Guiding Kids to Learn Online

By Emilia Ismail

Published on 2021-06-28 Updated 2021-07-06

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ONE DAY THEY are seated in cacophonous classrooms and the next, they find themselves in silent surroundings, with only computer screens as the only distraction. Living through periodic shutdowns has been confusing for schoolchildren, and for kindergarteners especially.

Keeping these children focused on online learning requires no small amount of imagination and creativity. "Most children, especially the younger ones, cannot concentrate on their online lessons. They lose interest pretty quickly," says Rhie Chng See Ling, the principal of the TopKids Nursery & Kindergarten branch at Lip Sin.

A preschooler engrossed in his online lesson. Photo: Emilia Ismail.

One of the best ways to re-engage distracted children is to get them to sing or dance. "They respond well to these activities. Sometimes, our teachers will start the class with interesting questions like 'If you have a pet dragon, what would you name it?'

"These questions are designed to get them to talk and join the session. The focus is essentially to support the children as a group; it is not possible to work with them individually during online classes," she explains.

But unlike TopKids, the focus at Prospect Rainbow, a centre for children with special needs, is on supporting the individual child. Even before Covid-19, the centre's integrated home-school programme had prided itself on its customised education plans.

TopKids preschoolers were required to mask up and maintain social distancing when the kindergarten was allowed to open during the pandemic. Photo: TopKids Nursery & Kindergarten

The transition to online learning has been quite difficult for the students, says director Sherine Ann Selvarajah, a trained child developmental psychologist. To keep the child's attention on lessons, study sessions have been shortened but their frequency increased as well.

"Most of our children are visual learners; they learn using tools like YouTube videos and animated stories that engage their attention by providing lots of visuals and multisensory activities. And in responding to questions on Google Meet, they either draw or write down their answers using the whiteboard tool."

But Sherine cautions that cooperation from parents should not be absent throughout the learning process either. Neurotypical pre-schoolers are able to understand the concept of remote learning for independent study. But for a five-year-old with learning difficulties, "we need parents to sit by their child and guide them to make the most of remote teaching." The child's motivation to learn depends heavily on reinforcement from their parents; these can range from praise to toys.

A student of Prospect Rainbow plays with a toy while completing a worksheet. Reinforcements, such as a child’s favourite toy, can keep the child motivated in finishing a task. Photo: Emilia Ismail.

At Prospect Rainbow, teachers go a step further and assist parents in replicating a classroom setting at home. "The list of materials needed for the class are sent ahead of time, e.g. worksheets to be printed for the child to write easily on. But this unfortunately cannot replace face-to-face guidance and interaction with special needs teachers and therapists. The children still need them.

The Efficacy of Remote Learning for Pre-schoolers

No doubt, parents have their reservations. Working mother Marion Yeoh says, "At this age, their development needs to be centred on gross and fine motor skills, eye-hand coordination, responding to instructions and the likes. While online learning is a good supplementary activity, it cannot be the primary tool for preschool learning."

Muhammad Nasrullah and son. Photo: Emilia Ismail

Conversely, digital media specialist Muhammad Nasrullah is happy about remote learning. "It keeps my son occupied, interacting with his teacher and classmates virtually. At first, I had to be present, teaching him how to mute and unmute his microphone but he got the hang of it soon enough. So now I just monitor from afar while he attends to his daily classes," he says.

For this writer personally, and especially after chats with the abovementioned experts, online learning for preschoolers is workable only with strong support from parents or guardians. Very few parents are however up to the task; many are working from home at the same time. During the 1918 flu pandemic, learning went on without the possibility of remote classrooms for children; and when the schools closed, they busied themselves with chores instead. Some even had jobs delivering newspapers.1 Perhaps, while waiting out the pandemic at home, we could also teach our pre-schoolers life skills.

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Emilia Ismail