Published Date: 04/27/20
As the world continues to shelter at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, early childhood educators must spend some time learning about how trauma can affect the behavior and learning of children. When they come back to school, whether it is in May, August, or September, the children that walk in your door will be significantly changed from the ones you saw before Spring Break. In addition to the physical and mental changes of being older, young children’s behavior may have changed due to the stress they have experienced during the pandemic.
Children change so much between the ages of three and five. Every month a new developmental milestone is reached in verbal language, fine muscle control, physical growth, and social relationships. Think about how children developmentally change between the first week of March and the second week of May. If they had been in your classroom, what games would they have played? What stories would they have read? Which letters would you have taught them with pictures, worksheets, songs, and shapes? If you are a veteran teacher, you can look back on last year’s lesson plans to see what was covered including the spring holidays you would have celebrated. Stuck at home, the children may or may not have had access to developmentally appropriate learning. They may have been stuck in front of the TV or a tablet screen so that the older children could do their online learning.
What if the only stories young children heard came from a television or an electronic device like a tablet? Would the child’s vocabulary increase at the same rate?
What if a young child watched full-length movies at home so that the parent had a two-hour window to work from home undisturbed? Would the child understand the story as well as if it had been told to them by an adult?
Some of the answers to these questions relate to understanding how young children’s brain learns best. Although tablets and television videos are mesmerizing, research shows that when an adult reads to a child using an illustrated hard copy book, the brain makes more connections between the adults’ voice, the illustrations, and the vocabulary to form meaning than it does when listening to audio stories (like a podcast) or watching an animated story (like on an electronic device) that tells a story to a child.
When school starts again, teachers are going to have to accept that some of the children will not have progressed as well as they would have if they had been in school this spring. Some well-resourced children may be ahead of where you would expect them to be. Instead of looking at the gaps, welcome your students back to the routine and safety of your classroom without judgment.
Reteach your expectations. Establish and stick to your schedule. Spend a lot of time talking to the children and let them talk to you. Having a conversation is the best way to build relationships that reinforce self-esteem in children. If the relationship is strong, they will fill any gaps in vocabulary and learning much quicker than you’d think. Children are resilient and they will be eager to learn something new.
What if a child’s behavior has significantly changed?
The shelter-at-home situation is uniquely stressful for children, although there were similar precedents set during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-1920 and the Polio outbreak in the late 1940s-1950s. Although most businesses stayed open, movie theaters, swimming pools, and most outside events were canceled for fear of spreading the infection. People recovered from both, but some people also died. In the case of Polio, some children lived but were paralyzed or in pain for the rest of their lives. Fear and grief were a part of both historical epidemics. These emotions are also being felt by many children during COVID-19 and may affect their behavior.
What if a child has been sick or had someone in the house who contracted the virus?
Recent research found that children who contracted COVID-19 are more likely to asymptomatic, meaning they did not show any symptoms at all. If they never experienced any breathing difficulty, fever, or cough, they may be attending school but still, be sick. Watch out for behavior changes that indicate the child might be sick including listlessness, sounding "wheezy", or complaining of a stomachache, although a stomachache can stress-related instead of virus related. You will have to monitor children's behavior and make judgment calls on when to call a parent.
What if a child cries a lot or suddenly becomes violent in the classroom?
Unexpected changes in behavior may be due to them being unable to process their emotions after being confined at home in a stressful situation. Communicate often with parents. Find out what happened while the child was away from school. Was a parent ill? Did anyone in the family (a grandparent or relative) die?
One of the best ways to calm a child is to separate them from the group situation and sit with them calmly until they relax and calm down. Verbal threats or physical confrontations may escalate the situation instead of controlling it. Ask them to take a walk with you (or an administrator or an aide that is trained in how to talk to children) and walk with them down the hall or to a quiet place where they can separate from any triggers that may have caused the outburst. There are several strategies you can use with a preschool child to help them express and learn to control their emotions. Breathing exercises and self-soothing strategies can help teachers and students handle stress better and stay calm instead of exploding with disruptive behaviors.
The "new normal" of a post-COVID-19 school may feel very different than what you have experienced in a classroom before. If teachers are well-trained on what trauma, toxic stress, and neglect look like in children, the better prepared they will be to help them cope, thrive, and learn.
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