How the pandemic has disrupted early learning
When schools reopened to in-person learning this year, many students in early elementary grades arrived at the classroom door with limited or nontraditional early learning experiences. The pandemic coincided with a precipitous decline in preschool enrollment.1 While some early elementary students experienced enriching, play-filled learning activities that stimulated learning and development, this was not universally the case during the pandemic. This blog post shares practical resources that educators and families can use to support the development of academic and social and emotional skills in young learners as they transition to school.
Why this matters for early elementary students
The quality of early childhood experiences matters because, simply put, there is no "do over" in the development of a child. The quality of experiences in the formative early years of brain development significantly affect children’s cognitive function and behavior.2 Fewer in-person learning experiences means fewer opportunities for children to practice transitions and adapting to new routines. This impacts the whole child: their foundational academic and cognitive skills, their physical stamina for the school day, their mental health, and their social and emotional skills (such as managing emotions, persisting at a task, self-regulating, and interacting with peers).
What are the implications for early elementary educators?
To develop social and emotional skills, children need time and space to practice them with peers. However, the pandemic interrupted these early learning experiences for many children, making the early elementary classroom potentially their first opportunities to practice and learn. Now more than ever, educators would be wise not to make assumptions about what children know and can do when they enter the classroom. Instead, educators may consider creating opportunities for every child to practice and build school and life skills with caring support. There are three types of supports educators might use in class and share with families to help children build foundational skills necessary for transitioning to school: social and emotional skill supports, family engagement supports, and trauma supports.
Provide explicit instruction and support for social and emotional skills
Given the wide variety of early learning experiences, many children will likely need ongoing support learning how to "do school." While it may seem tedious, taking time to rehearse routines, procedures, and expected behaviors will save significant time in the long run. Most students will rise to meet clear expectations with opportunities for practice and support, saving the teacher from needing to constantly provide instructions and redirection. Teachers may consider explicitly modeling and teaching routines such as lining up and walking quietly in the hallways, raising hands to ask a question, getting out manipulatives or supplies for learning, cleaning up, negotiating turn-taking in center time, and even asking a friend to play. Beyond daily routines, students may need support for self-regulation (waiting to be called on), persistence in the face of challenge (managing frustration and sticking with a task that does not come easily), and managing complex emotions (handling anger with a classmate who knocks over their block tower). Educators can look for teachable moments—to name, describe, and constructively explore emotions through modeling, hold corrective conversations, and even point out when a character struggles or overcomes a challenge in read-alouds.
Social and emotional skill supports
The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) provides a number of free educator resources, available in English and Spanish, to support explicit social and emotional instruction:
This blog post, entitled "How can teachers build and enhance their students’ social-emotional skills?" highlights BEST in CLASS, a Tier 2 intervention, developed with funding from the Institute of Education Sciences, designed to address the needs of children from PreK–grade 3 who demonstrate persistent challenging behaviors in the classroom.
Equip families to integrate foundational skill-building into daily life
Parents, caregivers, and family members are children’s first and most important teachers, with the ability to directly impact their growth and development. When parents are equipped with resources to support learning and reinforce positive behaviors, students will have more opportunities to acquire and practice academic and social skills. In their efforts to support the whole child, educators can consider ways to equip family members with strategies that can be integrated into typical activities and routines at home.
Family engagement supports
Educators might share the following resources directly with families, or with individuals and community organizations with credibility and influence with families as they partner to support students’ transition to school:
Look for and respond to signs of trauma
There’s no easy way to say this. Some children have experienced—and continue to experience—trauma, whether caused by the pandemic or other factors. Well-documented traumas include, but are not limited to, the death of a loved one, significant financial stresses, hunger, homelessness, and abuse, and estimates of the frequency of these traumas have all increased due the pandemic.3, 4 Educators must acknowledge that for some students, proactive scaffolding and modeling alone is not enough. Educators are keenly aware of the need for both trauma-informed training and the support of specialized professionals such as mental health counselors and behavior interventionists. They should not hesitate to request or work with administrators to seek such supports.
To provide practical strategies and bolster educators’ and school leaders’ knowledge in this area, REL Appalachia offers:
The pandemic has created challenges for early learners, educators, caregivers, and family members alike. Educators have discussed challenges in school readiness for years, and the pandemic has added yet another layer of complexity. But be courageous and hopeful. Children are resilient and the educators, caregivers, and family members who care for them are resourceful and resolute. At a time when so much feels out of our control, we hope educators and other caring adults find these resources immediately useful to embrace their vital role in supporting young learners.
1 Sparks, S. D. (2021 Oct 25). Preschool enrollment has plunged: What that means for school readiness. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/preschool-enrollment-has-plunged-what-that-means-for-school-readiness/2021/10
2 Tierney, A. L., & Nelson, C. A., III. (2009). Brain development and the role of experience in the early years. Zero Three, 30(2), 9–13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3722610/
3 Abramson, A. (2022). Children’s mental health is in crisis. American Psychological Association 2022 Trends Report, 53(1) 69. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2022/01/special-childrens-mental-health
4 Jamieson, K. (2021, March 8). Pandemic trauma and schooling: Supporting kids in crisis. Center for Child Counseling. https://www.centerforchildcounseling.org/pandemic-trauma-and-schooling-supporting-kids-in-crisis/