On epidemics, education and connection…

When the World Health Organisation declared that the COVID-19 virus was a global health emergency, a whole manner of elements of daily life got shut down. While the majority of this shut-down and the quarantines are centred on China and the provinces around the epicentre, Wuhan, here in neighbouring Vietnam, we have been feeling the impact too.

For the past two weeks, children have not been allowed to return to school. Following the two week Tet/Lunar New Year holiday, when the virus started to take hold across China, the Vietnamese Government made the decision to ‘extend’ the holiday for children in order to prevent the potential spread of the virus in Vietnam.

Due to the fact that I work in an international school which is part of a global international education group, the children being away from school did not mean that their education would stop. No, quite the contrary – their education would continue no matter what. We are now coming into the third week of the enforced school quarantine and, for the past two weeks all the teachers have been coming into school every day and teaching remotely through online video lessons, interactive online meetings, e-learning challenges – you name it! For Upper Primary and Secondary, this concept is not new and most children and young people are independent enough to be able to access and learn online with minimal parental support.

I teach Early Years. This has been a true challenge. Without an easily accessible and familiar platform already in use for the 3 and 4 year old children I teach, my team and I quickly scrambled and got creative in making fun video lessons and setting interactive activities for the children to do at home. Considering learning through play is a concept that is still quite difficult for non-teachers to get their heads around, we have had to be a lot more prescriptive than we ever would be in the classroom. Additionally, most of the children (and their parents) do not yet have strong English skills so verbal explanation had to be minimal and visuals fun and clear in order for the children to be able to access the learning. Needless to say, there were moments where all of us have felt like we would not have been out of place on the set of Sesame Street!

The biggest challenge, however, has been connection. No, not internet connection. Human connection. Working effectively with Early Years children in the classroom is 5% planning and 95% connection and relationships. From the first day with a new class in Early Years, the priority is building up those essential connections and relationships with them. Building trust and a secure attachment for each child is essential for the coming academic year. Much of my everyday role, when the children are in class, is observing, supporting and scaffolding. I read their expressions, their energy, listen to their language and observe their play. I try to respond thoughtfully to their needs, letting them problem-solve and try out their ideas and stepping in to support only when they really need. My micro-scaffolds like eye-contact, body language and active listening are so deeply engrained in my daily practise that, in the midst of this enforced quarantine, I feel like such an essential part of my teaching is missing.

Children thrive on connection. If you know anything about attachment theory and attachment-led practise in the early years, you will be familiar with the research that says a child needs to feel safe and secure within their learning environment in order for their brain to be able to learn and take on new knowledge. If a child feels insecure, the brain reverts back to the primal ‘protection’ instinct, closing off the part of the brain needed for learning. In other words, love grows brains.

This is desperately hard to do from behind a computer screen and, as each day and week goes by without face-to-face contact with the children, I can’t help but feel like the missing component is attachment and connection.

These are strange times.

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