The semi-structured interviews focused on Latinx parents’ perception and implementation of teachers’ intended learning activities as well as the ways in which parents engaged their children in remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. We were particularly interested in documenting how parents adapted to and experienced this new way of engaging in their children’s schooling and their role in it.
As a way of comparison, we asked parents to reflect retrospectively on the pre-COVID engagement in their child’s education. A number of parents described receiving weekly learning packets with their child’s finished work along with additional worksheets to complete at home. The material in these learning packets was in Spanish or English, depending on the ECE program (10 of the programs used both languages for instruction, 6 used only English, and 4 used only Spanish). According to parents, teachers sent these materials home regularly to inform parents of their child’s progress and to provide extended practice throughout the week. Parents returned the completed learning packets directly to the teacher at the end of the weekly period. It is noteworthy that parents viewed these activities as “homework” or supplemental to school learning.
Parents reported participating before the pandemic in traditional family-school interactions in ECE (e.g., parent-teacher conferences and receiving newsletters), along with informal face-to-face communication with the teacher at school drop off and pick up. Although some teachers expected parents to submit their child’s completed “homework,” there was hardly any parent-teacher interaction. Yet, parents perceived the family-school connection positively and viewed it as a window into their child’s learning at school.
In what follows, we describe, from the parents’ perspective, how the COVID-19 pandemic has shaped the relationship among preschool teachers and Latinx families living in low-income households. First, we summarize parents’ perceptions around parent-teacher collaboration alongside parents’ involvement in their child’s remote learning. We then depict ways in which parents engaged their children in parent- and children-initiated activities. We also provide a summary of the main challenges parents experienced with their young children’s remote education.
Theme 1: Parents’ Perception of and Experience with Parent-Teacher Collaboration
Parent interviews revealed changes in the frequency of parent-teacher communication and the nature of their relationship as compared to before the pandemic. From the start of remote learning, most teachers communicated regularly with parents and children. Although this was expected, given the transition to remote learning, parents noted an important change: the relationship with the preschool teacher morphed into a more authentic partnership. A two-way communication emerged and parents felt comfortable reaching out to teachers to seek guidance as they engaged their children in learning activities. Similarly, teachers communicated with parents more regularly asking how everyone in the house was doing.
According to parents, teachers were very supportive despite the enormous challenge of teaching young children remotely. Parents also related that teachers constantly motivated them to do everything they could to complete the activities designed to support children’s learning at home. Parents appreciated teachers’ guidance and encouragement, especially those who felt they lacked the ability to teach in the ways they perceived were expected by teachers.
Most parents felt that teachers were not only concerned about the curriculum but also that they genuinely cared about their child’s and the family’s well-being. Parents were grateful for this ongoing personal communication with the teacher during these challenging times. Teachers also made parents aware of community organizations they could contact to obtain resources such as food and clothes.
Flexibility in the Modes of Communication
Parents appreciated having the flexibility to communicate with teachers through various modes such as phone calls, text messages, and email. Parents also found it helpful to work with the teacher in establishing a schedule that would work best for them to stay connected; some families spoke fondly of teachers who called them through videoconference or sent them pre-recorded videos later in the afternoon to accommodate their work schedule.
With regards to how ECE was delivered in response to the pandemic, parents reported that educators quickly adapted to teaching remotely and regularly facilitated lessons delivered through various online platforms (e.g., Google Meet, Dojo app, Zoom). Asynchronous assignments were shared through pre-recorded videos and instructions sent via text messages, email or posted online, and in learning packets.
In addition to live teacher-facilitated lessons, teachers planned daily offline activities. In some cases, a new collaboration process was created where parents took pictures of the completed work and sent them to the teacher via text message. One of the parents described how the teacher created a WhatsApp group for the purpose of sending instructions and for parents to submit pictures of their child’s work. This group facilitated communication amongst parents and expanded their support network.
In contrast to the ongoing parent-teacher interactions described above, a few parents reported no direct contact with the teacher and only received educational materials to be completed in 2 to 3-week periods. These parents reported feeling isolated and unsupported due to the lack of interaction with the teacher and other parents.
Prioritizing Children’s Academic Learning
Regardless of the delivery format, teachers primarily focused on reinforcing previously learned skills, particularly beginning literacy and mathematical skills. For example, writing their full name, practicing the alphabet, identifying the beginning letter name or letter sound of words, recalling color names, handwriting, and counting skills. Other aspects of children’s development such as socio-emotional development and learning through play and inquiry-based activities were less emphasized.
