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Teaching elementary students online is a difficult prospect, but a necessary one given the circumstances of the world today. There are naysayers who will say that teaching online at this age is impossible, that the difficulties and barriers make virtual teaching ineffective.

This is not true, but it is a difficult prospect as it requires a mental shift from how most educators were taught to teach in college. The research tells a much more nuanced story, both of how children learn and what they are capable of when they have well planned, thorough instruction. Here are some important things to keep in mind when you are preparing to teach elementary school students online. 

Attention Span - Quantity does not equal quality. 

Lower elementary school students do not have very long attention spans. Due to their shorter attention spans, kids cannot concentrate on a topic as long as older students can. They need shorter lessons that are focused on a topic. A fifteen minute lesson that is well done is more effective than a longer lesson, especially if the students lose focus. 

It is possible to teach longer lessons but it requires some well planned interaction with the students. In the case of a class that the school or organization requires a particular length, change the activities and presentation often.

Think of an episode of Sesame Street.  The scenes and characters change frequently, rarely ever spending more than a couple minutes at a time on a particular topic. This is worth replicating in your online classroom as well. 

Some teachers worry that kids won’t be able to remember unless the presentations are longer, but shorter more to the point lessons are actually more memorable for children than longer more detailed ones. 

Keep the Topics as Narrow as Possible. 

When working on your lesson, keep very closely to the point. Teach only the bare bones of what is required, but teach it in a variety of ways. For younger kids, a story, a song and a presentation all on the same topic can help them retain the information. For older kids this may mean several well planned activities that all reinforce the same concept. 

Narrow topics also allow the subject to be explored more similarly in different ways. Young kids, like all students, learn in a variety of ways. While some may learn better visually, others prefer learning  audibly or  kinesthetically.

Additionally,  the same kid may not learn the exact same way every time. A myriad of factors can contribute to why a child may learn a concept in a particular manner, from hunger to time of day to their sleep quality the night before. These are all beyond the teacher’s control, but keeping a tight focus allows the instructor to reinforce the lessons again and again with creative repetition. 

Maintain Balance Between Muting and Participation

There are many different ways to engage in participation with younger children. They are naturally curious and often want to talk about all topics. However this has challenges online just as it does in person. Kids may become frustrated and attempt to talk over each other.

It is best to selectively mute the class or students when instructions are being given and then methodically elicit participation. The students will all be able to hear each other this way, and the class will feel a little more authentic due to having expected order. 

Anyone who’s worked with young students knows that they get off topic easily. They may start by answering the question and with no warning veer off topic to a discussion about their favorite dinosaurs. With selective muting, it is possible to keep the class more on target, as other students may want to jump in and talk about their favorite dinosaurs as well. It also maintains the expectation that they will stay on a particular focus as the instructor is able to redirect the conversation and bring the class back on to the given topic. 

At the same time, the instructor needs to encourage participation. Children can be easily frustrated with online communication and so they may need more affirmation and encouragement to continue. They may become upset if they can’t participate and leave the classroom or get distracted by something else. So encouraging a lot of participation helps students to retain the information and stay engaged.

To encourage participation in a classroom of kids, ask open ended questions that will engage their creativity over closed yes/no questions. For example, ask what they think the solution is and how they came to do that solution or why they thought of it rather than looking for a specific answer. This will allow the children to think more creatively and also gives the instructor more insight to the child’s thinking processes. 

Use Slideshows Sparingly

While adults are used to slideshows in meetings whether in person or online, children are not. They may become frustrated by reading information on a screen very quickly, especially if they are younger, slower readers. Many teachers may find it easier to plan and stay on track with a slide show, however the children in younger years often have difficulty keeping pace with the teachers. This can be very frustrating for the children. 

Instead try using one slide at a time and flipping back to the classroom, to talk with the students. This helps them to stay engaged and allows the teacher to clarify and see if they are able to read on pace or not. Check for understanding and then try another slide. Over time as the teacher gets a feel for their class they should be able to determine what the class is and isn’t capable of in regard to slide shows. This will allow the teacher to plan better. 

Children in the younger grades may just be learning how to read and so the slideshows can be more of a hindrance. One thing that can be particularly confusing for the children is putting up the slide show without warning them. They may think the teacher has disappeared or think that the teacher can’t see them anymore when the slideshow is up. As a result they may tune out or even turn off the computer. It is very important when using a slide show that the instructor lets the children know that they are going to turn it on, and that they can still see and hear them while it is on the screen. 

Incorporate Games and Fun

Use tools that allow for participation in games on screen. This can be an excellent occasion to take off the mute and allow the students to be more spontaneous. There are a myriad of games on that can be incorporated into a classroom, or the instructor can create their own using the Kahoot app. Children may enjoy reading together on a screen with their class. The instructor can incorporate games such as Pictionary onto Zoom using the whiteboard feature. 

The teacher can search for images online and use the zoom in and zoom out features and have the students guess what the images are as they enlarge the photo gradually. If the teacher uses a landscape photo with a lot going on in the photo, they can facilitate a version of “I Spy” by allowing the students to describe a detail in the photo. 

There are many ways to incorporate games into virtual learning, and it is something that will definitely lend to the authenticity of the classes. With the drop/drag function in a google doc and giving the students co-host ability, they can enter text in the prepared document. In the Whiteboard feature, the teacher can give the students the ability to draw as if it was a real whiteboard in a classroom. Many games can be created using google’s jamboard, which allows the instructor to clip images and words and create a match game that allows the students to drag words to the images and match them. 

The more interactive the instructor makes their classes, the more they hold the students attention. This in turn helps to cement the patterns in the child’s mind, so that they master the concept. 


Teaching children online is intimidating at first. It is not an easy task and it requires a great deal more preparation to make it run smoothly than either face to face elementary classes or older students who are more able to learn independently. Yet, despite the extra work that is involved in teaching classes this way it is a viable option and the children can receive excellent high quality instruction while they are in the process of virtual learning. There are many methods that can be incorporated into the classes to make them successful. 

It is important in teaching this age to not be afraid to experiment with different mediums and try new activities and methods. The children are learning and will continue to learn as long as they are able to understand the tools and the resources and all is explained in a simplified detail that they are able to comprehend.

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