Navigating At-Home Learning for Teachers of Young Children

by Brenda Stein Dzaldov, PhD & Ariella Segal, MEd, BSW

The jump to online learning has been quick all across the world, which has created a steep learning curve for teachers shifting to online learning, and for students and caregivers who are navigating this new reality — the reality of emergency teaching and learning.

As educators during a global pandemic, our first thoughts were, “Are our students and their families okay?” This very stressful time necessitates the need to check in on mental health and ensure that students and families have their basic needs met before they can start focusing on learning.

As online learning ramped up just a few weeks ago, educators were faced with a wide range of technical challenges: How do we get our students learning? Do our students have reliable access to technology? How can we get students and caregivers online? Can I find resources that they can “click on” that will keep them learning and working on meaningful activities? What are the best ways to teach online?

As different schools and different Boards of Education began using different tools (eg. phone calls, Zoom, Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams, Learning Management Systems), educators started by contacting families and then sharing video links, free online learning spaces, and posted activities.  However, it quickly became apparent that assigning links, sharing vast amounts of content information, and hoping that the caregivers who are isolating with young children can support teaching and learning would require a new, more systematic approach.  These realizations guided the process: 

  • Parents and caregivers don’t have the knowledge, skills, and tools to step in as surrogate educators
  • Young children require a lot of step-by-step scaffolding in order to start the type of independent learning that is necessary in this new online learning environment

It takes years of training in pedagogy, content knowledge, psychology, and many other fields to become a teacher. Imagine if, suddenly, your accountant couldn’t support you in managing your investments and taxes anymore. Instead, you received a great link to a website that explained how to do these complex tasks, with the assumption that you could print and navigate the necessary forms and fill them out. We’re quite sure we wouldn’t suddenly be able to manage our investments and do our taxes with that type of information!

So, let’s take a step back. As teachers collect resources, check-in to see if students and families are okay, and share or post activities for students to complete (alone or with a caregiver), we need a lens for understanding this new reality from the perspectives of the learner, the caregiver, and the educator. Let’s widen our view and think about some big issues that need to be addressed so that online learning can start to be joyful and productive learning for our youngest students and their caregivers.

1) Navigating this new environment
Think about students entering the online environment in the same way as they would enter school on the first day.  Students need to find their classroom, figure out how to enter the room, where their belongings will be kept, where they will sit, and how to interact together in this classroom.  The same thinking needs to happen for this new virtual environment.

Spend some time orienting students and their caregivers to the new “classroom.” Teach students and their caregivers how to use any new technology or links and how to access resources that will regularly be shared with them, including worksheets, texts, and internet sites. Use step-by-step instruction or short videos to accomplish this.

Try to use familiar objects and replicate routines as often as possible in order to minimize disruption. In a virtual classroom, you could start each day with a familiar How Are You Feeling Today? chart. Whereas in their physical classroom, students might stick their names to the Emoji that best described their feelings for that day, in a virtual classroom, students would select and draw their Emoji for the day and then volunteer to share it with the class.

The consistency in a morning routine is an important anchor for students. This makes it clear that we are still there to learn together.

Example of “How Are You Feeling Today?” Chart and Activity.

(Creative Teaching Press, 2016)

2) Set up a home “learning station” with materials and resources

All young children need a learning station — a place where they sit down to learn online and where materials and resources are accessible to them. Caregivers will need help setting up this learning station, but once it’s set up, students will be able to work more independently. What will young children need in a learning station every day?

Create a short video tutorial to walk students through how to set up a home learning station. Provide a step-by-step checklist of all the “must-have” items that students could keep in their home learning station. Be flexible with expectations (eg. a bin for holding materials could be a tinfoil pan). Ask the children to send a picture of their learning stations as an exciting interaction. This approach empowers students to create their own home learning stations which makes necessary resources available while modelling how to do it in a fun, flexible way.

