Early learning students, such as kindergarteners, preschoolers and grade 01 children are usually overflowing with enthusiasm, curiosity, eager to create friends and brimming with playfulness. This is the age group where they learn to enhance skills and personal attributes rather than study facts, figures and theories. The pandemic has made an adverse effect on the development of this age group. This foundation age is when children grasp the most important basic levels of education that plays centre stage in their future academic development. For parents, this is with no doubt the most challenging period having to transition their children from a busy noisy classroom to secluded solitary home surroundings.
The pandemic has brought forward many new norms and virtual classrooms have become an essential part of social structure and have evolved into the new norm. The continuous question that parents go through is "how do we make this work?" To explore this new norm and its challenges we spoke to a few parents and educational bodies to learn more about how they adapt and these individuals, to no surprise agreed that early learners are the most difficult age group to adopt this change from school to learning at home.
Since early education in schools is conducted in a child-led playful manner, how do parents and teachers together keep the joy and excitement when the class moves online, remains unanswered. Mifla Namaz is a mother of 5 children and running a home business, "my children are from the ages of 3-12 years. I am a tutor and run a home business. Handling virtual classes with 5 kids and running a home business is not an easy task. I must constantly make sure that one child's class doesn't distract the other sibling's class. Getting prepared from the previous night with devices, zoom links, and attending to my nursery child's worksheets, colours and paint amidst home chores is a battle. In my house there are 2 laptops and 3 tabs used every day and I have to attend to each child whenever a network disruption happens. I have to be with my nursery child's class throughout and making her sit until the end is really hard."
While frozen laptops, slow phone screens and tech issues become the new norm, there lies another segment dealing with different sets of issues. The children of working parents are found to be at a greater disadvantage when it comes to virtual learning. Here's why, "as a working mother, devices such as laptops and smart phones will be taken with us to work and kids will not have access to online classes. Adding to this, not all children like online classes and they get bored. Without the physical interaction, children don't learn effectively by watching a screen. The self discipline of children will also gradually decrease," says Dhanya Seneviratne.
While frozen laptops, slow phone screens and tech issues become the new norm, there lies another segment dealing with different sets of issues. The children of working parents are found to be at a greater disadvantage when it comes to virtual learning
Further adding to the challenges, single parents already have it tough due to the lack of two incomes and a support body for childcare and sharing household responsibilities. For Shakya Nawaratne the days get more stressful and overwhelming. Shakya confirms this fact, "I find this online learning absolutely absurd. It's my mother who has to help her with online classes and it's hard enough having to teach her how to use zoom. My child has missed several online classes and catching up takes a toll. It gets really frustrating when they try to mainstream online learning with no regards for working moms." One can only assume that single working parents, were a forgotten factor when planning for online classes and is a common challenge faced by such parents all over the world.
Muting and unmuting conversations during a typical online class has become customary. This muting function is quite helpful to minimise the amount of background noises that can be heard in a child's home. This however may not always be the case, if the parent is a mother and a teacher herself. In the case of Tivani Anandappa, who is a teacher and mother, it's a choice between attending to her own children's education or attending to educate her students. "I'm a teacher of a leading International School and currently working from home due to the pandemic. It is very difficult to monitor my children (ages 5&6) in their online classes as I have my own students and lessons to conduct online. The days I have to report to work, there is no one to assist my kids in their classes and the result is work getting accumulated. I am against online learning as we are electronically feeding information to kids and there's no cognitive development which should be the case," says Tivani.
While it is a no brainer that replicating a physical school day at home is not practical, schools have had to manage parents' expectations of what a virtual class would consist for 3-5 year olds. Stay at home mother, Natasha Fernando says that "I have 5 & 10 year old kids. My biggest concern is with my youngest child as I feel that an insufficient amount is work done through these online lessons. Previously online lessons were done all 5 days with play time and study time but now it's reduced to 3 days a week with 01 hour duration. These lessons are done very briefly, sometimes with one example and expects us parents to do the rest. This is difficult as we are not aware of new teaching methods. It is difficult to teach them and due to this children too get frustrated when studying. I’m aware that teachers will have issues on their part as well. I only hope that teachers would make use of the new facilites such as data packages and take necessary actions as my fear is that children in this age group lack basic knowledge that’s needed to develop in these young ages."
