ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

Engaging Young Learners through Online Teaching

By Felicia Saffold / January 2021

Print Email
Comments Instapaper

In the spring of 2020, COVID-19 forced a mass closing of K-12 school buildings across the country. No one was prepared for the fact that schooling would be impacted for the long term. However, this fall, many schools shifted to remote learning to provide instruction for 2020–21. Teachers went back to school to online classrooms that they had never known before and a teaching style that was foreign to many of them. Teachers and schools were quickly looking for online resources and trying to master online teaching practices. This was the education response to the pandemic. With so much at stake for students to get rigorous instruction, many schools looked to online education to continue a structured education program.

Online education has been studied and embraced at nearly every age level for decades. Research shows us effective online learning results come from careful consideration of how learning experiences are designed [1]. Student engagement with the content, with the instructor, and with peers are critical elements for a good course design. Most effective course designs effectively involve the learner in both synchronous and asynchronous components. Asynchronous online components offer anytime/anywhere learning to the students; whereas, synchronous components are delivered live or in real-time. Adding synchronous components to online courses can enrich meaningful interactions [2]. Such engagement gives students opportunities to collaborate with peers and it allows teachers to clarify concepts and model for students.

In the following sections, I describe how a charter school for early learners purposefully designed an online teaching program with principles of effective online education as well as dimensions of early childhood development to create an interactive, engaging learning program for young learners. Following this, I share teachers' perceptions about what they learned during the process of shifting to this new learning format.

Transformation to Online Learning

In 2019, Next Door celebrated 50 years of early childhood education and community support in Milwaukee, WI. Currently, Next Door serves more than 1,400 children from birth to five years old through center- and home-based programs and 11 partnership sites. In addition, Next Door’s K4/K5 Charter School offers a full day of programming through a partnership with Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). Next Door ensures teachers implement well-organized learning environments with developmentally appropriate schedules, lesson plans, and indoor and outdoor learning experiences that provide adequate opportunities for choice, play, exploration, and experimentation among a variety of learning, sensory, and motor experiences. When COVID-19 hit in March, Next Door closed its doors to children and families as a response to the pandemic but serving children and families was still a major concern.

During the closure, Next Door leadership worked hard to ensure our programs' children and families continued to receive educational services and support. Two days prior to staff being released to work remotely, the education team developed plans to support student learning. Instructional coaches and teachers put together learning packets targeted to each grade level and worked to distribute those packets to families in a variety of ways. Teachers and Family Advocates delivered packets to students’ homes, or families came to a drive-through pick-up at each of our schools to retrieve the packets. Books for children were sent home with the learning packets so that reading could continue in the home. The learning packet distribution continued weekly for four weeks, as the education team developed plans to pivot to virtual learning experiences and family engagement.

This initial response to the pandemic has been termed “emergency remote teaching (ERT)" [3]. It has been called online teaching; however, there has been a clear contrast to what many researchers have described as high-quality online education. In ERT, the primary focus is to provide a quick solution for learning in a crisis. At Next Door, that meant trying to quickly implement a learning plan for our young learners to make sure they did not lose ground in their critical early years. However, this was not the ideal situation to offer high-quality instruction. As Dr. Sonia Ben Jaafar suggests, programs cannot neglect “the most important component of quality online learning—the intentional design of courses and programs” [4]. Next Door was not alone in having an emergency response to provide education during a pandemic using online tools.

Following the implementation of an ERT model, a more deliberate approach was designed for the fall. In the summer of 2020, Next Door engaged a consultant to assist the education team in developing a robust virtual learning plan. Next Door staff members participated in a community workgroup with other schools to learn about online learning and ways to structure an online program. The focus was on how to engage students in an online environment to participate in learning and achieve grade-level outcomes actively. It was also important for Next Door to invest in a learning platform that would allow two-way communication with families and make formative assessment easy. The consultant and our Director of Educational Services, reviewed several different virtual learning platforms to determine the best options for our K4 and K5 students. For K4 students, Teaching Strategies CLOUD was selected. This platform was developed to support distance learning for students and aligns with the primary curriculum and assessment tools used in our K4 program. For K5 students, SeeSaw was selected as the primary virtual learning platform. In addition, adaptive assessment and personalized instruction tools were adopted to target needed skills and highlight interventions each child needs. For that reason, we intentionally chose Lexia Core Reading for K5 and Khan Academy Kids for K4 and K5. These instructional resources were identified as tools that would help us meet the grade-level standards for K4 and K5. Next Door was intentional about ensuring that high-quality curriculum and instruction would not take a back seat during the pandemic.

