what young children need from us during a pandemic

photo by Ben Wicks

It’s a strange time right now for everyone. As adults, we’re trying to adapt and make sense of everything going on… and the same is true for the young children in our lives. None of us are prepared for this situation, and we’re all taking things one day at a time. With schools closed, and teachers and students socially distanced from each other, it can be an especially trying time for kindergarteners and preschoolers. From a pedagogical perspective, some steps can be taken to make things a bit easier on them. Here are a kindergarten teacher and early childhood educator’s best tips for how to support your children through quarantine and social distancing, for those of you who may be feeling unsure.

BE OPEN AND HONEST.

Children are not insulated from the news or from current events. They overhear news reports, catch pieces of adult conversations, and sometimes share information (or misinformation) between each other. They may sometimes take those pieces of information and put them together to create their own, imagined version of the truth. Rather than let their imaginations run wild and create scarier scenarios, be honest with them about what’s happening.

BE CONCRETE ABOUT THE IMPACT ON THEM.

Young children tend to be very egocentric, and may not yet fully grasp global or societal issues. Their world still revolves around them, and because of this it’s important that they know how things impact them and why. Their first concern will be the threat to themselves. Let them know that the risk to them and to your family is extremely low, but that it could make more vulnerable people really sick. Be clear that you are staying home to protect other people, but that they themselves are not in direct danger.

BE DEVELOPMENTALLY APPROPRIATE.

Being honest is extremely important, but of course this should be within the bounds of where your child is at developmentally. Children don’t need to know every small detail about the situation, so a general yet honest overview is best. Tailor how many details you provide based on their age or developmental level so that you maintain honesty without overwhelming them with things they cannot yet understand. Again, if there are details they cannot yet comprehend, they may fill in those holes with assumptions and anxieties.

TAKE CUES FROM YOUR CHILD.

Some children will ask you questions directly, while others will be more hesitant. Observe your child — are they more withdrawn than usual? More agitated than usual? Sillier than usual? Pushing more boundaries? A difference in a child’s behaviour is the clearest indicator that there may be something going on under the surface. Take this as a sign to ask some questions about what they’re thinking and open the conversation. At the same time, your child may not ask questions, and they may show no change in emotion or behaviour. Some children may not be concerned by the situation at all, and that’s okay. They may not need or want to talk about it, in which case there is no need to make a bigger issue out of it. The most important thing is that they know they can talk to you if they need to. By observing and taking cues from your child, you can determine where they may be at on an emotional level, and what they might need.

CREATE SPACE FOR EMOTIONS.

Your child will probably experience a wide range of emotions during this time, just like we as adults are bound to. Boredom and frustration at not being able to go out, confusion about why they cannot continue their daily routine, or anxiety about what could happen. These are all normal feelings to have, please do not put pressure on yourself to try to fix things for them. Let them know that it’s okay to feel that way, help them to label their emotions, and let them know that those feelings will pass. Encourage them to use their best coping strategies if their feelings get too big to handle — breathing exercises, distractions, comforting objects and so on. The important thing is for them to know their feelings are normal, and valid.

GIVE SOLUTIONS.

The best way to counteract feelings of powerlessness is empowerment. For small children, it’s important that they know concrete steps that they can take to make a difference. In our class, we poured glitter on the children’s hands to show them how bacteria and viruses travel, and how hard it can be to clean them. Remind them of that when washing hands, and remind them that we need to do our best to limit the spread. We also tell the children to cough like Batman, to remind them to cough into their elbow. Let your child know that these good hygiene practices, as well as staying at home is our way to do our part to help all this be over sooner rather than later. Be clear that this is what we can all do to help.

KEEP CONNECTED.

One of the most difficult parts of social distancing is dealing with the feelings of social isolation, and your child may be feeling this as well. Your child is used to spending their days in a highly charged social environment, and it may be difficult to adjust to suddenly spending a prolonged period of time without that input. Video chats and phone calls with their friends can really help to maintain a sense of social connection, even if your child just stares awkwardly at the screen and there isn’t much interaction between the children at first. Simply knowing that their friends and classmates are in the same situation they are will go a long way in combating feelings of isolation. Don’t be afraid to get creative with this — video dance parties, playing games together remotely, or even sending drawings and letters to each other via post are just some of the many ways to keep in touch.

MAINTAIN STRUCTURE.

Small children feel most secure when they have a sense of structure. When structure and boundaries are unclear, children will actively try to find them. Challenging behaviour in children is often a sign of uncertainty, and is often their way of seeking out and seeing how far they can push unclear boundaries. There has been a lot of content online about how to structure your family’s day in the most productive and structured way, but please don’t put unrealistic expectations on yourself. You don’t need to put additional pressure on you or your family by adhering to such a strict system. The best way to maintain structure is by maintaining existing familiar routines in your home such as family mealtimes, bedtimes and other routines. Keeping existing predictable routines in place will help your child feel more secure, and maintain a degree of normalcy.

We’re all in this together, so let’s do what we can to help everyone get through this happy and healthy. Until then, don’t forget to wash your hands and cough like Batman.

Original Preschool Art — Anonymous

Berlin-based Early Childhood Educator

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