By: Lisa Evans

Learning on a laptop may seem incompatible with a hands-on education, but with buy-in from parents and teachers, it can be a powerful family engagement tool.

When people think of an early childhood Montessori classroom, they probably think of multi-age groupings, individualized student learning, and an emphasis on concrete learning through hands-on materials. Online learning is almost certainly not a part of what they’re envisioning. Yet, at the Lexington Four Early Childhood Center, a public school with predominantly primary Montessori classrooms where I serve as principal, we have found that the right program can be an effective supplement and even a powerful family engagement tool.

Our Path to Montessori

Our school serves three-, four-, and five-year-old children within our attendance zone in a free, full-day program with no qualifications. In our vision for creating a school focusing solely on early learning, our school district researched best educational practices for young children. It was determined that a Montessori approach aligned with our philosophical beliefs about student learning. It supported our emphasis on both acquiring knowledge and skills while also developing life skills and characteristics, such as critical thinking, collaboration, perseverance, and work ethic.

Opened in 2010, the Lexington Four ECC offers a Montessori environment through parental choice. Through parent and community support, we have more than 25 Montessori classrooms and serve approximately 600 children. In this multi-age model, children have the same teacher for their three years at our school. This model allows teachers to deeply know their students as learners, and also allows teachers and parents to develop meaningful relationships over that time.

The Challenge of True Family Engagement

Families are a critical part of education no matter how old students are, but are particularly important for our youngest children. Parents and families are our students’ first teachers. It is important that we build trust between home and school by authentically bringing parents into the educational process.

True family engagement is not only attending school events, but also becoming real partners in their child’s own learning. As a school, supporting that type of family engagement can be challenging. We must give parents a clear idea of what a three-, four-, or five-year-old should be able to do and how they can support that in their homes every day.

Helping Parents Become Teachers

This past summer, the South Carolina Department of Education approached our district superintendent about using a program called Waterford UPSTART as a family engagement tool. It’s an adaptive online learning program with a curriculum focused on early literacy, numeracy, and STEM concepts. Parents are expected to engage with their child in using the program 15 minutes a day, five times a week at home.

At the time, I knew little about the program but learned that it would allow our four-year-old kindergarten families to have access to academic software, a laptop, and internet at home and at no cost. Knowing this pilot program would be funded through the SC Department of Education and that this could provide more home support for improved family engagement, our school was eager to support this initiative.

We began the pilot by engaging our parents at the beginning of this school year, inviting them to family events to learn more about the program and distribute the needed technology, laptops, and internet hotspots to be used at home. We also shared information with our teachers about what students and families would be doing at home. The software gave us access to student reports so we could support in-home learning.

As we learned more as a school, we were better able to communicate with and support parents at home as they navigated this new experience. We have held multiple family events at our school to answer questions and create excitement for student progress. Throughout this school year I have had opportunities to simply ask parents what they thought, if they liked it, what was working, and what wasn’t. Every single parent has had something positive to say. Parents have told me their kids love it and were very engaged when they used it. Some students refer to it as their “homework,” which is very exciting for such early learners.

But in addition to being excited about their child’s enthusiasm for learning, what struck me about these conversations with parents was that they were talking in an instructional way about what their kids were learning. They’d tell me, “He’s recognizing his capital letters,” and “She’s noticing words that rhyme.” Typically, conversations with parents are rarely so focused on specific academic skills their child is learning. This may be because many parents are unsure about exactly what it is their child is supposed to be working on.

Because they’re with their child, engaging with them as they are learning, parents are getting a real insight into the curriculum and expectations of learning for their child. This has given them the power to say, “Oh, this is what they’re working on. This is what they’re doing well. I didn’t realize he was supposed to know that already.” Parents have a sense of truly being able to do something every day to help their child learn and do better at school.

Additionally, we are seeing that learning is being transferred to other areas. The technology of the laptop and software may be the shiny object that people initially focus on, but families are telling me that they’re buying flashcards, tracing letters, and having conversations with their children about letters and words they see in authentic print. The program is leading to more interactions between parent and child about reading and learning. I could not be more excited about that.

Impressing Teachers with Clear Improvement

As educators of young children, our teachers are critical consumers of educational software and are justifiably apprehensive regarding early learning and technology. Indeed, a little skepticism about new things is good, especially when dealing with children. Only a few months in, though, they are definitely seeing progress.

Teachers have had positive conversations with parents about it, and can tell the difference in students who are consistently using the program, both on their academic progress and their attitudes toward learning. The online student reports allows teachers to see the positive correlation between the time students spend using the program and the progress toward their reading goals.

Students use the program as a supplement to their regular daily instruction, and it complements and reinforces the work teachers are doing in the classroom. For example, within a Montessori setting, we’re initially more focused on letter sounds than letter recognition, but as children use the program, they continue learning their letter recognition at home. With those two elements together, at home and at school, we have seen children progressing more quickly.

While we’re still in our first year of voluntary implementation, we certainly have not reached our potential in engaging all families. As teachers and parents are having positive experiences, they are sharing with others. I look forward to this increased momentum and excitement, both about student success in reading and about parents being a part of their child’s learning.

It is authentic parent engagement that will impact student learning well beyond their early years.

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Lisa Evans is the principal at Lexington Four Early Childhood Center. She can be reached at levans@lexington4.net.

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