The Distance Learning Toolbox Families Wish They Had
At this time last year, I never imagined my 6- and 8-year-old children would attend school virtually from their home. I never imagined that many families of young children would suddenly be thrust into collaborating with their child’s teacher in ways unheard of due to COVID-19.
Over the past six months, as a mom of young children and an educator, I’ve wondered about parents’ experiences coping with distance learning and the supports needed to successfully navigate learning from home. In my professional life I conduct qualitative research with a particular focus on promoting social-emotional and academic excellence among children of color and children living in poverty during the early years.
Throughout the pandemic, I have been reading articles and blogs about families and how they are coping. I decided to survey Black families (a group underrepresented in most of the accounts I read) and find out how they were doing and what they would find helpful for their children.
I sent a survey by email to 25 Black families primarily from the Washington, D.C. area, including Maryland and Virginia, as well as to a few families from California, and asked the following questions:
- Tell me about your experiences with distance learning during the Spring of 2020. What worked and what didn't work?
- If your child's school could provide a toolbox of materials that might help you support your child’s learning, what would you want included in the toolbox?
I then tallied the responses and looked for common themes among the families’ feedback. Overall, the majority of the families wanted to know how they could help their children continue to learn at home. Furthermore, families desired to learn strategies that would help make their home space conducive to learning.
This is a summary of the findings from the surveys, describing what families wanted and needed from their child’s school and teachers in order to support learning from home. I came to think of what they described as a Distance Learning Toolbox.
What is a Distance Learning Toolbox?
The Distance Learning Toolbox is a container filled with items that families can easily understand and manipulate. Let’s check it out:
Families described the need for a medium-sized box, bin, or a large ziplock bag, clearly labeled with each child’s name and with each child’s classroom schedule attached to the front or lid of the box. Families shared that the organization of materials was important and, ideally, the container would have a lid to ensure all materials stay safe. Think of this toolbox as a cubby or a locker, a place children can call their own. This will allow families to keep the materials safe and separate from those that belong to other children or family members. The container will help children feel a sense of ownership and responsibility toward the box and its materials.
Organization of the container
Each resource placed inside of the toolbox should be individually wrapped inside its own ziplock bag. For instance, if the toolbox includes a set of blocks, the blocks should be placed in a large ziplock bag labeled “BLOCKS.” Or if the toolbox includes cut-out shapes, label the ziplock bag, “CUT-OUT SHAPES FOR MATH.”
What’s inside the toolbox?
Inside a Distance Learning Toolbox, families would like to see:
- Headphones — Headphones or earbuds, when plugged into a computer or other digital device, allow the child to participate remotely with their class without disturbing other family members nearby. Many of the families surveyed shared that they did not know whether their child needed headphones, where to buy headphones, and which headphones to buy. If possible, the school should help with providing the desired headphones for each child or provide a picture of the specific headphones with links to places to buy the headphones.
- Laminated schedule — The school and the classroom teacher should provide a daily schedule for all families. Families asked for laminated easy-to-read schedules both on the outside of Toolbox container as well as an additional laminated schedule with a magnetic strip attached so they can place the schedule on their refrigerator. A digital schedule could also be provided in an email or by utilizing a family communication app such as Seesaw or Bloomz.
- Writing — In pre-K through third grade, children are expected to share their ideas and experiences through drawing and writing. Including materials inside of the toolbox that will assist with writing was another common suggestion. The families surveyed considered a white board and a dry erase marker, a journal, construction paper, pencils, a box of crayons, and a box of markers as necessary and helpful items.
- Language and literacy — Provide materials that support the development of oral and receptive language, as well as language arts. Many of our young children will be on the computer for longer periods of time than normal due to distance learning. Therefore, providing opportunities for children to talk to one another, share their experiences, and listen and discuss the read-alouds presented throughout the day will be invaluable. Ideally, the toolbox would include copies of the books that will be read during online meetings. Include quality diverse children’s books. There are many resources available for books that can be printed or ebooks families can easily access. If you choose to use the ebook route, make sure to provide the website URL and the steps to finding the required book. These books can be reread to the child by their families throughout the week. Families also requested a toy microphone or toy cell phone. These items promote engagement and oral language development. Place the toy microphone or cell phone inside a ziplock bag. If there are specific instructions for how and when the materials will be used, label the bag with them. Also, provide a laminated alphabet chart, laminated alphabet cards which show the letter and an associated picture, and at least one puppet. For book and story recommendations, check out readbrighly.com
- Math — During the early years, providing hands-on, concrete experiences in math is important. Incorporating math manipulatives within the toolbox helps families provide concrete experiences at home. The families surveyed asked for materials that support math and problem solving such as laminated play money, cut-out shapes, base 10 blocks, laminated number cards, and a laminated numbers chart. Remember that the items included in the toolbox should be developmentally appropriate. For example, a 100’s chart in pre-K might not be developmentally appropriate. In addition, teachers can create instructional videos using Flipgrid Shorts or Screentastic that show families how to appropriately use the items.
- Movement — Providing breaks throughout each class day is important for ensuring that young children have opportunities to move, which increases blood flow and exposes the brain to more oxygen. Materials that support and promote physical development and movement requested by families include shakers, scarves, laminated yoga cards showing basic yoga poses, and rubber ducks. (Students can place a rubber duck on their bellies during yoga and mindfulness activities. Check out the book Ducky Breathing by Gail Mulder.)
- Social and emotional — Finally, the absence of face-to-face interaction and the lack of opportunities to form friendships was a major concern expressed by the families who participated in the survey. Families want the school and the teacher to provide virtual opportunities for small group and peer-to-peer interactions where children can talk or play games with one another. In addition, the families wanted materials in the toolbox that support social and emotional learning. They suggested including laminated “How are you feeling?” charts, small fidget toys, and puppets (to discuss and share their feelings).
Additional Tools in the Toolbox
In addition to the tools mentioned, families desired the following:
A welcome letter
Families requested a welcome letter that included a picture of their child’s teacher. The welcome letter could also include a QR code that provides access to a welcome video created by the teacher. (Families can use a cell phone to scan the code and access the video. To create QR codes, try free resources such as QR-code-generator.com.)
A welcome video
The welcome video would describe the contents of the box and explain how families and children can use the materials. The video can also be used to share goals and developmentally appropriate expectations. For example, families might wonder if they should start teaching their kindergartener multiplication, or they might be feeling frustrated because their pre-kindergartener is not yet reading chapter books. The welcome video is an opportunity to explain the value of playful learning and how to build developmentally appropriate early literacy and math skills.
This tool can provide strategies and information that families can use to troubleshoot technology issues such as internet access. Share information about how to contact specialists for help with specific issues. An additional video could be created to provide instructions for using specific applications and answer the questions that often arise. (An app such as Flipgrid Shorts can be used to create how-to videos.)
Don’t forget to include reminders of how to use the tools inside of the box. Include information about how to care for the items, such as putting them back inside of their bags after they’ve been used.
As the time we spend learning in our homes increases, more families are starting to accept this new reality and they are ready for the challenge. School administrators and educators can partner with families by equipping them with the tools they need to ensure that all students have equal opportunities for learning.
Dr. Bweikia Steen is an Associate Professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. Her research interest includes promoting social/emotional and academic achievement for children of color and advocating for their families.