Can Kids Learn Social Skills Online?

I used to get involved in many different conversations through Twitter. Pre-COVID. Maybe this was a time when life seemed less complicated and when emotions didn’t run quite so high. In the last few months, I find myself reading less tweets, and really thinking about how I want to connect online. Maybe I’ve become a little more selfish in these COVID days, and maybe it’s okay for all of us to sometimes put “us” first. With all of this in mind, it surprised even me when I chose to reply to this tweet from Andrew Campbell the other day. 

As I mentioned in my reply, I’m not sure that I totally agree.

I think that a lot comes down to how we use these online platforms, as well as the interests and needs of the students in front of us. We differentiate in the classroom, so why not online?

My teaching partner, Paula, and I have been discussing this a lot lately. As I mentioned in my last blog post, our approach to online learning has gradually shifted/evolved in the past seven weeks. While we offer a lot of asynchronous options through our class blog, we also try to support these choices through our daily class meetings. Now though, the weather is getting nicer, we’ve almost finished our second month of learning at home, some home realities have changed (with a few parents going back to work), and our numbers are slowly dropping. While for five weeks, we had 23-26/28 students consistently joining us for our daily meetings, we now have 15-19 students attending. We sent out an anonymous survey to parents to try and find out some reasons behind this trend, and if there’s anything else we can do to support different needs. The most consistent feedback is that parents wanted more small group options. 

Right now, we offer an online meeting from 10:00-11:00 every Monday to Thursday, with a 10:00-10:30 Fitness Friday meeting option, thanks to our fabulous Phys-Ed teacher. For the Monday-Thursday meetings, kids can come and go freely. We try to start with more of an interactive mini-lesson, and then children stay online and work with us. We check in on what they’re doing, provide feedback, and facilitate conversations between kids. Usually there are more students at the beginning of our meeting time, and then children leave, and we have a smaller group to end the call. While we always attempt to connect with all those interested, some students talk/share more, and maybe this is even what these kids need. During these meeting times though, a small group is usually around 8-10 kids. Maybe some students need less than this. 

Our survey results also intersected with this week’s announcement that Ontario school buildings will stay closed for the rest of this school year. While our online classroom numbers might be dwindling, the year isn’t over yet, and Paula and I are not ready to say “goodbye” right now. Maybe another small group option will increase excitement, attendance, and engagement during the final month of school. It was with these thoughts in mind that we announced our online play dates.

Thinking about the parent “Searching For Answers” in this article, I wonder if a play date would meet his child’s needs. Now maybe, at first glance, this seems less instruction-focused than some other online learning options, but connecting and extending language and math learning during child-directed play is what Paula and I do in our physical classroom every single day. It’s the very pedagogy highlighted in our Kindergarten Program Document. With fewer children in each group and less of a formal lesson, children might also be able to talk more freely with each other, and we can support the development of social and problem solving skills as well as academic expectations. Our play time might be MUCH shorter than it is in the classroom, but we wonder if this approach will allow for an even bigger focus on relationships, which we both feel is so vital to our Document and our program.

My heart breaks when I read articles like the one that Andrew tweeted. Joining an online classroom should NOT be …

  • a fight,
  • an emotional upheaval,
  • or a way to destroy the rest of the day.

If it is, maybe the format or the tool isn’t working for that child. What else might? 

But at a time when there’s so much uncertainty and disruption to normal, sometimes just seeing a friendly face meets a social and emotional need. For many of our kids, this is true. It’s why we continue with these daily meetings. For others it isn’t, and in these cases, we find other ways. What about you? In this Distance Learning world, are there ways to meet both social and academic needs, and what ways might you suggest? Let’s share approaches, and maybe all kids can benefit from our collective voices!


5 thoughts on “Can Kids Learn Social Skills Online?

  1. My partner and I have developed an effective approach to distance learning through the use of the four frames and continuity and familiarity of classroom routines. Regular daily activities and regular weekly activities are offered as choices for the children to engage in. Familiar songs, chants, opportunities for children to ‘share their awesomeness’ with open posts, regular small group video chats, videos of ourselves delivering stories/mathchat/outdoor wonderings… We’ve been creative. Personally visited children’s homes and left activity bags and treats. We’ve stayed very present to them and their families. Called those who aren’t as active online. It is time-consuming, a labor of love…and unsustainable.

    If anyone can support development of social skills for children in the early years, those educators who carry this concern and discernment (for the vital component to early years development that it is) are at the forefront of effective virtual classrooms. We are witnessing the effects of distance learning. So here’s my ‘however’…so much of social/emotional skill development is in the context of the moment, intonation, voice inflection, body language, facial expression, interruption, over-talking, quietness. There are many ways that children become attracted to like/different personality types, make ‘best friends’, change ‘best friends’, become friendly, tolerant, avoidant of others. The play experiences that allow for this type of rich social skill development is not at hand in a virtual (even small group) learning platform.

    In the end, there is a proviso. Yes, social skills development in a virtual learning platform can be supported. No, there is simply no substitute for open play experiences that allow for in-person differential groupings. And, what we know about play is that it is fertile ground for academic and person-hood development. Distance learning, delivered by a team keen on supporting the whole child through open-ended opportunities to wonder, explore, investigate, connect with the natural environment, interact and share ideas and knowledge, can happen. Yet it does not encompass equal opportunities for all children (as an in-person classroom which can celebrate and support empathy of different capabilities). It can be effective as a stop gap solution for those who can access and interact in a virtual environment. However, full potential development is interrupted.

    This really is what we are facing, as early years educators. How do we abide and/or come to terms with the fact that distance learning allows us to support some of the child, not all of the child…some of the children, not all of the children?

    • Thanks for your comment, Jocelyne, and sharing some of your experiences, concerns, and approaches! It’s awesome to hear about the different, creative ways that you’ve also tried to connect with kids and families. Yes, our reality right now is not ideal, and playing online is certainly very different than playing in the classroom. If kids can keep microphones open though, observe each other, respond freely to each other, and even do some problem solving together (and with us), I wonder just what might be possible. I’ve seen a few small moments of this during our daily online meetings, when kids are starting to unmute, ask each other questions, share work between each other, and even coordinate things to do afterwards (e.g., “[Name], I’m going to call you so we can have a FaceTime playdate. Okay?”). I know it’s not perfect, but with fewer students in each group, I wonder if kids will see each other better. Can some non-verbal cues be possible through a device? I’m not sure, and while I have some hopes, it will take some play time with kids, many observations, and probably a lot of talking with my teaching partner as well as with our families and students to figure things out. Your last question is a hard one, and I’m not sure if I have any answers to it right now. Maybe my hope is that supporting “some” is better than supporting “none,” and in the many different ways you shared, and we actually supporting a lot more than we realize? I wonder …


      • These are certainly times that require unique ways to observe, reflect and engage responsively to the learning and developing child. Your post has nudged me in this respect. Although, we must add stable and secure internet and electronic devices to our list of minimally basic classroom requirements. One thing I am absolutely sure of is that we are all doing the best we can with what is within our power and expertise. And when we can do better, we will.

        • Thanks for the reply, Jocelyne! You nudged me too with your thinking, and made me contemplate more about ours. You make a wonderful point about devices and Internet connections. Thankfully our family situations and Board supports, largely make this possible for us, but I do realize that we are some of the lucky ones. I think that knowing we are doing the “best we can,” while also working creatively with families and kids to see what else is possible, are all we can do right now. Accepting that “this is enough,” can sometimes be the hardest part I think. What about you?


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