Three key components of online learning were considered when designing our online program: community building, interactivity, and online presence. For young learners, a sense of community and daily points of connection with their teachers is essential. These connections are necessary for learning whether the method is through a learning platform or material packets for pick up. As we set out to develop an online program at Next Door, our goal was not to replicate a typical school-day schedule. Our primary goal was to help students continue to feel connected (to the teacher, to each other, and to the school). We first established priorities for online learning that were best for early learning development. Specifically, we were intentional about planning opportunities for children that support their learning and development.


Research reports that students in schools with a strong sense of community are more likely to be academically motivated [5]. Building a sense of community can begin from the very first day, and building relationships is a foundational strategy in building community. Next Door teachers found many of the typical activities they used to build community at the start of the year had to be altered in the online classroom. The move to working online required teachers to think a little differently about how to connect with their students. However, “Get to Know You Activities” and social activities to get students moving were still popular. In the virtual environment, fun-filled days such as show and tells, scavenger hunts, and even themed days like “Twin Day” were popular ways to build community.

Establishing routines is another way that young children adjust to the classroom. With this in mind, Next Door created predictable schedules for teachers and families. As noted in figure 1, students are able to participate in synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities and specific times are delineated for community building to take place.

Figure 1. K5 Schedule.

[click to enlarge]


Interaction is a critical factor that impacts student learning. Students want to feel connected to their teachers. Wagner suggests that interactivity functions as an attribute of instructional delivery systems and meaningful interactions can enrich online learning [6]. Moore describes three types of interactions: learner-learner, learner-instructor, and learner-content interactions [7]. Relationships are meaningful in face-to-face classes and they are even more critical in online classes. Venable says personalizing your communication helps to build positive relationships with online students [8].

Next Door teachers keep their communications personal with their online students in the following ways:

  • Post a bio that includes a photo and information about themselves.
  • Intentionally call students by name.
  • Use an introduction “icebreaker” assignment: “Tell us a little about yourself.”
  • Use tools that allow students to share their feeling via pop-up emojis.

Teachers have been motivated to learn new technologies in order to make learning fun and engaging for students and themselves. Learning how to connect and interact with students virtually has given teachers the confidence that they are providing high-quality instruction to young learners.

Online Presence

Online learning cannot take the place of seeing a teacher’s face and hearing their voice. Nonetheless, good teaching can still happen during live synchronous teaching sessions. Next Door teachers have been intentional about making their presence known. Henik says teachers know they have a presence when they have a genuine connection with the students that breeds confidence and respect throughout the classroom, allowing for risk taking and increased learning opportunities [9]. Next Door teachers are intentional about interactions in the online classroom. Students and families know that “school” is still happening. Teachers create classroom environments that display student’s names, birthdays, and colorful learning aides. They dress up to teach and go to their online learning classrooms ready to engage students and provide a quality curriculum. Teachers also allot time in their schedule to hold office hours for children to get additional help or for families to ask questions. Teachers regularly post announcements and messages to keep the lines of communication open.

Teachers expect students to be in attendance and to engage in learning every day. In order to track attendance and engagement in the virtual learning program, a family engagement tracking tool was developed for teachers to use to track participation (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Engagement Tracker.

[click to enlarge]

Teacher Perspectives of the Transition to Online Learning

Teachers perceived the move to online learning as challenging yet, surprisingly successful. At Next Door, none of the 17 teachers had ever taught in an online format before or used technologies for the entire teaching and learning experience. Ten teachers are teaching 2’s and 3’s, and seven teach online in K4 and K5 classrooms. In the lower grades, the TSG Cloud platform is used, and in K5 classrooms, Seesaw is used.

Early education teachers stated they had to learn to be flexible and recreate their teaching approaches. One three-year-old teacher responded, “I now understand that with online teaching, you may have to work a little harder with making connections with your families by sending more text messages, emails, and phone calls. You have to be available for those questions that parents may have because this is all new to them, and my plans may have to be adjusted based on families' schedules.” While another K5 teacher shared, “Honestly when I started this, I wasn’t very confident in teaching remotely. I have been teaching as an assistant teacher for 22 years at Next Door. Each time, there was something new to learn. This time, however, there was a lot to learn. For example, I learned how to use Zoom and its basic features, so much so, I can teach some parents, and, especially, grandparents on how to access this.” Many of them shared how important it is to build community with children and families in the virtual world, with comments such as, “This new remote learning program is going to take support from everyone,” and, “I also depend more on my parents to help me support concepts and activities with their child.”