When asked about their perceptions of remote learning, 13 out of 20 parents expressed agreement with the prevalent academic focus. For parents, the activities teachers suggested were helping their child to practice what they had been previously learning in the classroom and to be prepared for kindergarten. The main reasons offered by parents who were not in complete agreement with the teachers’ recommended activities include hard to follow instructions, difficulty engaging the child, and an excessive amount of work that required close parental support.
Parent Preferred Learning Activities
While parents recognized the importance of reinforcing skills to get their child ready for kindergarten, the majority of parents (70%) struggled to keep their child engaged when the activity required prolonged sit down time. Many parents reported that their child was bored even during live read-alouds. Echoing a commonly held view among participants, one mother noted that her child preferred to participate in hands-on activities that looked like they were playing:
Lo que yo miré es que es más hands-on. Osea, que él haga. Él tenía que estar escuchando las historias en la computadora, pero él se aburría. Las actividades que involucraban como vamos a colorear esto, vamos a usar pintura, osea, era algo que no parecía trabajo, que parecía más como que ¡oh, vamos a jugar! (What I saw is that they are more hands-on. Meaning that the child is involved. He had to listen to read aloud stories on the computer but he got bored. Activities that involved like, let's color this, or let’s paint, or that didn’t look like schoolwork, instead, they were more like, Oh, let’s play!).
According to parents, the most beneficial activities suggested by the teacher shared the following characteristics:
Active participation and child–adult interaction (e.g., coloring, painting, sorting laundry by color and counting the number of clothes in each pile)
Learning through unstructured play (e.g., playing with Legos, playing outside)
Learning through discovery (e.g., contrasting different types of soap based on color, consistency, and shape; observing nature)
Choice (e.g., child-initiated dramatic play, describing self-selected daily experiences through writing and drawing)
Theme 2: Parent- and Child-Initiated Learning Activities
The interviews revealed a host of activities parents created to support their child’s learning from home. Parents viewed many of these activities as supporting their child’s learning and essential for getting their child ready for kindergarten. Other activities were considered recreational or part of their daily routines by the parents.
Making Learning Fun
From the 20 interviews conducted, 17 parents reported engaging their child in school-like activities in addition to those suggested by the teacher. Some of these parent-initiated activities were similar to the assignments that teachers recommended. For example, using workbooks, computer games, and YouTube videos to teach children about letters, numbers, shapes, sight words, and handwriting skills. Additionally, parents provided children with notebooks, pencils, and color pencils to practice writing their name. Some parents reported reading to their children, however this activity was less common.
In addition to these traditional learning activities, 75% of parents reported creating play-based opportunities, some of which supported the development of literacy and mathematical skills. One parent offered an instance of playing school with his daughter:
“Por ejemplo, le pongo las letras del abecedario en el pizarrón y ella las hace abajo y me las tiene que ir diciendo como la A en español, en mayúsculas, en minúsculas y hacemos una palabra con esa letra…a ella le gusta mantenerlo como juego, pero a la vez ella obviamente está aprendiendo.” (For example, I write the letters of the alphabet on a blackboard and she copies them below, she needs to tell me the letters like the A in Spanish, in capital letters and lowercase, and we make a word with that letter… she likes it to be like we’re playing, but at the same time she’s obviously learning)
Another parent created mathematical problems for her older daughters. Seeing her preschool child’s interest, she adapted the problems for him as his siblings completed their homework. The mother turned the activity into a race to motivate her children:
“Con las niñas me gustaba darles problemas de matemáticas y él pues se sentaba ahí con ellas, pero no entendía igual como ellas y yo lo hacía como una carrera, a ver quién puede hacerlo más rápido. El que gane va a poder escoger el postre esta noche. Osea, para que sigan practicando todo lo que han aprendido.” (I liked to engage my girls in solving math problems and he was sitting right there with them, but he didn’t have the level of understanding his sisters had and so I turned it into a race, to see who could solve them first. The winner could choose the dessert for that night. I mean, so they can continue practicing what they have learned).
A number of parents reported that they needed to be creative to keep their children entertained and safe at home. In addition to completing what parents described as activities to prevent learning loss, parents made sure children had time to play outside. Children engaged in daily outdoor activities such as biking, soccer, running, and finding insects in nature.
Several parents indicated a desire to keep their children away from the TV and thus, they created interactive activities for the whole family. Parents bought puzzles, playdough, chalk, and board games to play with their children. These opportunities were not only initiated by the parents but also by the children. For example, 2 parents reported their children asking to play doctor’s office and bookstore. Prompted by their dramatic play, the children asked for materials to create symbolic objects. For example, a child pretending to be a bookseller asked his mother: “Me preguntó que cómo se escribía ‘abierto’ y ya le fui diciendo letra por letra. Y él escribió abierto, cerrado.” (He asked me how to write the word “open” and I said it letter by letter. And he wrote open, closed). Another parent reported watching a children’s movie with her son and then creating the main characters using playdough.
