Under 5s and the Challenges of Online Learning

The WhichSchoolAdvisor.com survey held some very interesting results. One which was perhaps not surprising, especially to parents of young children, is that those of you with children under 5 are finding the transition to at home, online learning much more challenging than those with older children.
This article is part of an editorial series on Covid-19
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WhichSchoolAdvisor's annual school survey.
This article is part of an editorial series on Covid-19

Our online learning survey gave us many interesting insights in to how schools in the UAE have adapted to the challenges of online learning. Given that UAE schools are typically bottom heavy (meaning that there are many more students in the younger year groups than older), we were particularly interested to look at how well our readership felt that schools are doing in continuing the education for children in their Kindergarten or Foundation Stage classes.

The results of the survey were clear. In Kindergarten or Foundation Stage, just under half of parents (47% of respondents to be exact) say they are not coping well with the transition to online learning and only 56% of parents of the UAEs’ youngest students say that their child is coping well.

Perhaps parents of these youngest students might have predicted how this portion of the survey would turn out. It’s undoubtedly a challenge to transition a 3, 4 or 5 year old from a busy, bustling classroom to a more solitary home learning environment. Most of the learning that takes place for these very young children is, at school, delivered in a playful, child led way and success much depends on the skill of the teacher and the interaction of children with their peers. In a nutshell, Early Years education is much more about the acquisition of skills and personal attributes than it is about recalling facts or theories.

To explore how schools are adapting to this new reality, we spoke to leaders from three Dubai schools, Safa British School (SBS), Nord Anglia International School Dubai (NASD) and Safa Community School (SCS), to see how they are adapting their online learning platform to meet the needs of the very youngest students.

The schools were clear that the foundation of what had gone well lay in their communication with parents. Leanne Fridd, Vice Principal and Headteacher at SCS told us that “…listening to parent feedback has allowed us to adapt and modify our distance learning programme”. At sister school SBS, Principal Zara Harrington felt similarly, saying that “When we talk to our parents, we are not paying lip service to them…we digest, we reflect, review and then we react”.

All the teachers and leaders we spoke to for this feature had great empathy for the situation parents now find themselves in. Simply put, everyone agrees that this is the most difficult age group to transition from life at school to learning at home.

Christina Walker, Head of Primary at NASD told us that,
“…it’s important that everyone involved realises that we cannot replicate exactly what we offer at school. Most parents will acknowledge that they send their three and four year olds to school to experience collaboration, teamwork and to build their capacity for independence. In one fell swoop those things are gone and we have all had to adapt very fast”.

Getting online learning right for young children means supporting not only the little ones, but their parents too. Schools have had to manage parent expectations of what online school would look like for 3-5 year olds. Some parents had anticipated six hours of live learning delivered daily by the teachers. Practical? Well, no! An understandable question from two parents trying to work full time, at home? Yes, of course!

In response, the SBS team have made sure that all parents had a personalised one to one meeting with their child's teachers to work out how each family would juggle the needs of multiple children and the parents own work load. This responsive and thoughtful approach had been popular with parents.

For the teachers at NASD, supporting parents has meant creating as much one to one contact as possible with home. “Sometimes I say that we are speaking one to one with our three-year-olds, but of course that is not quite true! We contact Mummy and Daddy in order to support them and to work with the children. During these one on one sessions we engage in a variety of activities, for example; phonics, number work and core skills. We also balance this with small online group work”.

For SCS, offering parents support and guidance had made a significant difference. In particular, Ms Fridd felt that her team had been able to help parents with,

“...positive reinforcement, mark making and the importance of allowing the children to complete their learning independently”.

Whilst teachers at NASD realise that replicating the school day at home is difficult, their online provision for early years still reflects the school’s priorities in this vital phase of education.

“The wonderful thing about Early Years is that the teachers get to know their children so well.  The relationships are really strong.  If there’s one thing we are all incredibly thankful for is that this moment has come in Term 3. We know all of our children well and we can continue to follow their interests and unique ways of learning. We can plan to meet the needs of the all of the children”.

For all of the schools we spoke to, creating a system of online learning which offers a balance of live and pre-recorded sessions, while still allowing for plenty of time for choosing and self-led learning has been the ultimate goal. At SBS says its Principal, Mrs Harrington, a typical Foundation Stage day now includes “a live registration session and sing song, as well as pre-recorded lessons and small group live sessions which engage the children for longer". 

Mrs Walker at NASD tells us what we really know is true, but makes long distance, early year education such a challenge... "There’s just no blueprint for how this should go!

"If it helps, one thing I often say to parents is to take the child’s age and add five to work out how long they might be able to concentrate for. So if your child is four, you are doing really well to get nine minutes concentration out of them! Please don’t be too hard on yourself”.

The last piece in the puzzle is the working partnership between schools and parents. At SCS, the school leaders plan to continually reflect on their provision, and to survey parents for feedback at intervals. “We want to know where parents would like us to continue to develop and improve” Ms Fridd told WhichSchoolAdvisor.com.

There will be online learning challenges for parents of every age group of course, but for the very youngest children the deep rooted need to play, socialise and for constant variety and stimulation is extremely challenging. That said, there is a reason why many Early Years professionals refer to parents as children’s ‘first and most enduring educators’…that is because the depth of love, trust and connection you have with your child creates one of the very best spaces in which they can learn.  Even if it doesn't always feel that way!

We hope that all parents can conclude that what you are comfortably able to give your child at the moment will be enough. Some parents may seem to do and achieve more than you, but that is ok.  As ever, comparison is the thief of joy! Do not be afraid to lean on the expertise of the schools.  It is clear from those we have spoken to that they will welcome and act upon your questions, feedback and suggestions.

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