There’s no question that teaching young children is a challenge right now. Whether classrooms are remote or in-person with physical distancing measures, it takes even more planning and creativity than usual to facilitate the kinds of hands-on, collaborative learning that are the hallmarks of high-quality early childhood education.

But teachers of young children are rising to the challenges and turning them into opportunities. One of the many strengths of early educators is the ability to catch curveballs —and the COVID-19 pandemic is one mighty curveball.

As we all scramble to build our professional knowledge and skills about teaching in the pandemic, early educators have a lot to share about helping students of all ages thrive.

As the editor of The Learning Professional and the host of Learning Forward’s recent early childhood webinars, I’ve been hearing from outstanding teachers and leaders about how they’re engaging young children and their families during this extraordinary time and the lessons they plan to apply even after the pandemic.

As a parent, I’ve had the privilege of virtually welcoming my kids’ teachers into our home and seeing those strategies in action. Watching these early educators is like seeing the finest triathletes conquer unknown terrain while playing musical instruments.

My Learning Forward colleagues and I hear often from our members and readers that the best professional learning comes from peers — teachers, coaches, facilitators, and designers like you — who are grappling with and succeeding at the challenges you’re facing.

In that spirit, I’m summarizing some of the insights and strategies early educators have been sharing with us. (You can find more information and resources from these experts’ webinar presentations here, here, and here.) Here are a few of the things we can all learn from and emulate, whether in our own practice or in the professional learning we facilitate with others.

Here are a few ways early educators are thriving during the pandemic. @SuzanneBouffard #EarlyEd Click To Tweet

Be responsive.

Relationships are the foundation on which all learning is built. That’s more challenging than usual this year, but it’s also more important than ever. That’s a theme we’ve been hearing from all of our featured experts. As Alycia Rinehart, an early childhood administrator from the New York City Department of Education, said, “We know that a relationship between a child and a responsive, caring adult can actually mitigate some of the trauma, grief, and loss that children are experiencing right now.”

That means it’s worth taking the time to do morning meetings, social time, and other relationship building, even if you’re worried about having condensed schedules with students. Tabatha Rosproy, a Kansas preschool teacher and the 2020 Teacher of the Year, advised taking even more time than usual to do the vital work of relationship building, especially at the beginning of the year or a new semester. That time will pay off tenfold in the long run, she and other experts believe.

Early educators have been sharing mountains of creative ways to build relationships, and those strategies can be helpful across ages. These strategies include everything from morning greetings, to regular one-on-one meetings with students and families, to creating ways for students to work and socialize in pairs or small groups, to inviting families to be part of daily activities like mindful moments and sharing special things from home.

Being responsive also means tuning in to new cues to determine when students are disengaged, stressed, or frustrated. Kristin Valdes, an early childhood coach from Teachstone, said, “We as educators need to be monitoring what’s happening in this crazy Hollywood Squares of a classroom.” That means looking for cues and patterns that students are feeling disconnected. She encourages teachers to recognize, for example, that “that one kid who’s having trouble engaging is probably not alone” and it may be time for a break.

The need for frequent breaks is a common theme of advice from early educators. Relatedly, they stress that it’s ok if some children need to get up and move around during a lesson, even if it’s not during a scheduled movement break.

Some teachers have advised paying more attention to the totality of a child’s engagement, rather than making sure the child is in front of the computer during every moment of live instruction. Many recommend using a blend of synchronous and asynchronous activities to limit screen fatigue and boost engagement.

In the early grades, we might forget the asynchronous part, worrying about whether children will do the work if we’re not right there. Conversely, in later grades, educators may forget to build in synchronous time, especially informal time for important social connections, in favor of asking students to demonstrate content mastery. But the balance is important at all ages. The strategies might be different, but the need for responsiveness is the same.

Engage families.

There’s a common saying in early childhood education that parents are children’s first teachers. Now, during the pandemic, parents and caretakers are children’s first and current teachers to a level they never expected, regardless of their children’s ages. Engaging parents is a core competency for early educators, often written into standards and a common topic for professional learning.

Unfortunately, as students get older, parent engagement becomes less common, research shows. But this year, engaging families is an urgent priority at all grade levels. In that way, pandemic teaching can be an opportunity, and early educators are leading the way.

Christina Armas, an early childhood English as a new language teacher in Queens, New York, wrote an article in Chalkbeat about how remote teaching has brought her closer to families than usual. In fact, when we polled webinar participants last month, 21% said they are finding it easier than usual to connect with parents. During one of our webinars, Armas talked about why she hopes the strong bond with families will continue and shared some of her strategies.

She started by listening to families’ concerns and helping them access resources and address basic needs. Then she used strategies such as meeting with parents at nonstandard times that work for them (such as late evening or early morning), explaining academic vocabulary to them (sometimes in a language other than English), and including them intentionally in learning activities, both synchronous and asynchronous. She says it was “really touching to see all of the parents show up for their children,” and she particularly appreciated seeing fathers more than she does in a typical year.

Tabatha Rosproy seconded the need to “meet families where they are at” and engage them in understanding the materials and activities. “We can’t just give them stuff and let them figure it out. Learning can happen anytime and anywhere, but if we have expectations of our students, we have to set them and their families up for success.” That starts with providing support for understanding the concepts and how to help students master them, “not just during the pandemic … but [as] something we can carry over into everyday life.”

Those are strategies that caregivers of older children need, too, while students are learning at home some or all of the time. In fact, this may be even more important for parents of older children because tweens and teens tend to share less information about school with their parents and may be more likely to be doing their remote learning in another room or a corner by themselves.