Most parents viewed these experiences merely as a way to entertain their child and prevent boredom. Describing the various activities in which they participated as a family, one mother offered:
“No me he enfocado tanto en hacer tarea, lo único es leer un ratito en las tardes porque no quiero que se le vaya a olvidar la lectura. Trato de entretenerlos con otros jueguitos de mesa porque no quiero que estén tanto en la tele, en el teléfono, en la tableta. Les compré una alberca chiquita. Pero en sí, de lo que es aprendizaje, nada más me he enfocado en leer un ratito en las tardes.” (I haven’t done much homework, the only thing we’ve done is some reading in the afternoon because I don’t want them to forget how to read. I try to entertain them with board games because I don’t want them to be all the time watching TV or on their phone or tablet. I bought a small swimming pool. But, in relation to learning, I’ve only done some reading in the evenings).
Although she planned activities that could be considered important for child’s development such as board games and playing in the swimming pool, this mother did not consider these as learning opportunities. In her view, the only attempt to support her child’s learning was through reading for brief periods of time in the evenings.
Theme 3: Challenges with Learning from Home
Education and Job Uncertainty
The uncertainty about a safe return to school and childcare along with reduced income forced many parents, mothers in particular, to stay home to supervise their children. This father’s quote describes how his wife had no choice but to quit her job in order to take care of their children and supervise remote learning: “Mi esposa tuvo que dejar su trabajo. Como no teníamos quién nos ayudara con los nenes en la casa, ella tuvo que quedarse como mamá y maestra y todo. Entonces eso nos afectó en lo económico” (My wife had to quit her job. We didn’t have childcare and therefore she had to stay home and take on the role of mom, teacher, and everything. This affected us financially).
Examples of how the pandemic has exacerbated the economic hardships faced by many families from low-income backgrounds were abundant in parents’ accounts. One mother expressed the despair of not having the means to cover basic expenses: “A veces no teníamos ni para los pañales…fue tan difícil, yo tuve que dejar de trabajar y a mi esposo le recortaron horas.” (Sometimes we didn’t have enough to buy diapers… it was really hard, I had to quit my job and my husband’s work hours were reduced).
Child’s and Family Members’ Mental Health
The impact of the economic and health crisis on children and families’ mental health was palpable in all interviews. About 75% of parents struggled with helping their children understand the need to stay home and worried about the prolonged social distancing impact on their children’s socio-emotional well-being. Many parents shared how their children expressed frustration and a desire to go back to school. In sharing her concerns about her children’s emotional health, a mother noted: “Mis hijos extrañaban mucho a sus compañeros y no entendían por qué no los podían ver. Fue triste, muy triste. ¿Pero qué se puede hacer? Esta pandemia nos afectó al cien.” (My children missed their friends so much and didn’t understand why they couldn’t see them. It was sad, very sad. But what can we do? This pandemic has affected us one hundred percent).
Learning from Home vs. Learning in the Classroom
About 70% of parents expressed feeling stressed with distance learning. Parents believed that the transition to remote learning made the children feel as if school was over. When reflecting on her child 's lack of interest in remote learning, one mother expressed: “Había días que él no quería cooperar, se sentía que estaba de vacaciones y no quería saber nada de la escuela. Él no sentía que era tiempo de clase. Entonces sí batallamos” (Some days he didn’t want to cooperate, he felt he was on vacation and didn’t want to know anything related to school. He didn’t feel that it was time for class. Thus, we struggled a lot).
Many parents attributed their child’s loss of motivation to the change to remote education. In particular, parents voiced that learning from home was less conducive to young children’s engagement. Despite feeling supported by teachers, parents repeatedly reported finding it difficult to engage their young children in school-based activities given the difference in dynamics and routines between the home and the school.
Parents also felt that they lacked the ability to maintain their young children focused and felt overburdened with the demands of remote learning. One mother shared her experience:
“Para uno que no es maestro, la paciencia es poca; los niños ya le conocen a uno el lado flaco. Yo le quise ayudar lo más que pude, pero estoy convencida de que no fue suficiente. Pero no es culpa del maestro, ni de los niños ni de los padres, porque uno no tiene la misma capacidad de enseñarles, uno no sabe cómo llegarles de la forma como les llegan los maestros” (For one who is not a teacher, we have little patience; children know our weak spots. I wanted to help her as much as I could, but I’m convinced that it wasn’t enough. But it’s not the teachers’ fault, nor the children’s or parents’ fault because we don’t have the same ability to teach them, we don’t know how to engage them like teachers do).