messaging, but wanted another option. I think sometimes families are afraid to bother me with requesting an appointment or time to talk, so I am hoping this eases their mind. I have them set up once for the morning and once for the evening so that families can choose the time that works best for them.

Virtual Circle Time – We have circle time twice a week right now. It’s filled with music, singing, and dancing — and, of course, lots of modeling on talkers. Even our stories are video stories. I wanted to make it super enticing and enchanting. I really didn’t want my families to have to spend time fighting their child to attend. I don’t even do that in real life… We use sensory regulation, children’s interests, and choice-making to entice children to circle. It’s just that there’s a lot less opportunity for hands-on action in virtual circle time. So we’re focusing on embedding literacy and counting concepts in our favorite songs and stories as we come together each week.

Visual Supports – I’ve offered home picture schedules, first/then boards, and other visual supports to families via digital access or mail.

image of a school bus outline with instructions below it: color your bus, match the letters, and add pictures of yourself or your family

Optional Activities – Finally, for families who want more, I am posting additional — but very optional — activities on See-Saw. I post a teaser each Monday on activities that are available, and students / families can choose to log-in to complete them or not. These tend to be more structured activities, but still short. There’s currently an activity for matching letters and one for creating your own school bus (including adding pictures of yourself or your family). They can be completed one per day, all in one day, randomly throughout the week. Some families have asked for the code to log-in. Some have not. It’s all good.

Throw in a ton of “this is optional” and “do what you need” and “I’m here for you” reminders… Then that basically sums up our current distance learning plan. I hope it sparks some imagination for you if you’ve been struggling with how to reach your littlest friends or your students with higher support needs. May you find the right combination of magic to support your families, whether they wish for a lot or a little.

On Quarantine School

First, notice that I did not say “on home school”.

Quarantine school is not home school. It is not school at home. It is an entirely different experience. We are all under stress. Our fight-flight-freeze systems are bouncing all over the place. It can be difficult to get materials. There was no ability to plan ahead, to map out a year, to explore different resources… There are no field trips. No homeschool meet-ups. It is just you, at home, living through this new experience, this hard experience, with your children.

Give yourself some grace. Whether that’s in comparison to your typical standards for yourself, to the schoolwork that is popping up in your email, or to some other standard you see online… Grace. So, so much grace. With that in mind, quarantine school — thankfully — is going fairly well for us. This is what works for us; I’d love to hear what works for your family.

This is a marathon. Social distancing, stay-at-home orders, school closures… Whatever you’re operating under, it’s not going to change anytime soon. We can’t burn ourselves out in the first two weeks. If making Pinterest-awesome activities every day brings you hope and inspiration, go for it! If it leaves you exhausted by Friday, don’t. Consider what’s going to work for your family over the next eight weeks, or the rest of the school year. How can you stay emotionally regulated across that time? How can you make sure you’re getting enough of that in your schedule? And same for your children — what do they need to stay regulated? How can you encourage or support those needs, whether’s aligning cars, hand-flapping, listening to so much Pitbull, or digging a hole in the yard?

Find the right balance between flexible and structure. My kids love routine. I love routine. My routines are what keep me strong and stable, especially when depression and anxiety are trying hard to flare. Do you have routines that you can use to glue your day together? Lunch, snack, or dinner routines? Going for a walk in the afternoon routine? We balance those routines with flexibility. Sometimes it’s too hot to go for a walk. Sometimes we are all exhausted from stress and need a mid-afternoon nap. This balance is going to be very different for each family. Some will need a lot more structure. When we first became parents, we had a schedule that was planned every 15-20 minutes. That’s what we needed right then. Now, it’s different.