It’s vital to make sure that these connections with parents are more than newsletters and email blasts. Tunette Powell, interim director of the UCLA Center for Parent Empowerment, said that this type of outreach “allows us to share really good information, but it does not allow us to connect. The way you can think about connecting and including families is what you do in between the big events” and news blasts. Successful partnerships, she stressed, require a concession of power. That means educators have to learn from parents and with parents, not just try to teach them.

Experts have pointed out that being “in” a family’s home via video is both an opportunity and a privilege. It’s important to remember this, especially because it may be nerve-wracking for some families. As one of our webinar participants wrote in the chat box, “Always, always, always, thank the family for welcoming you into their home virtually!”

Model and build executive functioning.

Mounting research shows that there is a strong correlation between executive functioning and academic success. Executive functioning has been compared to air traffic control for the brain. A component of self-regulation, it refers to cognitive skills that allow us to set goals, make and implement plans, and organize our thoughts and actions.

Remote learning is a prime opportunity for building strong executive functioning skills. Students need to take responsibility for their schedules, navigate multiple aspects of technology, manage their time, work autonomously, and ask for help when needed. Another part of executive functioning is flexible thinking. Students need to know how to adapt to unexpected circumstances, integrate new information, and shift strategies when one isn’t working.

Early childhood is a window of enormous growth in executive functioning — but that growth continues throughout the school years (and it peaks again in late adolescence). One of early childhood educators’ main tasks therefore is helping young students build their independence — a task that’s even more important this year.

Abby Morales, an early childhood coach from the Boston Public Schools, said that it’s important to scaffold executive functioning skills. We often do this scaffolding in classrooms, she said, but it takes some adjustment to do it on screen. She recommended modeling, using concrete materials such as visual and auditory reminders, and giving prompts like, “Remember how we used that recording sheet yesterday to mark your observations? Go find that sheet, and tell me if you have questions about how to use it.”

Dominique McCain from the Commit Partnership, a coalition of equity-focused organizations in the Dallas-Fort Worth Texas area, said she is seeing that the autonomy this builds is helping some students thrive in a way they weren’t in the classroom. That may be because it gives some students more control over when and how they do their work, she suggested. It has also been especially helpful, she believes, for Black male students because “their behaviors aren’t being policed” the way they often are in classrooms.

Focus on progress. 

Over the past seven months, I have repeatedly heard educators stress the importance of progress over perfection. This is not a normal school year, and there are already signs that students will not be at the same level of mastery in some subjects as they would be in a typical year. That is concerning, but it doesn’t mean students are doomed or they aren’t progressing.

This is a time to focus on each student’s individual growth, experts say, and ensure students are progressing on a learning trajectory guided by rigorous curriculum. The key to overcoming the learning loss, Dominique McCain said, is that “we can’t get overly focused on ‘catching students up’ ” and doing remediation, but instead focus on “continuous rigorous engagement.”

This is a familiar concept to early educators, because it’s common for younger children to learn at different rates and master content at different times. It’s natural for a class of 1st graders to be reading at different levels, for example. For older students, the notion of a learning trajectory is still important. When learning new skills, some students will master it quickly and can work on it autonomously or support peers, while others will need additional support from the teacher — perhaps more so in an online environment.

Furthermore, at all grade levels, understanding where students have been, where they are now, and where they are going is important for anchoring content and instructional strategies at a time when students may be feeling that school is disjointed and the risk of learning loss is high.

Foster creativity.

“Distance learning has made all of us innovators,” said Cece Doyle, early learning coordinator for South Washington County Public Schools in Minnesota. She and other early educators are finding ways to tweak and supplement usual strategies to make them work in this unusual year.

For example, Michelle Elia, a literacy lead trainer from the Ohio Department of Education, said she’s using a document camera to show students how to write and break words into syllables because she can’t sit right next to them to demonstrate.

Abby Morales from Boston Public Schools and Alycia Rinehart from the NYC Department of Education talked about the partnerships they’ve developed with local public television stations to make learning accessible and fun for children at home.

Kristin Valdes from Teachstone pointed out that we can choose to view remote learning as an opportunity for creativity instead of just a liability. She demonstrated this by grabbing a bird puppet and changing her virtual background to a nature scene to show how to draw learners into a story in ways that aren’t possible in the traditional classroom.

Creativity is prized in early childhood classrooms. But it is valuable well beyond the early years. Increasing structure and demands like standardized testing might make it appear to be harder to be creative and flexible in later grades, but that doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, creativity seems to be popping up all over, from Bitmoji classrooms, to modified classroom jobs that include “joke teller” and “obscure holiday celebrator,” to student projects that leverage video editing software.

Finding inspiration to thrive

These are just a few of the ways early educators are thriving during the pandemic. These strategies are connected by an invisible but strong thread — a willingness to look for silver linings and seize opportunities. Early educators tend to be good at seeing the positive — the humor, delight, growth — even while acknowledging the difficulties. That’s how they tie all those shoes, pronounce all those vowels, and find endlessly ingenious ways to pique students’ curiosity and engage them in complex concepts.

The overarching messages we’ve been hearing from early educators are realistic but optimistic: Acknowledge the barriers but don’t get overwhelmed by them. Celebrate small successes even as you stay keenly attuned to learning loss. Communicate high expectations and empathy at the same time. And we at Learning Forward would add one of our own: Keep learning from each other, and cast your net as wide as you can. You can find inspiration in your early childhood colleagues. Where else will you find it?