Must haves:

  • Alphabet chart to help with letter- sound recognition and letter formation
  • Number chart or number line to help with number recognition and number formation
  • Paper or cue cards for sight words
  • Pencils and erasers
  • Paper 
  • Colouring Tools (e.g. markers, coloured pencils, highlighters, crayons)
  • Scissors
  • Glue or tape

Nice to have:

  • Mini whiteboards and whiteboard markers
  • Magnetic letters or kinesthetic letters and numbers
  • A set of dice 
  • Sentence strips 
  • Access to a printer to print assigned sheets

3) Telling (or assigning) isn’t teaching 

As educators, we know that telling students to complete tasks or assigning activities is very different from teaching them.  Therefore, for every task we assign, we need to think about what is being taught, what is being learned, how the students will know they have been successful, what modelling will take place, how students will practice, and what the product will look like. (Stein Dzaldov, 2019).

Where possible, leverage additional technology capabilities to effectively model the work. Share your screen to walk through how to find the activity before asking students to attempt the work themselves.

4) Think about what elements of a lesson can be incorporated online

Just as teachers plan lessons for face-to-face teaching, designing a lesson for online learning will take some planning.  Let’s take the example of using a website with young children (eg.

Minds on: This site is called Raz-Kids, and you will have the opportunity to choose books that interest you and that you can read.

Learning goals: On this website, we are learning to find books that interest us and that we are able to read independently.

Success criteria:

  • I can choose an interesting book.
  • I can practice reading it. 
  • I can tell someone what it was about. 

Modelling: The teacher shares the website. The child watches or follows instructions as the teacher clicks on the link, navigates the website, thinks aloud about choosing a book, and practices reading it online. Then the teacher reflects on the reading (eg. “I chose a book that interested me, I could read it, and I know it was about different kinds of dogs.”).

Practice Time: The students are encouraged to do the activity alone or with a caregiver one time, and then to put together successes and questions they may still have.

Closure: What product do you expect from the child’s time on this website? Is it the amount of time spent? The number of tasks the child completed? Make sure the child and caregiver know what the expectations are and how accomplishments will be celebrated!

5) Share a simple lesson plan with parents or caregivers and incorporate prompts and question stems for parents and caregivers in your lesson outline

Use a different colour for prompts so that parents/caregivers will know what to access and how to support their child.  To make things as simple and easy as possible, hyperlink or attach all required resources directly into the lesson plan.

Sample of Lesson Plan

6) Assessment as learning is the most important assessment there will be right now

Although “assessment as learning” has often been viewed by educators of young children as a “nice to have” type of assessment, it is probably the most important type of assessment right now.  If students know what they are learning and what they need to know and be able to do to be successful, they can start to track their own learning.

Students need to be able to answer these questions when checking in on learning:

  • What am I learning about?
  • How will I know if I’ve been successful?
  • How did I do?

Lesson plans start with a learning goal, and a few succinct and specific success criteria that students can check off to self-assess their learning. To ensure that “Assessment as Learning” is achievable, it is crucial that the learning goals and success criteria are worded using level-appropriate language.

Sample of Lesson Plan with Success Criteria and Learning Goals

7) Check-ins are about mental health and LEARNING!

Many educators are being encouraged by their Boards to “check-in” with their students.  This is very important! Check-ins must start with care, kindness, and authentic concern about well being.

As well, as educators, we want to check in on learning.  Ask the child (or caregiver) to bring a product or artifact to the “meeting.”

Then, have a learning conversation as you praise the child authentically for their work:  

  • Tell me about this.
  • What did you learn?
  • Were you successful with this task?  How do you know?
  • You have done fantastic work on “X”!  

In this new teaching and learning environment, we will have challenges ahead, and we will continue adapting to make online schooling the best it can be for young students!  

Creative Teaching Press. (2016) How are You Feeling Today? Emoji Chart (5385). Retrieved at
Stein Dzaldov, B. (2019).  Inspiring Meaningful Learning:  Six steps to creating lessons that engage students in deep learning.  Pembroke Publishers. Markham.