In similar agreement to the above, Fathima Zameena Rumzee further confirms the inadequate work done, "my daughter was in Grade 1 in 2020 when the pandemic hit and she only went one month to physical school for the whole year. The school didn’t have any online sessions, instead the school sends nearly 80 worksheets and we have to print them and make the child do it. With house chores this task is impossible. Subjects like ENV are sent as a whole lesson and we parents have to explain and work with them." When there are new teaching methods in practice, parents are left confused and overwhelmed with workloads.
We spoke to Fazra Irfan, Central Manager at Footsteps Preschool Dehiwala on the support of parents or guardians and the relationships built with young minds; "it is an overwhelming task to have preschoolers stay focused throughout their lessons. Early years' education includes relationship building, and it’s impossible to develop these relationships over an online platform. Children are social creatures and need face to face interactions with teachers and other classmates in order to build their confidence. Children who interact well tend to be happier, show greater motivation to learn, have a more positive attitude towards school and eagerly participate in class activities."
While educational bodies realise that recreating a typical school day at home, their online services for these early learners are proven priority in this phase of development and current pandemic situation. "A virtual classroom will never replace the love, the laughs and the positive interactions. The overuse of screen time can have adverse impacts on young brains and eyes. Unlike in a physical classroom in virtual learning, students have to wait for feedbacks which demotivates their enthusiasm, and in many occasions the parents are found to have completed the task," states Fazra.
There simply is no solid blueprint of how online learning has to go. However when speaking with educational bodies, the Principal of Lakeland Inter-American School- Ms. Inakshi Samarawickrema tells us "for online sessions conducted by the school, the necessary requirements are informed in advance to the parents. Our Nursery and Primary students are now familiar with the online system introduced by the school from last March. 2021 is an equally challenging start. Grade 01 students begin their first step in writing sentences in this grade. They need time to complete their work with the help of their teacher. Slow learners too should be given additional time which isn’t practical during online sessions as there is a limited time period given for each class. During sessions, teachers get disturbed due to parent’s behaviour as some parents take this opportunity to feed their child or have their personal conversations. Students feel shy to perform in the class in the presence of their parent or siblings. However, discipline becomes an essential need when conducting online classes and we are not hesitant to suspend students who do not follow our guidelines."
There is and will be multiple online learning challenges for each age group of children, however it is for the youngest children the fundamental need to play, socialise and to be stimulated is a great challenge. Ms Inakshi further states that, "a child of nursery or primary needs to experience classroom environment where he/she meets the teacher and friends.
The child is supported and guided by the teacher giving them a good control of pencil, crayons and scissors. They will be introduced to basic motor skills. They will learn to share and take responsibilities, will involve in outdoor activities, will leans to socialise with people, will follow a healthy meal chart and will enter into a broader peer context. Classroom exposure does wonders in a child’s school life where he/ she is trained to work to a time table. Without allowing them to spend their time on hand held screens, we need to find a way to give them verbal based learning to avoid speech delays and delays in their active lives with visual based learning."
The final stop in this dilemma is our conversation with the Principal of Wesley College, Avanka Fernando, whose main focus and concern is about the primary education. "I strongly believe that the foundation received at an early age lasts lifelong. It is a pity that the current situation cannot pave way for a child to enjoy the sensorial education which is vital. Learning through experience such as touching, seeing and hearing is the cornerstone for a solid foundation."
Adding to the above, Avanka Fernando gained more unanswered questions as a responsible education body. "Can all afford the facility? Isn’t it unfair for the students who do not have the facility? Can the parents afford to buy devices if they have lost their jobs or their remuneration is reduced due to the current situation? Won’t this lead children to become addicted to mobiles, laptops and other devices at a very young age? What are the side effects of using devices? I was left in a position to find solution for the above questions so that an equal facility is provided for all students."
Not everyone has the facility or the leverage for such facilities, nevertheless as parents what we need to reassure yourselves is that during these tough times we need to be resilient and act with positivity.