Caring for students and self as an early childhood educator during social distancing

Educators and advocates Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Kisha Reid share their insight for educators.

All educators are facing a strange and difficult moment right now, but it’s especially challenging for early childhood educators. After all, early education is an entirely social experience! We’re thrilled that educators and advocates Kisha Reid and Nancy Carlsson-Paige joined the Children’s Screen Time Action Network to discuss the challenges and opportunities of this moment for teachers of young children.

To hear their conversation and all of their wonderful suggestions, you can – and should! – watch the whole webinar here. But for those with less time, we offer the key takeaways, as well as a list of activities suggested by the creative, passionate early childhood educators in the webinar’s chat.


This is an opportunity to connect with children and their families in new ways.

Kisha points out that this crisis allows early childhood teachers to see students in their full contexts: “I’m now in their homes!” Though not being with students in person is difficult, it offers an opportunity to really engage with kids exactly where they are. When she video chats with students, Kisha often asks them to show her their favorite things in the house, to talk about pets or parents, or to otherwise share about what their daily lives look like.

This is also an opportunity to strengthen your partnerships with parents. Like with her students, Kisha talks to parents about what’s going on in the home. “It’s very emotional to hear what kids and families are doing,” she says. Whether it’s camping in the yard, cooking dinner together, going on bike rides, or doing other hands-on activities, lots of families are engaging in the kind of relationship-based play and exploration that kids need, and it can be powerful to celebrate and encourage them. You can also give parents Defending the Early Year’s guide to supporting young children during COVID19, which offers suggestions and guidance for families as they navigate this tricky time.


Use technology to scaffold children’s needs.

When it comes to using screen-based technologies like video chat, Nancy says it’s all about connection: “If the choice is no connection or connection on the screen, I’m taking the screen!” To support kids without keeping them stuck on screens, Kisha says to reflect on what kids need that you can offer: normalcy, familiarity, structure, connection, and relationships. Focus on quality over quantity, and keep video use engaging and interactive, with lots of activities that put the focus on where the child is in context (like asking them to show you their favorite toy or book). This kind of engaging interaction is different than passive consumption of screens, says Kisha, because it’s an authentic experience rooted in children’s real lives: a familiar face, a warm voice, and a continuation of what children already know.

Some kids, especially those with special needs, might need more individualized attention or support. In the cases of students who would typically work with an aid or paraprofessional, both Kisha and Nancy acknowledge that this is an extremely difficult moment. “It’s hard, and it’s going to be even harder, and parents need a break,” says Nancy. Professionals who work with special needs students can offer additional support by creating videos for parents that teach basic interventions or protocols, “dropping in” on video chat during a period where kids need a little more attention, or directly training parents on some typical interventions.


Be flexible with families.

As you’re planning your activities and connecting with families, Kisha says it’s important to remember that right now, every family might need something different. For instance, she records a daily read aloud video each morning, and her students’ families can use them at moments that make sense for them: some families watch them right away, some play them for kids in the evening, and some may not use them at all. Along those lines, many early childhood educators are holding “morning meetings” with their whole classes on video chat. Things like that are great, but keep them an option, not an obligation: some families simply won’t be able to join! Think about ways to reach those students too: if a family doesn’t have, or doesn’t want to use, video chat technology, think about other ways to connect, like phone calls or letters in the mail.


Help families know (or remember!) that play = learning.

“This moment gets to the heart of who we are as early childhood professionals,” says Nancy. “You have something valuable to offer. This is a door opening to talk about the role and value of play in development and learning.”

As Kisha points out, lots of parents are already doing the kinds of hands-on activities that are so good for kids, and can do even more with some encouragement. She suggests making “play packets,” especially for parents who are concerned with academics and are seeking worksheets or other “learning” activities. Play packets like these from TRUCE can encourage parents to scaffold kids’ play and help them see the connection between playing and learning. One especially powerful suggestion was to offer parents the idea of building a “YES space” in their home: a space that’s safe for kids – outlets covered, no sharp corners, nothing that could fall over, and so on – and filled with open-ended play objects from around the house, like Tupperware covers, pillows, blankets, boxes, dress up clothes, or anything else.


If families are asking for more than you can offer, keep in mind that what they might really need is connection.

Families are carrying a lot of anxiety right now, and early childhood professionals might feel some of that in the form of requests for extra time, educational materials, or other requests that you simply don’t have the resources to give them. In these cases, says Kisha, keep in mind that what they really may be reaching for is connection, and suggest activities that keep kids connected to their families, their classmates, and their teachers.

Play packets are a great tool here, as well. You can fill your packet with suggestions for non-screen activities that help kids learn and play on their own but keep them connected to their communities: writing letters or drawing pictures to put in the mail; going on a bear scavenger hunt; writing chalk messages for other kids in the neighborhood; creating photo boxes with pictures of loved ones; and encouraging extended activities (like drawing pictures of a time a child went to the park with their friends) are all great options.


Your community has your back!

The Early Childhood Educators on our webinar offered a ton of incredible ideas and suggestions for scaffolding and supporting kids in quarantine. If you’re finding yourself stuck, unsure, or just overwhelmed, seek out your own community and see what they’re up to – if our webinar audience is any indication, it’s probably a lot! Here are some of our favorite suggestions from the educators who joined us for this conversation:

  • Patricia D.’s school is sending out a weekly plan for kindergarteners that include some tech-based lessons as well as a 5-day non-screen plan for parents. One particularly cool activity she suggests is to “take a walk and look at the trees, then draw a picture of what it looks like. Do that every week so you watch how it blossoms over time.”
  • Participants offered a wide variety of activities for kids while they practice social distancing, including making pictures and letters for grocery workers and garbage collectors, drawing zig-zag lines with chalk for children to jump on, and creating a “Vacation Box” that kids can decorate and fill with memories of a family adventure.
  • Several attendees described how their neighbors have organized rainbow hunts and teddy bear hunts to sustain a sense of community while providing some fun for kids. Jen V.’s neighborhood is hosting a socially-distanced Easter egg hunt, “where everyone will draw a egg on their sidewalk and the kids will go around and find all the eggs!”
  • Parents can easily incorporate learning into a daily walk by counting street signs or observing nature. Some of Amy L.’s students are searching for specific letters and numbers on license plates.
  • Bonnie S. noted that at her school, teachers have been including resources for their students in the food distribution packages they’ve organized. “Parents drive to the school at a certain time during the week and they text a number and the volunteers put materials in their trunk.” Bonnie also shared these guides in English and Spanish for supporting early learning.
  • Many participants shared their tips for video chatting safely with students, including using password-protected video chat rooms, enabling waiting rooms where hosts have to allow each participant in, limiting screen-sharing capabilities, and requiring parents to be present for any video chats.
  • To maintain a sense of connection with their students, Joanna L. sent letters with a small activity and Nicole H. started pen pal programs for her class. Says Nicole, “they love getting mail!” And in Lauren M.’s class, her students virtually celebrated a classmate’s birthday!
This resource is part of our series on navigating social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic:

Action Network Live! is a project of CCFC’s Children’s Screen Time Action Network, and brings together experts, parents, and caregivers to talk about critical issues around kids and technology. Learn more about joining the Network, or sign up for our email list to be notified about upcoming events!