Lessons from the Pandemic: 10 Ways To Remotely Engage Young Students

When schools transitioned to online learning at the start of the pandemic, some parents and educators had a harder time than others. While high school students are able to sit still for an hour and focus on the course materials, younger learners need to move around. For kindergarten teachers and other early-elementary educators, their lesson plans needed to be more creative and engaging. 

Within a few months, educators developed creative lesson plans for connecting with young learners to keep them engaged. These tips and tricks saved their lessons during the pandemic and as schools reopen, many of these ideas can still be applied. Here are 10 tips to help your students stay focused and excited about learning whether remotely or in the classroom.

Understand the Headspace of Young Students

Rather than asking your younger learners to adapt to remote learning, look into adapting digital tools to how children think and process the world around them. For example, consider how the experts at the Child Mind Institute describe K-2 learners. 

“Youngsters this age are primed to study facts and learn processes that they can rely on as tools for solving problems,” they write. “They also tend to feel thrilled by their progress, even when it proceeds slowly and steadily.” 

Keep this in mind when you develop lessons and consider the objectives of what students learn. As you debut these lessons, identify the breaking points of your students. When do they want to give up? When do they get bored?

You may need to break up your lesson plans more or return to different ideas throughout the day in order to keep students engaged.  

Showcase the Work of Your Students

You can keep kids interested simply by highlighting the work they do. Holding up an assignment as an example of something well done or putting a celebratory spotlight on a student can make them feel valued.

“I think it’s important for those who complete tasks to share that work with the whole class,” says Katie Gardner, an elementary school teacher in Salisbury, North Carolina. “I show others: ‘Look what Miguel did. Look what he found at home. What can you do now?’” This is one way to make students feel appreciated and validated. 

Create Scavenger Hunts

A scavenger hunt can be used as a quick ice breaker to start the day or provide an interactive homework assignment for after class. 

“When working with kids remotely, it’s essential to infuse fun into online learning,” says Caitlin Tucker, Ed.D., author and blended learning coach. “Scavenger hunts can increase student engagement during virtual conferencing sessions and create an incentive for students to want to attend.” 

These scavenger hunts can be related to the class subject to reinforce the lesson. That said, Tucker cautions teachers to limit the scavenger hunt to items that can be found in almost any household.

mother and daughter do schoolwork on laptop in kitchen; remotely engage young students concept

Tap Into Breakout Groups

One of the most powerful tools in your online discussion platform is the breakout group feature. With this option, you can turn a class of 30 students into 10 groups of three and build discussions around these small groups. 

Education coach Jorge Valenzuela uses breakout rooms for increased collaboration. Students separate into smaller groups for a few minutes and then come back together as a whole. A few ways he uses breakout groups include:

  • Storytelling. Valenzuela tells a story related to a lesson and then has students do the same. Kids can break into smaller groups so the class doesn’t get bogged down into 30 stories.
  • Turn-and-Talk. Students form groups and share their thoughts on the lesson for a few minutes.
  • Peer feedback. Students review the work of their peers and offer feedback for improvement.

Breakout groups can also give students a few minutes to socialize in a virtual environment. The K-2 literacy teacher at That Fun Reading Teacher started with breakout groups for smaller show-and-tell activities. They have since used them to have students share their artwork, play rhyming games, and identify patterns. They have even asked students to create how-to demonstrations for their peers.

Let Kids Play Together

When possible, give students time to tap into their imaginations and play in ways related to what they are learning. Playing allows kids to open up their minds and receive new information. 

“In play, a child can immerse him or herself in a situation and react in an unlimited number of ways,” says applied developmental and cognitive psychologist Wendy Ostroff. “A child can hypothesize or imagine many possible new situations, stretching ideas, theories, and behavior patterns in response…Play also allows children to practice key social skills, such as negotiating rules in real time, sharing power, switching gears, and trying on different roles.” 

Avoid Busywork

You may need to pull back on the number of assignments you create or even the types of assignments that students work on. The right assignments will keep students engaged, while the wrong ones will lead them to distraction. 

“It is crucial that each assignment has purpose in an online environment,” writes Rick N. Bolling, Ed.D., principal of JW Adams Combined School. “There is no room for busy work in any classroom, but this is especially true in an online classroom. Students are likely to give up when they see 15 assignments posted on a Monday with many assignments covering the same skills.”

Melissa, the blogger behind The Printable Princess, says eliminating busy work or excessive activities can also help you win parents over. She says that some parents might have more than one young child at home who all need to be supervised during online schooling. If you pull back on a few assignments, this can free up space for meaningful learning and family time.

child does schoolwork on tablet; remotely engage young students concept

Incorporate Project-Based Learning

Along with removing busy work, look for ways to build more projects into your lesson plans. Students are never too young to get to know project-based learning. 

“If we give students as much freedom as possible to experiment, research, and pursue interests within our content area, then they inevitably have a lot more to say,” says teacher-librarian Ryan Tahmaseb, author of “The 21st Century School Library.”

If you are worried about incorporating projects, there are resources you can use. Tara Bardeen, teacher and educational writer, created a useful guide for teaching kindergarteners that can be applied to working with other young students. She shared a few tips for developing lesson plans for your classroom:

  • Break down assignments into small chunks — and have the ability to break them down even further if necessary.
  • Write out short, clear instructions.
  • Check in with students frequently to make sure they aren’t lost, distracted or confused.

When in doubt, start with smaller projects that only have a few steps and then expand into larger activities.  

Get Up and Dance

One of the best ways to let students expunge their energy while having fun is to let them dance. The good news is that there are plenty of ways to bring dancing to your remote classroom. 

“I want them to learn and they want to have fun, so let me meet them where they’re at,” says Azel Prather, Jr., a teacher in Washington, D.C. “If you can kind of tell that one kid is dancing in his chair while we’re trying to learn, and another kid is dancing in his chair, too—we all just may need to dance, but then maybe we need to dance and learn a sight word at the same time instead.”

Dancing can be part of all subjects, from letting students dance when they get math problems right to introducing cultural elements to history and language classes

“As a Spanish teacher, for several years I arranged for my students to learn dances from Argentina and Spain by working with our school’s music and dance teacher,” says Rachelle Dene Poth, author of “Unconventional Ways to Thrive in EDU.”

For the in-person classroom, this created a “field trip,” even if students only traveled down the hall. Virtually, this gets students moving and lets them break out of the norm of online learning. 

two children play on toy car; remotely engage young students concept

Create Theme Days

As an educator, you want your kids to be excited about logging in each day. While some assignments are more exciting than others, you can help your kids avoid burnout with creative challenges and theme days. 

Leslie Simpson at Kindergarten Works encourages teachers to create theme days to break up the week. The themes are based on what students are learning in school (like wearing green when you are teaching about plants) or on fun activities that tap into student creativity.  

Develop Offline Assignments

Young learners are able to turn off their cameras while still following class instructions. These offline activities give students a break from screen time and can make learning more hands-on. 

“Give kids things they can do without a device,” says Amy Murray at Teaching Exceptional Kinders. “Things like read a book, a scavenger hunt for sight words, practice adding with their cereal or writing numbers in shaving cream. There are lots of options out there!” She uses menu boards with multiple activities students can choose from in order to complete the assignment. 

It’s not easy keeping young kids excited about learning and eager to pay attention, especially in an online classroom. However, by incorporating these tips into your lesson plans, you can help make remote learning a positive overall experience. 

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