Why Early Childhood Teachers Require a Unique Approach to Tech Coaching

Opinion | Early Learning

Why Early Childhood Teachers Require a Unique Approach to Tech Coaching

By Debbie Tannenbaum     Feb 27, 2024

Why Early Childhood Teachers Require a Unique Approach to Tech Coaching

“My students can't use these digital programs.”

“I don't have time to use technology with my littles.”

“It’s exhausting to get them all logged in.”

“Our students already have so much daily screen time.”

In my role as a technology specialist — or tech coach — at an elementary school, I support teachers of students in pre-K through second grade and I often hear comments like these. It makes sense. The early childhood teachers I work with have a unique set of challenges and concerns about integrating technology into instruction for our youngest learners and no one understands that more than I do.

When I became a school-based tech coach six years ago, I faced these same struggles. Most of my prior teaching experience was with upper grades, so I was well-versed in using technology with older students and it was easier. They already knew how to login and navigate programs from their prior experiences in the classroom, and many of them had developed technology fluency they could transfer to new tools. That allowed me to set expectations, model a lesson and get started right away.

Unfortunately this wasn’t the case with my littlest learners.

Working in early childhood classrooms often felt like a game of Whac-A-Mole. I found myself running from student to student, trying to help them solve all of their problems — navigating the keyboard, reading instructions, entering usernames and passwords and troubleshooting device challenges. It was frustrating. I had so much I wanted to accomplish but I couldn’t get to the part I was most excited about: using technology to amplify learning.

Listening to the Unique Concerns Early Childhood Teachers Have

Most of the early childhood teachers I work with are apprehensive about integrating technology into instruction. Over the years, I’ve engaged in active listening to understand why that is, and I’ve learned that teachers of our youngest children have unique challenges and concerns about using technology with their learners.

For example, some of our early childhood teachers worry that kids are already on devices too much because our district requires all students to use adaptive curricular programs for math and reading for a certain amount of time each week. Others have expressed a lack of confidence about troubleshooting and their ability to support their students while using technology in the classroom.

The early childhood educators I work with have also shared about pandemic struggles that have made it more difficult to embrace change. Some young children missed critical school time during their earliest years, and many experienced academic, social and emotional delays. Many educators say they (and their students) were handed devices without much guidance during the COVID-19 closures.

To add to these obstacles, many states, including mine, are now promoting new curricular initiatives that mean big changes for early childhood teachers, making it feel overwhelming to learn something new or add something else into the mix.

The bottom line is that these educators have so much on their plate already — trying anything new seems too big a mountain to climb.

For all of these reasons, the early childhood educators I coach often enter our conversations with trepidation. During such an overwhelming time, it can seem easier to rely on familiar teaching methods, rather than introduce a tool that may not work smoothly the first few times. Many have resorted to using tools that help children consume information, like turning on a quick instructional video, rather than ones that encourage and empower learners to take a more active role.

When I mention experimenting with anything, they often respond with a number of questions. What if their students visit a website that they aren’t supposed to go to? What if they can’t help a student troubleshoot when they are using the new tool? What about parental concerns about screen time? The “what ifs” can easily build up, but I try to help them understand that sometime we need to take risks to better meet the needs of our students.

Meeting Teachers Where They Are

I’ve recognized that to meet the needs of the early childhood teachers I coach, I have to address their concerns and find ways to make trying something new feel less daunting. Here are four lessons I’ve learned about supporting early childhood educators with technology:

1. It’s important to help teachers understand that not all screen time is equal. Distinguishing between the time students spend on devices creating versus consuming is important. When we think of screen time for our youngest learners, we often think of children solely consuming content, but there are many tools with auditory and visual support designed to help our youngest children explore, learn and create.

While the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) offers evidence-based guidelines around media use, it doesn’t offer set screen time limits for all children. Instead, the AAP recommends “considering the quality of interactions with digital media and not just the quantity, or amount of time.” How we use these screens is important and needs to be considered when planning for our youngest learners.

2. Illustrate how our work supports what they’re already teaching. One way I do this is through working with icons, which supports the foundational literacy skills teachers are working on. Icons are all around us. In fact, our students typically develop the ability to recognize and understand icons in preschool years, and often before they can even read.

When using technology, icons are like the letters in our edtech alphabet. Before our students can read, they need to learn letters and sounds. Similarly, before our students use technology, they need to learn the icons they will encounter. Many times, having the best of intentions, educators start by jumping into a tool. But we need to provide our students with a foundational understanding of the “letters” in our edtech alphabet because these icons provide our students with a road map as they use technology to learn. One way I intentionally teach icons is by playing icon bingo to reinforce these concepts. Using these icons in a game format really helps students to make connections to the icons.

3. Model how technology can foster independence. When I coach early childhood educators, we collaboratively plan lessons using technology with our youngest learners, making sure that we not only use developmentally appropriate tools that bolster the work they’re already doing across content areas, but also allows their students to interact with the content in new ways. And when we co-teach, I model strategies for them that promote student agency agency, so that they can scaffold their tasks to be more accessible for all students. When we do that, we’re better able to move beyond tasks like logging in and troubleshooting to helping children create artifacts that show meaningful connections that they make with what they’re learning.

I often coach teachers to use video to foster independence, since all of our students — even the youngest ones — are familiar with watching videos. There are a number of tools that make it simple for a teacher to embed a developmentally appropriate video into a lesson or activity. Including a video with instructions for a task empowers students to revisit directions at their own pace, rather than waiting for their teacher to repeat them or to answer a question. This strategy sends learners a message that they can find answers by reviewing resources and that their teacher is not the sole distributor of assistance. Plus, sometimes when I embed videos, my students think that I am a YouTube star.

4. Show them how they can incorporate developmentally the appropriate tactics they’re so skilled at. Our early childhood educators have a toolbox full of great strategies at their disposal to help young learners gain the skills they need. These educators, for example, understand the power of mind-body connection. I empower them to leverage that knowledge, using mind-body activities to recall important information, such as icons, usernames and passwords. Helping students get their mind and body connected to their learning further helps the knowledge stick. I show my students and their teachers movements designed to help them remember icons better. Every time we say the name of the icon, we also do the movement associated with it. We do this with usernames and passwords too. If a student’s username is seven digits, we hold up seven fingers — this small action really helps solidify their understanding.

Our youngest learners need tailored experiences to become digital learners. That’s why early childhood and early elementary educators need a distinct approach to tech coaching. Through my experiences coaching early childhood educators, I have found that there are many ways to empower even the youngest students to get creative with digital tools. But that starts with equipping their teachers with the confidence, skills and tools they need and helping them understand that technology can enhance learning in early childhood.

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