COVID-19 both put the brakes on many children’s lives and created a world of ever-expanding change. The last two years have been overwhelming for everyone, but children have fewer tools to help them make sense of everything.
As a childcare provider, you can help kids navigate change in collaboration with their parents.
A Child’s Typical Reaction to Change
Many think of children as the ultimate in resilience, but rapid change coupled with a lack of life experience can cause kids to have several common emotional reactions to change.
In general, you may see more:
- Confusion, especially during constant change
- Fear of the unknown
- Excitement seeing friends and family after quarantine or shutdown
- Difficulty adapting to change such as establishing new routines and regulating emotions
- Frustration with adapting to new behaviors like mask-wearing and social distancing
Children may also experience grief when things change for both the better and the worse. All change brings with it the need to grieve for what is lost or ended.
In some cases, kids are grieving the loss of a loved one to COVID-19. When children grieve, it is common to see persistent crying, sadness, withdrawal, anxiety and fear. The child may search for a lost loved one and possibly exhibit regression like toileting accidents or sleep disturbances.
The 3 Rs of Helping Work Through Change
The three Rs of helping children work through change are:
Children need the adults in their lives to reassure them about their safety and the safety of their family and friends. Tell them it is your job to keep them safe and that you will do so to the best of your ability.
Children also need routine. They need predictability in the way their day goes. They need regular sleep and mealtimes as well as other scheduled activities.
When children become stressed, they need help with regulation. Always validate their feelings, letting them know that it’s OK to feel however they do, but then help them manage their reactions.
They can become overwhelmed with emotions without assistance to help them find their way through. Teach and encourage them in self-regulation using breathing techniques, mindfulness, or other activities.
Also, it helps to keep kids busy during a stressful time and to increase their self-sufficiency.
Don’t forget to take care of yourself and your staff. Provide self-care opportunities. Seek professional help if needed. Emphasize hope, strength, and positivity throughout the day.
Helping Cope with Big Life Changes
Parents have several challenges amid the pandemic.
- When should they return to work if they have been working from home or have no job now?
- Is the childcare facility safe for the child to return?
- Is it safe to expose the child to family and friends?
- Should you allow grandparents to be exposed to the child after the child goes back to school or care?
Once parents have answered these questions to their own satisfaction, they might turn to you to guide them forward.
Here are some things to share with parents about making changes:
- Give kids advanced warning of changes so they can prepare.
- Keep as much the same as possible.
- Answer all the questions, even if you answered them before.
- Expect some regression in behavior.
- Help children express and label emotions.
- Give them extra attention throughout times of change.
Everyone likes to know what will happen next. Discuss changes with children and make them as positive as possible. Explain the details of the next steps and reassure them you are there to help.
Times of change are not good times to make more change. Avoid moving a child from a crib into a bed, for example, when a new sibling arrives. Keep regular routines for eating, sleeping, and daily activities.
Gradually transition to new routines and use verbal, auditory, or visual cues to help children know what’s next. Children learn new routines at the beginning of every new school year. This time, there is a little more change to deal with. They depend on the adults to help them sort things out.
Answer questions with age-appropriate information and be patient with repeated questions. Answering a repeated question can be another form of reassurance that nothing has changed since the last time the child asked.
Children of all ages have difficulty determining what it is they feel. Many children benefit from acting out their feelings during play or reading books about coping with change. Even pre-verbal children benefit from an adult helping them label their feelings, validating that those emotions are normal.
The pandemic ushered in multiple changes. Counter some of that uncertainty by keeping to a familiar routine while adding safety precautions. Model the behavior you want to see and explain why you are doing certain things.
Don’t tell children they shouldn’t feel a certain way. They need to know we all have those feelings, and the important thing is how we express them.
Encourage a Growth Mindset
Start by recognizing your own mindset and how you think. Remember that you send certain messages with your words and actions.
When it comes to kids, provide praise and encouragement using the appropriate language. Praise them for effort, progress, hard work, and persistence. Tell them they did a good job strategizing, rising to a challenge, or learning from a mistake.
Don’t praise talent, giftedness, being smart, or fixed abilities. This type of praise leaves children with no agency to improve. Employ the power of “yet.”
- You can’t do it yet.
- You don’t know it yet.
- If you learn and practice, you will
When talking about their experiences, ask questions that indicate a growth mindset. Ask what they did today that made them think hard. Ask about new strategies tried or mistakes that taught lessons. Ask what they tried today that was hard.
Always let them know mistakes are OK and to learn from any they make.
Here are some resources for further assistance in helping kids navigate pandemic change.
- Games and activities about coronavirus from BrainPop
- An updated comic explaining coronavirus
- How to talk to children about COVID-19 using videos, games, and activities from PBS Kids
- CDC guidance for caregivers talking to kids about COVID-19
Transitions are never easy, but gentle guiding hands from the adults in a child's life (including parents, grandparents, caregivers, teachers, and school administrators) can prevent changes from becoming too difficult to handle.