Several of the teachers responded that they now know how important it is to establish an online presence when teaching remotely. Some teachers did not consider how important it is to restructure teaching for online learning and not teach traditionally online. For example, one teacher responded: “I had to recreate my teaching approaches by doing more action songs, flannels games, and adding PowerPoints with concepts on the screen so my children and families can have a visual of what we are learning.” Others explained that the teaching background itself was important to establishing an online presence. They made such comments as, “My kids need to log on and feel like they are walking into school;” “I feel more like we are in class with my background set up with student names and learning concepts on display;” and “we discuss them [I Can Statements] during morning meeting and it is a part of my learning board for students.”  

For many of the teachers, teaching online has “helped them grow as an educator.” One teacher stated, “I have realized just how important every single minute of instruction is with the students, so I have worked to become extremely effective.” Another teacher pointed out, “In the classroom, differentiation refers mainly to just the child, but in remote learning, differentiation refers to the whole family.” She explained, “Every family has special circumstances, concerns, schedules, preferences, etc.  It is my job to not only tailor my curriculum to each child, but also to each family.”

Next Door’s virtual teachers adapted to online teaching. They figured out creative ways to build strong relationships with parents, including creating interactive assignments that parents and students could complete together. Quality online teaching and learning are happening for young learners at Next Door. As one education manager describes:

“I can say that although we made the quick switch to online teaching, we had some challenges along the way. I met with each virtual teacher on multiple days to ensure they knew the platforms we were using. One grandparent was so frustrated with trying to figure out how to navigate the online program, and she turned in her iPad after a few days. I showed her how to get onto the zoom meetings and each day, I would call her to make sure she got on. Now she has graduated to no calls. She calls me to tell me, “I did it, I’m in!” I have helped families after hours and given my personal number to help, so they still feel connected to the program. I join virtual meetings to see how the teachers and students are interacting. I see learning happening, children smiling and participating. I’ve even seen parents get into the music and movement moments, counting and answering questions when the students should be. I think the parents are enjoying the class as much as the students. Although this learning experience is different, we have some good lessons learned that will help implement acceptable teaching practices long after COVID-19.”


Hopefully, the pandemic will come to an end very soon. COVID-19 has disrupted our lives and the educational system. We will be forever changed. However, we have to leverage what we have learned through this ordeal and make sure that we do not go back to teaching students in the same manner that we did before the virus. We must think about how to utilize technology in innovative ways to create meaningful, engaging learning experiences for learners anytime, anywhere. In particular, with our youngest learners, we must consider various ways to support their social and emotional needs and development. In this period of virtual learning, Next Door teachers have found that there are creative ways to build community, interact with students and have a robust online presence. These strategies are foundational for effective early childhood instruction.


[1] Allen, E., and Seaman, J. Online nation: Five years of growth in online learning. The Sloan Consortium, Needham, MA, 2007.

[2] Repman, J., Zinskie, C., and Carlson, R. Effective use of CMC tools in interactive online learning. Computers in the Schools 22, 1–2 (2005), 57–69. 

[3] Hodges, C., Moore, S., Lockee, B., Trust, Torrey and Bond, A. The Difference between emergency remote teaching and online learning. Educause Review. (March 27, 2020) 

[4] Jaafar, S. Emergency response to covid-19 is not the future of online education. Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education 

[5] Battistich, V., Solomon, D., Kim, D., Watson, M., and Schaps, E. Schools as communities, poverty levels of student populations, and students' attitudes, motives, and performance: A multilevel analysis. American Educational Research Journal 32, 3 (1995). 627–658.

[6] Wagner, E.D. In support of a functional definition of interaction. American Journal of Distance Education 8, 2(1994), 6–29.

[7] Moore, M. Editorial: Three types of interaction. American Journal of Distance Education 3, 2 (1989).

[8] Venable, M. Make a personal connection in your online classroom. (July 22, 2013).

[9] Sol, H. Developing your classroom presence. Edutopia. (June 19, 2018).

About the Author

Dr. Felicia Saffold is the Sr. Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Milwaukee Public Schools, the largest school district in Wisconsin. She was a professor of urban education for 16 years at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee. She brings expertise in urban education and online teaching. Her 28-plus years of teaching and leading in urban schools have culminated her career with a renewed focus on improving educational outcomes for underserved students through effectively implementing high-quality, student-centered programs.

Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. Copyrights for components of this work owned by others than ACM must be honored. Abstracting with credit is permitted. To copy otherwise, or republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee. Request permissions from [email protected].

Copyright is held by the owner/author(s). Publication rights licensed to ACM. 1535-394X/2021/01-3447536 $15.00


  • There are no comments at this time.