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Three ways early childhood educators can support young children and their caregivers during the COVID-19 health crisis

Three ways to support young learners during COVID-19

By Aleksandra Holod
May 13, 2020

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest is featuring a blog series providing strategies and resources for remote learning. In this blog post, we focus on the unique needs of young learners and their caregivers. For more evidence-based resources and guidance on supporting students during the pandemic, see the REL Program’s COVID-19 resources page.

The science of child development tells us that young children learn best through hands-on activities and interactions with caring, attentive adults (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2018). But with many schools closed due to COVID-19, such learning experiences can be difficult for educators to provide. These three strategies, which draw on research and child development principles, can help early childhood educators support young learners and their caregivers during these unprecedented times.

Start by addressing the basic needs of children and their families

Before children can learn, adults need to meet their basic needs, such as access to food and a safe and healthy environment (Wininger & Norman, 2010). Schools and other early learning providers can help young children and their families address basic needs by sharing information about assistance programs, such as food banks, mortgage and rent relief, utilities assistance, and unemployment insurance.


Teachers, counselors, and school social workers can help caregivers understand what it means to provide a safe and secure environment for young children and the importance of doing so.

Educators can help caregivers:

  • Provide age-appropriate answers to children’s questions about COVID-19, including why their school has closed and what they can expect looking ahead.
  • Discuss difficult topics, such as illness, death, and job loss, with young children in an intentional manner. Encourage caregivers to avoid exposing young children to news reports and adult conversations that are not child-appropriate and that may feed children’s anxiety and fear.
  • Create a safe, supportive, and engaging space for young children to learn at home.
  • Establish a daily routine for young children to provide structure. Children should wake up, get dressed, eat meals, and go to sleep at the same time each day. When possible, caregivers should maintain the same household rules and behavioral expectations as before the health crisis.

Focus on remote learning, not online learning

Educating young children online can be particularly challenging during this time. Caregivers, suddenly faced with supervising their children full-time, may struggle to check email or attend online sessions with teachers. Some caregivers may lack the needed technology to get online at home. In addition, many young children may not be able to engage with others online in any sustained and meaningful way. Historically, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recommended limiting screen time for 2- to 5-year-olds to one hour per day (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2016). Although the AAP has recently loosened this recommendation, limits on young children’s screen time are still important (Cross, 2020) and should be balanced with time offline for reading, play, and connecting with family.

So how can teachers support young children’s learning during this time of social distancing? One recommendation is to focus on remote learning rather than online learning. Instead of trying to teach students online, equip caregivers with simple evidence-based activities they can use at home to advance young children’s learning in early language, literacy, and mathematics.

Here are some things educators can do to equip caregivers:

  • Provide packets of hands-on learning activities. Include instructions and, when possible, distribute the packets by mail or for pickup or delivery, as opposed to email. Doing so will allow for the inclusion of physical materials, such as activity cards, markers, stickers, and colored paper, and serve families who do not have access to home printers. Follow up to ensure caregivers received the packets and to answer questions and provide encouragement.
  • Reach out to caregivers via phone and text. Don’t assume they will have regular access to email or time to read lengthy messages.
  • Keep interactive video sessions brief and focused on connecting with others and maintaining relationships. To determine how long to engage young learners in remote activities, consider the content, context, and children’s individual needs (Guernsey, 2012).
  • Provide parenting resources on managing children’s behavior during a traumatic time.
  • For evidence-based family and caregiver activities for early learners, see the “Early childhood” section of the REL COVID-19 resources. The page is being updated regularly. See also REL Midwest’s video on play-based learning activities for kindergarten.
  • For developmentally appropriate ways to use technology and media with young children, see REL Central’s COVID-19 resources memo [187 KB PDF icon ].
  • To help caregivers manage young children’s behaviors, see these tip sheets on coping with COVID-19, produced by the research-based Incredible Years parenting program, as well as strategies from the National Association for the Education of Young Children for supporting children dealing with trauma.
  • Help caregivers cope and manage anxiety and stress during this challenging time with these tips from the CDC.

Encourage reading and math activities at home

In addition to providing resources, early childhood educators can support caregivers in engaging their young children in a variety of age-appropriate early language, literacy, and math activities at home.

Early language and literacy. Teachers can play an important role by letting caregivers know that how young children read is just as important as how much they read. To build children’s vocabulary, print knowledge, and comprehension, caregivers can engage their children in conversation about books before, during, and after reading together. To build vocabulary and language skills, caregivers can ask children to participate in a story by predicting what will happen next, answering questions about the storyline and pictures, relating the story to their own experiences, and recalling the story after it ends.

Children’s knowledge of letter and word sounds, known as phonological and phonemic awareness, are foundational literacy skills for young children. Encourage caregivers to promote these skills by breaking words into syllables and stretching and connecting the sounds in words. Nursery rhymes, simple poems, and word play are ways to increase children’s awareness of the sounds of language.

Caregivers can support early writing skills by focusing on printed language during story time and practicing writing with their children at home. To foster young children’s interest in writing, caregivers can take dictation—for example, by writing children’s descriptions on the pictures they draw.


Early mathematics. Research shows that children’s math knowledge follows specific learning trajectories [3,805 KB PDF icon ] (Frye et al., 2013). For young children, key areas of math development [3,805 KB PDF icon ] include numbers and operations, geometry, pattern, measurement, and data analysis. To support caregivers, teachers can identify where children are in their math development and provide appropriate math activities that use common household objects [474 KB PDF icon ]. To help young children practice early math skills, teachers can encourage caregivers to incorporate simple games and conversations about math into everyday routines [272 KB PDF icon ], such as cooking, setting the table, sorting laundry, and playing with toys of different shapes and sizes.


For more information

REL Midwest is one of 10 RELs that serve designated regions of the country and work with educators and policymakers to support a more evidence-based education system. In response to COVID-19, the RELs are providing evidence-based resources on remote teaching and learning as well as other relevant topics, such as equitable access and social-emotional needs. Browse the collection.


American Academy of Pediatrics, Council on Communications and Media. (2016). Media and young minds. Pediatrics, 138(5):e20162591. Retrieved from

Cross, C. (2002, April 20). Working and Learning from home during the COVID-19 outbreak. American Academy of Pediatrics.

Frye, D., Baroody, A. J., Burchinal, M., Carver, S. M., Jordan, N. C., & McDowell, J. (2013). Teaching math to young children: A practice guide (NCEE 2014-4005). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from

Guernsey, L. (2012) Screen time: How electronic media—from baby videos to educational software—affects your young child. New York, NY: Basic Books.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Head Start, National Center on Parent, Family, and Community Engagement. (2018). Head Start parent, family, and community engagement framework. [712 KB PDF icon ]

Wininger, S. R., & Norman, A. D. (2010). Assessing coverage of Maslow’s theory in educational psychology textbooks: A content analysis. Teaching Educational Psychology, 6(1), 33–48.

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Author Information

Aleksandra Holod Staff Picture

Aleksandra Holod

Senior Researcher | REL Midwest


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