The early years of a child is for hands-on learning and social interactions. Some parents and teachers feel that this cannot be translated online.

Gracelyne Fernando teaching her sonGracelyne Fernando teaching her son
Delve Education Tuesday, August 17, 2021 - 10:46

An online class is taking place for children aged 4-5 years, who go to a Montessori school in Bengaluru. The students can be heard shouting, ‘Ma’am, Ma’am’ as the teacher tries to bring some order. A grandmother asks one of the children if she ate breakfast. A little boy keeps switching his video off and on. A girl is trying to show the teacher a drawing she made, while another child is talking about the park she went to over the weekend. There are around 15 students who are part of the class and things quickly descend into mayhem.

“Children miss out on learning social cues and etiquette in online classes. They are distracted, interrupt and talk loudly not realising there is another child talking. And you can’t blame them,” says Samia*, who teaches Class 3 students at a prominent international school in Bengaluru. “Sometimes, a child is waiting with their hand raised, but the teacher will be dealing with half a dozen students and might miss it. We could also go a whole class without hearing a particular child speak,” she adds.

Ayesha Thomas, a product designer in Bengaluru, says that last year she and her son would initially sit for online classes. But as the days passed, things changed. “My son would fidget or disappear from his seat altogether when he lost interest in the subject matter. It reached a point where I had to force him to attend class,” she says. 

“We had chosen a Montessori school as we loved the hands-on approach to learning. But the online method took this aspect away,” says Ayesha. So this year, she and her husband decided to send their son to a tutor, so he would have a learning experience similar to that in a Montessori school. After finding a teacher that suited the family, they say it was a ‘no-brainer’ to pull him out of school. 

And this doesn’t seem to be a one-off case. Several parents of early learners (age 3-8), who have the time and resources to opt for other ways of educating their children, seem to be foregoing or at least rethinking the merits of online school. 

“The early years of a child are for hands-on learning and social interactions that cannot be translated online,” says Samia* “In school, the environment also plays the role of a teacher.”

With limited options, the teachers taking online classes for early learners will sing rhymes, do an art or craft activity or read a book out or have their students do some writing. “Parents question if it even makes sense to have their children sit in front of a screen for something they could do themselves at home,” says Samia. And, moreover, paying school fees for it as well.

Another aspect of online classes that makes it stressful is that it puts a lot of onus on the parents. “Especially for parents of young kids as one of them has to sit and monitor the class,” says Samia. And with both parents working in many cases, this makes it hard.

Anoodha Kunnath, who runs a production house in Kochi, talking about her 5-year-old son, says, getting him to sit for class started to create tension at home. “Adding 'teaching' to my overflowing to-do list has been very stressful. The class hours are from 10.30 to 11.30 in the morning and though it is only one hour, it involves 10 minutes of coaxing before and pleading during. That is also peak work time. In effect I lose almost half a day in all this.” says Anoodha.

This is one of the main reasons Tiya JP pulled her kids out of school. Tiya, who is marketing head for a fashion brand in Bengaluru has two children, aged 9 and 8 years old, who were going to a prominent ICSE school in the city.

Initially, both kids were doing the online classes. But it wasn’t easy for them to shift into school mode while at home and then there was the temptation of the screen. “In between my older one would switch off class and be playing a video game. The younger one would zone out and not be paying attention. When there was a break, they would both run off and we would have to haul them back in and make them sit for the next class,” she adds.

Tiya and her husband both have busy work schedules and online classes added to their workload. “We would have to track their classes, download material, make sure they got the work done and upload homework for five subjects,” says Tiya. She adds that the school fee hadn’t been reduced either and her older child’s school hours were going to be increased to nearly six hours a day, in front of a screen.

Turning to tutors and homeschooling

In April, Tiya hired a tutor for her kids, who spends 1.5 hours of one-on-one time teaching each child and sets them half an hour of homework. “In these few months I have seen how much my children have learned,” she says.

She does say that when schools are able to physically open, she will admit them back. But for now, they are learning, happy and are enjoying themselves.

However, she adds that it was easier to make the decision to pull her kids out of school as they are young. “Online school makes sense for older children as they are more independent, if my kids had been older I wouldn't have removed them. But at their age it works,” she says.

Ananya, who teaches social science and English to middle and high school students at a state board school in Bengaluru, echoes this. “While high school students have largely continued with online classes due to exams etc, we have seen children from primary and middle school opting out of school, saying they will join back once physical classes start,” she says. 

Gracelyne Fernando, from Chennai, knew online classes would not work for her family from day one, because of her and her husband’s work schedules. The couple decided to pull their nearly six-year-old son out of school and homeschool him. The couple split the subjects between them and keep it basic as their son is still young. “With homeschooling, we could do it at our pace and schedule. My husband and I teach him for around 2-3 hours a day with a break in between. We try to make it as interactive and practical as possible,” she says. 

Raisa Alexander from Kochi, who is a parent to a six-year-old and a two-year-old, also decided to homeschool her older child. Raisa’s daughter had to transition to Class 1 from UKG, a year after the pandemic began.

“We were looking for a school to admit her in, but no one knew when regular school would open, and the fees weren’t being reduced. I am working part-time, so I decided to homeschool her. What did we have to lose?” says Raisa.

Raisa spoke to her cousin who has been homeschooling her kids for years to get some guidance. She found out what textbooks a child her daughter’s age would be using and procured a set. She looked up free online curriculums, videos and experiments to supplement a particular topic she would have to teach, and created a loose structure to follow. “I keep it to a few subjects and build on it. I set up a plan for the term, broke it down month-by-month and week-by-week -- so I know what needs to be covered,” she says. So, four days a week, Raisa sits with her daughter for 1.5 hours, where they cover math, writing and some reading, among other things.

Anoodha, on the other hand, hasn’t completely stopped online school, but takes her cues from her son and has brought in some help as well. “We have found a middle ground - a tutor he likes. She comes in for two hours early in the evening, and they write and learn through play. As for online class, I ask him every morning if he wants to sit for it, if he says no then I don't force him,” says Anoodha.

Fatigue setting in for teachers

While many parents are struggling with online classes for their early learners, teachers are finding it hard, too. Fatigue has set in, as they not only have to teach classes online multiple times a day, but also attend meetings, plan lessons, and correct worksheets online as well. “We are limited as teachers as we aren’t able to create learning in the way we would in the classroom, there’s also the constant need to keep things engaging and entertaining,” says Samia

The classes Samia takes run for 30-45 minutes and have around 13 eight-year-olds in it. “You know the kids but you still don’t really know them. Because it is not the same as interacting in person, where you learn about the child by observing their body language, their personality, their social interaction with other kids. We miss out on so much.”

She says she constantly questions whether the children are being validated and acknowledged during the classes. 

Middle and high school teacher Ananya, says, “We are not able to communicate with and offer emotional support to our students, or even speak to them after class to find out how they are doing.” 

Samia agrees with this, and adds, “We can’t call a child to the side and quietly comment or help them with something.” Ananya says the way the students are assessed has to change as well. “Sometimes I get papers back which are word-for-word written from the textbook,” she says.

“This way of teaching is not sustainable. As a teacher, I really pray we can go back to physical school soon. Kids need to interact with each other, as this motivates them. Not to mention, learning happens from the environment they are in as well,” says Ananya.

(*Name changed)