How Can I Best Engage Young Students in Virtual Learning?

October 16, 2020 Rebecca Delaney

An elementary school student waiving to her classmates in a virtual class.

Teachers around the globe bemoaned virtual learning when schools were forced to close in the spring of 2020 due to the spread of COVID-19. Navigating new technology, staying connected with families, and keeping students engaged presented daily challenges to teachers—especially those in early education and elementary school whose students can have a difficult time staying focused on a Zoom call.

During UC20, Blackbaud's virtual conference, three experienced teachers from Metairie Park Country Day School (MPCDS) in Louisiana presented their best practices for keeping students and their families engaged during distance or hybrid learning.

Send parents to your classroom page early and often.

Early education teacher Elaine Montgomery encouraged teachers to drive parents to their classroom pages as soon as possible to set the expectation that they will need to access the site for critical updates and lessons. Montgomery, who teaches a class of three- to four-year-old students, started the school year by posting photos and updates on the class page to engage families right off the bat. When the pandemic hit, families were already accustomed to visiting the class page in Blackbaud Learning Management System.  

“We didn’t mean for this to happen, but that was a huge advantage for parents and teachers. When we did have to move to virtual teaching, our parents were comfortable with the platform and they knew how to find the lessons,” she said.

Montgomery's advice is a good reminder for schools currently conducting in-class learning that anything can happen and it's best to prepare ahead. To drive engagement, Montgomery suggests, “photos, videos, and more photos are key.” And if you want to check on which parents are logging in, you can go to Core > Analysis > Reports > User Management and run the "User Logins" report. For those families who aren’t visiting your site, a gentle reminder may be in order.

Consistency is key: Place lessons and learning resources in the same place.

To keep it easy for families, Montgomery and her fellow early education teachers post everything on the class page's Bulletin Board tab so parents have one convenient spot to find lessons. When Montgomery and her co-teacher update the page with a new lesson, they use the message feature to let families know it's posted, where it’s located, and what’s included.

The teachers typically upload lessons as a PDF so it’s easy for parents to download. Allie Mayer, another three- to four-year-old classroom teacher at MPCDS, encourages teachers to also use video. “Videos are more inviting and less intimidating,” she said. “You can also explain the benefits of certain activities to parents while you’re demonstrating the lesson.”

For the older students who are studying various subjects, Chelsey Hartsough, a K–2 teacher at MPCDS, created a grid with her teaching team. They update the grid once a week with the lessons for that particular week in Math, Science, History, Reading, and specials such as foreign language, art, or music. This grid is always on the class page under Downloads so families know exactly where to find their children’s work for the week.

Have fun! And make time for social-emotional check-ins.

As a teacher of young children, you probably already aren’t afraid to break out some props and get silly every once in a while to engage your students. But in virtual learning teachers often have to take it up a notch to get through to children on the other side of a computer screen. The MPCDS teachers incorporated weekly themes into their lesson plans, such as an author spotlight on Eric Carle. Students sent photos of themselves with Carle’s books and made paper hats based on his books. For a lesson on ancient Egypt, K–2 teacher Hartsough dressed up as Lotus, an imaginary Egyptian character who discussed amulets with the students.

All three teachers make sure to schedule time for small group activities to have more opportunities to connect with their students on a personal level and check in on their social and emotional wellbeing during a difficult and stressful time. These small group activities included show-and-tell, storytime, or games such as Bingo. “It was the highlight of my week because I could see them and interact with them,” said Hartsough.

For more advice, watch the recording of their UC20 presentation, Virtual Classroom Tips for Early Childhood and Elementary School Students.

About the Author

Rebecca Delaney

Rebecca Delaney is a writer and editor based outside of Boston. She has worked in marketing and communications for independent schools and higher ed for several years. She graduated from the College of the Holy Cross and Northwestern's Medill School.

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