COVID-19 and the Head Start Community

Supporting Children’s Learning and Development Through Summer Learning Programs

Teacher gardening carrots with a toddler at a daycare facilityHead Start programs that receive supplemental funds to deliver summer learning programs have a unique opportunity to support children and families. They can offer high-quality experiences that promote school readiness and successful transitions to kindergarten. Explore strategies programs can use to prepare to support children's health, safety, learning, and development through summer learning programs.

As a result of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, programs will need to follow the most up-to-date health and safety guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local health departments. Staff should review CDC and local government websites frequently for any updates.

Meet children and families where they are.

When programs closed, it disrupted many families' regular routines and made it hard for them to receive the support they need. Children and families may also feel anxious about the transition to kindergarten—especially if they didn't get the support they expected leading up to the move to a new school. Plan your summer program to meet these concerns. Provide safe and nurturing learning environments. Offer interactions and experiences that are responsive to children's interests and needs. Work with families to support children's learning and development across all Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework (ELOF) domains.

Prepare for transitions into and out of the summer program.

Transitions into and out of programs will be different than those prior to the closures. Children have been home for months. Some may feel anxious about returning and others may feel happy and relieved to return to a familiar space. There may be changes in staffing, class sizes, or drop-off and pick-up routines. There will likely be increased emphasis on sanitizing and wearing protective equipment, such as gloves and face masks. 

Teachers and families are likely to have many questions and related anxiety about the summer program and what transitioning to fall will include. It might be helpful to think of the move into the summer program as you would a child and family's first transition into any program. Children will need some time to adjust to new routines. They may have some separation anxiety when their family leaves. If a family chooses to use home-based services over the summer, children may miss their friends and need other ways to stay connected to peers (e.g., photos, video, and other virtual connections). Children might also seem like they've lost some of the developmental milestones they met before the program closed, such as language skills or self-care routines like using the restroom independently. Teachers may notice changes in what children know or are able to do, such as recognizing letters, following directions, or transitioning from one activity to another. 

Programs will also support children as they get ready to transition to kindergarten. In home-based programs, work with families to provide similar routines and activities in the home that can prepare them for the structure of kindergarten in the fall. Communicate with families about their concerns transitioning in and out of your program. Provide children with a safe, nurturing, and responsive learning environment that encourages them to explore and learn.

Plan nurturing and engaging learning environments and experiences.

Research shows that kindergarten teachers are more likely to perceive children from programs that support social and emotional development as successfully transitioning to kindergarten. To prepare children for the transition, offer nurturing and engaging learning environments that support their social and emotional development, approaches to learning, and higher order thinking skills. Look to your program's curriculum when planning schedules, small- and large-group activities, and learning environments. In home-based programs, work with families to jointly plan home visits and socializations that target social, emotional, and approaches to learning skills to ready preschoolers for kindergarten.

Use outdoor learning opportunities.

Summer is a wonderful time to take learning outdoors, weather permitting. Outdoor spaces provide many opportunities for children to explore and learn using their whole bodies. There may be some changes to outdoor spaces and routines, such as staggering groups to reduce the number of children on the playground at the same time. If playground equipment isn't available for use, there are many other ways to support development and learning while enjoying the outdoors. The summer months are ideal for sand, water, and messy play, including planting and caring for gardens. Children can sing, dance, play musical instruments, and use materials that support gross and fine motor skills. Plan outdoor learning opportunities that support development and learning across ELOF domains and encourage families to do the same.

Support children who are dual language learners (DLLs) and their families.

As you help children ease back into program settings and prepare to transition to kindergarten, use language that is familiar and comforting. Talk with children in their home language, whenever possible. If you are not fluent in the family's home language, this is a good time to partner with parents and learn important words or phrases you can use throughout the day. Download the Ready DLL app on your smartphone to learn helpful words and phrases in Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin, and Haitian Creole.

Communicate with families.

During this short program period, communication with families will be key. Drop-off and pick-up routines may have changed. You may not have the same opportunities to interact face-to-face with families. Families may still be worried about a home visitor coming into their home. Plan to continue communicating with families using the strategies that worked while your program was closed. Remember, parents are managing new routines as well. Help them ease in by talking about their concerns. Ask them about their routines. Share strategies to help families and their child transition back to the program and into kindergarten. Ask them about their capacity and communication preferences.

Meet your own needs.

After a period of social distancing, you might have lingering concerns about physical closeness. It's important to remember that young children need physical touch to feel supported and safe, including hugs, high-fives, and comforting. Consider taking measures in addition to standard health and safety practices. For example, you might wear long-sleeved shirts or smocks that you can change throughout the day. Wash yours and children's hands frequently and talk with parents about health and safety practices at home.

In home-based programs, be sure to adhere to your program's health and safety procedures while on home visits. Talk with families ahead of time and be responsive to requests they may have, such as removing shoes, wearing a face mask, or meeting outside during home visits. Partner with families to prepare children for these changes and calm any fears they may have about the face mask. Explain what it is and how the mask is keeping their home visitor, themselves, and their family safe from germs. Most importantly, remember to take care of your emotional and physical health and encourage all staff to do the same.