Expect the unexpected

An Early Years team in Brunei reflects on the experience of distance learning

Janice Ireland talks to the Early Years team at Panaga School in Brunei about teaching and learning during the lockdown and its impact on their practice.


The Early Years setting at Panaga School in Brunei, is an enviable one – nestled close to the South China Sea within a residential area where children are happy, safe and secure. Visitors to the school can expect to see hornbills, monkeys, exotic butterflies, geckos and other native species, providing endless opportunities for children to observe and learn about local wildlife. The environment is effectively the ‘third teacher’ where relationships are nurtured, and communication, collaboration and exploration are central to playful provision. A wonderful environment for children to learn in! Then in March 2020, COVID-19 enforced school closure with only 24 hours’ notice. Deputy Headteacher Donna Bonham-Russell and Year Leaders Louise Cooke, Claire Richmond and Louise Ramsden take up the story about what happened next, and what they found out in the process.

Working with parents

Even though we had anticipated school closure and had made some preparations, the reality of having one day to shift to remote learning left no room for complacency. Having well established online platforms that we use every day gave us a good starting point for getting systems in place. We knew parents would be supportive, but what we were effectively doing was guiding them to step into professional roles that traditionally require years of training and specialist skill sets.

Creating a tent from fabric and natural materials

Getting into a routine

We worked in Pre-Nursery, Nursery and Primary 1-year groups to plan what and how we would share learning with parents. We recorded daily videos of ourselves and tried, as far as we could, to keep to the familiar routines that we knew children respond well to. This included our morning welcome song and explaining what we would be learning about in short, sequenced steps. We also set learning challenges linked to our curriculum learning outcomes and invited specialist teachers to contribute to these.

 Family involvement

Chopping fruit for a fruit & yogurt snack

We encouraged families to upload photographs and videos of children engaged in their tasks and responded through written or verbal feedback offering praise and encouragement. Primary 1 celebrated learning with a daily reflection video to help motivate and inspire children. In this way we maintained year group connections and ensured there was ongoing dialogue between the children, parents and teachers. Although we have not been able to extend learning in the usual way, we link our planning to what children share and show interest in and adapt plans according to what we see works well.

Flexibility with the youngest children

With the youngest children it has been important to give parents as much flexibility as possible, so that they can dip into suggested activities, songs, rhymes and stories at times that work for them and the children. We created easy to follow weekly planning grids and as the weeks progressed we kept all the grids visible on our portal.

This system enables parents to revisit activities and introduce new learning at their own pace. We felt it was important to encourage parents to try new things at home, but we didn’t expect children to complete all daily tasks. We needed to be realistic about what is possible in a home environment and respect that families have their own challenges too.

Cutting shapes for leaf art


Introducing an end of week online assembly for Primary 1-3 has worked very well. It has provided an opportunity to hear about the new and consolidated learning that children have focused on across year groups and make curriculum links with knowledge, skills and understanding. We also recognise and celebrate children’s birthdays and other special events. Assemblies have been a great way of providing a sense of normality during a period of disruption – and helps us to mark the arrival of the weekend, which is definitely needed!

They’re different at home!

We know our own classes well, but because of the free-flow nature of our setting, we also have a good insight into the developmental stages of children from other classes too. What we didn’t expect when we moved to remote learning, was in many cases observing a different child in the home setting to the one we see at school. Through videos and online platforms, we’ve seen children that are often hesitant to join in songs and circle-time activities, singing every song and rhyme we’ve ever taught in school, and others engaging in activities we would not have expected them to choose! This has led to a lot of reflection and made us question how we approach learning for some children. Listening to a child confidently talking about an end product and demonstrating great pride in it has led to discussions around what we would normally consider is best-practice. This unexpected window of opportunity is a research project in the making.

How our team developed

In addition to gaining new insights into the children, we’ve also learned more about each other, especially our learning support assistants. Until they started recording online tasks, somehow they managed to keep their musical talents and technological skills very well hidden! We had no idea that we work alongside musicians and digital masters – these are skills that we will definitely be encouraging every day when we return to school. Whilst the past three months have presented challenges, we have learned a lot and as a result we know that there are changes for the better on the horizon when school resumes.

Prioritising social development on reopening

One of the biggest challenges we faced through remote learning was maintaining and developing relationships with the children and helping them to forge friendships. These are key areas of development in our setting. Some children have had very limited or no opportunity to see and interact with people outside of their immediate families and so social development, along with supporting emotional development, will be prioritised when school resumes. We need to welcome children back into an environment where they feel safe and will do this in a way that gives them freedom to explore and regain confidence in spaces that enable physical development to also take place. Our post COVID-19 priorities will be centred around taking a flexible and nurturing approach whilst we continue to question and evaluate our pedagogical views in light of the observations we made from a distance.

Time to reflect

This has been a complex time, but as a team we have found ways to succeed and learned a lot along the way. We are now looking forward to the day when we welcome children back and look at best-practice with fresh eyes.


Panaga School Early Years team (Donna Bonham-Russell: Deputy Head Teacher; Louise Cooke, Year Leader for Pre-Nursery; Louise Ramsden: Year Leader for Nursery and Claire Richmond, Year Leader for Primary 1) were talking to consultant and Early Years specialist, Janice Ireland.




Images kindly supplied by Panaga School

Feature Image: Panaga School Campus