Determine what’s most important. There’s a lot of things to weigh here. For some students or families, school — as a whole, all of it, the end — is not important right now. They are just trying to keep their heads above water. That’s okay. I promise. In other cases, school is important — but only part. For example, my son gets multiple hours of activities and lessons posted to his online account every week. We browsed it, felt that it was going to be stressful for him to complete and for us to accommodate / adapt, and decided not to do it. I realize not every family has this opportunity. Some schools are grading and marking attendance for distance learning. We’ve had the chance to say, right now, this isn’t going to work for him. We are doing other things that I feel are much more important (and accessible). It might be that you do some classes, but not others. It might be that you ask for a teacher to work with you on when things are due. With our family, we have prioritized reading & listening to stories, communicating with others, number sense activities, and movement. The movement, especially, has been important for mental health, as well as skill maintenance. Endorphins, baby!

It doesn’t have to be all day. It doesn’t have to be all at once. Home school, quarantine school, school at home… It doesn’t need to be 7:30 to 2, or whatever your typical school day schedule is. The 1:1 and small group environment within home allow for focused instruction in shorter bursts. If you are doing structured activities, you may only need to do 30-60 minutes total, especially for elementary school students. This can be done at once or split across the day, depending on the age and needs of your child. Our middle school daughter does better with shorter sessions split across the day. Our son prefers to just knock it all out in the early afternoon. I would only expect a toddler or preschooler to sit and attend for 5-10 minutes at a time, with up to 15 minutes for a kindergarten student.

Take advantage of the opportunities that exist at home — and have fun. This is such a stressful time. If there’s something that you’ve always wanted to do with your kids and you have time for it, DO it. Bake a cake. Have a car wash in the backyard. Go check out that isolated nature trail. Take a tour of an aquarium. Watch Mo Willems’ draw Elephant and Piggie. Follow one of your children’s passions until you’re way into the weeds, whether it’s about the aye aye or Pitbull. (Are you sensing a theme with the Pitbull around here?) If you’re working from home all day, back to back meetings, then maybe plan for 5 minutes after dinner to just connect with each of your kids. Find fun, whether it’s for one minute or hours. We need fun. We need it so, so badly. There’s so much learning that doesn’t happen in a book, on a worksheet, or even in one of the assigned projects. If doing these things puts school on the back burner, it’s okay. We don’t get to a ton of things I planned each week, because something pops up here or there. A Lego castle must be built. A beautiful day calls for a longer walk. Our kids are going to remember this time in their lives forever. And they aren’t going to remember if they made it to the next level of reading, or if they finally mastered multiplication. They are going to remember if they felt safe. They are going to remember if they felt connected. Do the things that bring that to you.

Remember – our kids are competent learners. The world tells us that this is not true. We are made to believe that every minute without structured intervention is a lost minute. We have doctors and therapists that recommend over 40 hours of instruction for 2 year olds. This fear is strong. But it’s going to be okay. Our kids do learn. They may learn different things. They may learn in different ways. They may learn at their own pace, in their own timing. But they will learn. They will learn from your baking, from your getting dressed routines, from your leisurely explorations of grass and butterflies and bumblebees on a sunny day. They can learn from your modeling on their communication device, from the choices you offer, from the problems you present for them to solve. They will learn from chances to play independently and from cleaning up afterwards. This time away from school? It’s going to be okay.

Later this week, I’ll share exactly what quarantine school looks like for my daughter with complex communication needs. It can be overwhelming for parents to figure out how to approach homeschool, quarantine school, or even just homework with our complex students. There just aren’t enough examples out there. My hope is that our schedule sparks some inspiration as we head into the coming weeks.

Note: We are doing the best we can to flip things to virtual learning that often just do not flip very well. An active, movement-based circle with changing activities to meet the changing attention spans of a 3 year old doesn’t translate well to Zoom. We can’t arrange our instructional assistants and their schedules to provide the just-right amount of prompting and proximity. This goes back to grace. We will have to collaborate a lot over the coming weeks as we try our best to find some sort of equity and accessibility in this new virtual world of learning. We know this is not ideal. We know this is not perfect. We want to be in school too.