Education in quarantine: what can we learn from early childhood educators in China?

 

Jie Gao and Clare Brooks.

While we are marching towards the third week of lockdown in the UK, Chinese early childhood practitioners are busy preparing for the re-opening of kindergartens after more than two months of quarantine. We asked some of them to share their experiences and lessons learnt during quarantine. We also sought out articles written by Chinese Early Years experts for supporting practitioners and parents in such an unprecedented situation. Their advice is underlined.

Acknowledge the challenges

At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, Chinese schools were on holiday for the Spring Festival. When the country went into lockdown, the school starting date was postponed indefinitely. Just like in other places around the world, Chinese kindergarten teachers had to support parents in educating and caring for young children at home.

For Chinese early years teachers this involved new responsibilities, including:

  • daily checking in with parents to collate information regarding their children’s health for reporting to government oversight,
  • disseminating information about coronavirus and measures to prevent infection,
  • making videos and online materials for children to engage at home,
  • and communicating with parents to offer guidance and support.

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Their advice is that the first step to rise up to the challenges is to recognise and acknowledge the various difficulties that everyone is facing.

Prof. Xiumin Hong, a leading Early Years expert at Beijing Normal University, advised that kindergarten teachers should work in teams, share responsibilities and resources, and support each other to accomplish tasks [China National Society of Early Childhood Education (NSECE) 2020]. In many Chinese kindergartens, teachers have been taking turns to make video clips of story-telling, indoor play activities, parent-child interactive games and even child-friendly cooking activities to send to parents regularly. The sense of working together despite physical distance has never been more important.

Prof. Hong also emphasised that headteachers and leaders of settings should be thoughtful and considerate about teachers’ workload, as well as providing practitioners with necessary training and mental health support. It is also important for parents to understand the challenges that kindergarten teachers are facing and express appreciation for their hard work. Teachers of Beijing Normal University Kindergarten shared positive feedback and warm messages they received from parents, which has boosted staff morale and motivation during this very demanding time.

Opportunity to promote teacher-parent collaboration

Challenges also bring about opportunities. Prof. Yunyan Liu at Southwest University pointed out that the lockdown period can be a valuable opportunity to promote teacher-parent collaboration and enhance parents’ engagement in children’s education (CNSECE, 2020).

As parents are forced to home-educate children, they are in desperate need of guidance and support. The daily communication between parents and kindergarten teachers is a rare opportunity to deepen mutual understanding and strengthen teacher-parent relationship.

Chinese kindergarten teachers have been creating and sharing a great many of online resources for parents, including guidance on setting up daily routines and caring for children’s physical and mental health, suggestions of self-care for parents, play activities for children’s learning and so on. Some activities are designed to encourage parent-child interaction whereas others are designed to solely engage children so that parents can have some free time on their own.

Parents are encouraged to regularly share children’s performance with kindergarten teachers, who also provide tailored support to parents whose children have special needs.

Kindergarten teachers have reported some enhanced partnerships with parents in educating and caring for young children. Dr. Chily Song, a practitioner leader in Shenzhen, said that many of their parents had gained a better understanding of learning through play as they observed their children’s development in parent-child play activities.

Making the most of online tools

All the Chinese ECEC practitioners whom we talked to have highlighted the use of online platforms and mobile Apps (e.g., Wechat) to support parents and young children. They see it as a trend for the future. Many teachers experienced difficulties in using online tools as well as adjusting their teaching at the beginning. “There is a learning curve”, they said. But once they got used to the new way of teaching, they started finding out the various advantages that technology has to offer.

Dr. Heyi Zhang at Beijing Normal University pointed out that we should be careful not to let the use of online tools cause extra stress on parents and early childhood practitioners. The online communication and information sharing should be based on actual needs, to avoid being overwhelming or intrusive. Although technology enables us to reach each other at any time anywhere, it is important for us to have ‘off-line’ time during lockdown.

The skills of using online tools wisely to create teaching materials and effectively interact with children and parents are valuable assets and also an important aspect of continuous professional development for practitioners. The quarantine time has pushed Chinese early childhood practitioners to change traditional teaching and learn to make the most of digital techniques. Undoubtedly, this will change the experience of teaching when kindergartens reopen.

Resilience and hope

The quarantine has brought drastic changes to the work as well as the life of Chinese practitioners. Some of them have to endure a decrease in monthly salary while some are faced with increased workload. “It is difficult. But there are good days and bad days”, they said. “The good days are when you see the videos shared by parents, you see the children have grown, despite of all. This is rewarding, it brings about hope”.

Prof. Jing Zhou at East China Normal University suggested that in a difficult time like this it is important to develop resilience in practitioners, parents and young children (CNSECE, 2020). Like our muscles, the ability to bounce back, to adapt, and even to gain something positive in the face of challenging circumstances can be developed. When reflecting on their quarantine experiences, Chinese early years practitioners seem to have more positive stories to tell. Maybe this is exactly what we need now, to focus on the silver linings and carry on.

 

Acknowledgement: Special thanks to Dr. Heyi Zhang (BNU), Dr. Chily Song (CrownDream EDU & Linker EDU), Ms. Le Ding (BNU Kindergarten), and kindergarten teachers who prefer to remain anonymous, for their contributions.

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Posted in Childhood & early education, COVID-19 and education, Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
UCL Institute of Education

This blog was written by academics at the UCL Institute of Education (IOE), for anyone interested in current issues in education and related social sciences.
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