Jessica Slade, Ph.D., assistant professor of practice in UTEP’s Department of Teacher Education, led a team that developed a new course focused on the social and emotional wellbeing of younger students as they return to the classroom after months of virtual instruction. Photo: J.R. Hernandez / UTEP Communications
Professors at The University of Texas at El Paso have developed a new course – ECED (Early Childhood Education) 4300: Responsive Classroom Management – to help Pre-K-2 teachers ease their students back into an academic routine after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The course, which launches in fall 2021, puts an emphasis on the social and emotional aspects of education. The curriculum provides student teachers with multiple techniques to prepare an appropriate classroom, get to know the children, understand them socially and emotionally, and guide them to their optimal learning zones.
Jessica Slade, Ph.D., assistant professor of practice in the Department of Teacher Education, was the point person behind this course. She said it is important for today’s early childhood teachers to find out what the students learned and how they learned during their time at home – a child’s first learning environment – and acknowledge its value.
Slade, a 2020 recipient of The University of Texas System Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award, said some children might have studied how to cook, bake, do laundry and/or cultivate a garden, which may enhance simple math skills. All are important to learning and a child’s development.
“We really want to focus on those funds of knowledge that these children have gained from that time,” Slade said. “It always is important to celebrate the individuality of each student, but it’s more important now. Celebrating what the children learned during the pandemic will be essential to the success of every child in the classroom.”
Slade helped conduct a workshop in late July 2021 for Pre-K teachers and administrators at Bill Childress Elementary School in the Canutillo Independent School District (CISD). One of the workshop’s topics was to focus on the needs of children as they return to school on the heels of the pandemic. Many young students will be unfamiliar with or will have forgotten school routines such as stipulated times to eat and to use the restroom.
She said teachers would face various situations from students who will be overstimulated socially as they reconnect with classmates to those who may experience separation anxiety. Instructors also need to be ready to help students who may have felt the seriousness of COVID-19 through family members who died or spent time in hospitals or under quarantine.
Among those who attended the workshop was Sandra Carrillo, CISD early childhood and new teacher coordinator of curriculum and instruction. She said the UTEP professors stressed the need to engage young students who participated in a year of remote instruction in different learning environments that often involved little personal interaction.
Carrillo, who taught in elementary schools for 14 years, said teachers must connect with students as individuals to understand how the pandemic affected them and to support their physiological needs.
“In order for children to learn and to engage in learning, you need to meet their needs socially and emotionally,” said Carrillo, a two-time UTEP graduate who earned her bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies with a specialization in early childhood in 1994, and her Master of Education degree as an instructional specialist in early childhood education in 2011. “I think in this post-pandemic time especially, the social/emotional has just come to the forefront.”
Bryn Birdwell, a kindergarten teacher at Bliss Elementary School in the El Paso Independent School District, said that it was difficult for her young students to stay focused during their virtual classes. When the children returned to school for the spring 2021 semester, they greeted their classmates in masks and were seated in desks that were socially distanced and separated by large plastic screens. Despite her best efforts, many of the children were mischievous and made it difficult to create a conducive learning environment.
Birdwell, who earned her bachelor’s degree in Applied Learning and Development from UTEP in 2020, started her second year at Bliss Elementary in fall 2021. She said that the district has lifted many of the COVID-19 classroom restrictions, but leaders still preach that their teachers should exercise caution. That is among the reasons that she supports ECED 4300, and hopes that the curriculum will find its way to all teachers.
“Too often this year, I heard teachers with five, 10, even 20 years of experience say, ‘I can’t get anything done because (the students) just don’t listen,’ said Birdwell, a master’s student in curriculum and instruction at UTEP. “Classroom management should be an ongoing part of professional development that aligns with current best practices.”
In an effort to help today’s teachers, Slade has offered workshops with information from ECED 4300 to teachers, including several recent UTEP alumni, in CISD. She also offers advice via email and Facebook. Several other UTEP faculty members from UTEP’s Department of Teacher Education have offered similar assistance to teachers in other districts in the region. Many professors versed in child guidance are open to providing similar training.
Slade, an expert in ECED, said teachers must provide their students with a sense of consistency as they transition from virtual to in-class instruction.
The UTEP professor said ECED 4300, which was approved by the Texas Education Agency, was the latest developed under the guidance of Clif Tanabe, Ph.D., dean of the college, and his leadership team to enhance curricula for students based on the community’s needs. Slade said it was a collaborative effort that involved many of the department faculty, who continue to tweak it.
“Whenever you design a new course, you pull from every resource you can think of from research to your own personal experience,” Slade said. “That’s what makes it more authentic to our students. It means more when it comes from someone who has experienced a young student having a meltdown.”