Coping with Change (during the Pandemic and Beyond)
By Jennifer Champagne, Ph.D. Consultant, Early Childhood, Oakland Schools
Recently, I heard about a toddler screaming “Oh No! People!” when he spotted someone he didn’t know while on a walk. During these pandemic times, our children may express big feelings as we venture outside our home for the first time in a while. You might wonder how your child can feel physically and emotionally safe as we go back to child care, school, and other places. Child Trends identified 3 R’s that can help: Reassurance, Routines, and Regulation (soothing).
Reassurance is making sure children know they have caring and consistent adults in their lives. Adults who will love them and keep them safe. It is helpful to focus on actions you can take. Reassurance can be teaching a child how to stay safe when she sees new people. For the toddler who was scared of seeing people, you may say “Wow! I see people, too. Let’s wave and say hello. Our masks help keep us safe.” Reassurance can be talking to a child beforehand who will see a family member in person. Let them know what to expect, “It has been so fun to FaceTime with grandma. Now we get to visit her! We will all wear masks to be safe.”
Reassurance includes pointing out community helpers and what they do to keep us safe such as custodians, nurses, scientists, teachers, and doctors. “The custodian is cleaning up your classroom to get rid of all those icky germs. Custodians help keep us safe.” Reassurance can be naming a child’s feeling, giving a reason for the feeling, and empowering them to know they can help keep themselves safe. “You are feeling nervous about going to school. You haven’t been to school in a long time. The grownups are here to help you be safe and you know how to wear your mask and wash your hands to keep safe.”
Routines are comforting and predictable and help children know what is going to happen next. Kellye Wood, Director of Early Childhood at Oakland Schools, reminds us that “Sometimes less is more and simple is best. Try to have a basic daily schedule with reassuring routines and playtime for your child — yet know it’s all right when things don’t go as planned.” Reminding children of the routine and letting them know about changes can help children prepare for the unexpected. Picture schedules can help children remember all of the different parts of their day. This website has some ideas for using pictures at home: Visual Supports for Routines, Schedules, and Transitions.
If your child is starting or returning to school after an extended absence, you could ask the teachers to send you a few pictures of themselves and their classroom. You and your child can point out some structural things to look for (sort of like landmarks) so that the building will have some level of comfort and familiarity when they arrive. If you know the class schedule, you can also prepare your child with a simple story, “When you get to your classroom, you will see Ms. Sue and Mr. Chris, they will help you find your cubby and hang up your coat. Next you get to pick out a book and read it on the carpet. I can’t wait to hear about what book you picked!”
Regulation means helping children develop skills to cope with (regulate) stress and manage strong feelings. Helping children learn how to soothe themselves is an important skill, but starts with calming ourselves first. When we can find strategies that help us feel calm, then we can teach them to our children. For example, taking a deep breath or two when we are upset teaches a child how to do this when they are upset. Adults can also help with regulation when they figure out the sources of children’s stress. Could it be loud noises, a change in routine, new people, sticky textures, or a fear of disappointing someone? When we know what is stressful then we can help children prepare and learn to cope with those situations.
Regulation includes caring for ourselves and helping our little ones care for themselves. Taking deep breaths, following routines, offering comforting hugs, and getting enough sleep are all ways to help us regulate. Recognizing and understanding our feelings is also a part of regulation. Before children can cope with strong feelings, they need to name them. Research shows that talking about feelings at home makes a positive lasting difference in the life of a child.
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