Meeting Children’s Emotional Needs in light of Covid-19

As we prepare practically to re-open the setting on the 1st June (if the Government deem it safe to do so) we have risk assessed, put plans in place for hygiene and safety to ensure we are minimising the risk of infection once we re-open, but another important aspect of the return to the setting that we need to consider is how we will adequately meet the children’s emotional needs in light of the recent trauma they have experienced.

It may seem extreme to label the previous few months as ‘trauma’ but essentially, that’s exactly what they’ve experienced.

Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience’ and the entire lockdown and Covid-19 experience, is exactly that.

Children have been suddenly taken away from everything they know, their routines have been turned upside down, they haven’t been able to see their friends or family with very little understanding of the reasons why.

Add into the mix, a solid 7-9 weeks with their parents at home, as much as this may have been incredibly enjoyable and beneficial for most children, now facing the return to childcare, we need to appreciate the impact that this transition and separation from primary caregivers will have on the children and their emotional wellbeing – this may very well be another traumatic experience and transition for them and we need to be primed and ready to support this.

Before we discuss this further, it is important for us to highlight that we will not be exercising social distancing when re-opening and we will not be wearing facial PPE as we believe this will only add to the trauma of these children and also we will not be able to meet the needs of our children if we were to do so.

Now more than ever, our children need us to be readily available and open, both emotionally and physically. And we cannot continue to provide the same level of care they are used to, and will need upon return, from a 2m distance.

Whilst of course many practitioners are scared and worried about the potential risks of being in close proximity to a range of children in light of the current pandemic, and it is a worrying time for us all as we prepare to re-open and put plans in place to minimise risk and keep everyone safe, but what’s even more worrying is the potential emotional impact this pandemic has had on our children.

Some children may transition back to the setting with confidence and we of course hope that is the case, but as practitioners we must be prepared that for many children, this return may be just as traumatic as the past few months have been for them.

It is not just the practical arrangements we need to ensure are in place in order to receive children back into the setting to ensure we are able to meet the needs of our children, but are we as practitioners and a staff team emotionally ready to receive and respond to children who may or may not be traumatised in light of recent events?

Are you confident that your staff team want to return to work and are ready to support these children, emotionally as well as being physically present.

Children are highly intuitive and will instantly pick up on any uncertainty or concerns practitioners may be inwardly suppressing and so we have a responsibility to both our teams and the children to ensure that practitioners returning to receive children back into the setting, are prepared to do so both emotionally and physically.

Even attempting to socially distance from very young children is so damaging to children who have already experienced trauma and so we must all prepare to return ready to embrace (physically and mentally) our responsibilities and duty of care to these children.

For many children, the return to childcare will not be an easy one; experiencing separation anxiety from their parents is highly likely and to be expected after such an extended period of time at home within their family unit.

We must not revert to ‘They weren’t like this before’ attitudes and remember that these are not the children that left us a few months ago; these children have experienced a pandemic, a national lockdown, separation from friends and family with no warning, social distancing measures that they can barely comprehend, and so we cannot expect them to return from this experience unscathed.

All of the children returning to childcare, whether it be on June 1st or in latter months, whenever they return, we must be prepared to offer them time to adjust, to settle at their own pace. We need to be understanding to new behaviours and attitudes that we might not have witnessed from these children before and instead of reprimanding them for behaviours that we may view as challenging, we need to do our best to understand that child, their feelings and ways in which we can support them.

Online forums are full of practitioners harsh remarks about ‘bet they’ve forgotten all their manners’, ‘preparing to have to re-teach them the rules’, ‘We’ll have to start over again with their manners.’

Are these things that in the grand scheme of things are important upon return? In our opinion, no. Children will re-learn manners, rules and appropriate behaviour, but with all due respect, have they not been coercive enough as they abide to strict lockdown rules and social distancing with very little understanding of the reasons why.

So should re-teaching them to be ‘good’ be at the forefront of our minds? No. We should be preparing for these children and to behave out of character, offering understanding, compassion, comfort and ultimately love.

These children do not need to return to our settings and feel bad, confused or under pressure, they are already so confused about recent events – as adults we are struggling to process the chaos of the past few months, how are these children feeling?

So, we come back to ensuring that we are not just practically ready to welcome children back into our settings, but are practitioners ready to put aside their own worries, concerns and negative feelings about the potential implications of a return?

If you can’t honestly answer this question and be emotionally and physically available to children that may return, confused, reluctant, angry, upset and anxious, then perhaps you need to re-consider whether now is the right time for you to open.

We need to be welcoming children back with literal open arms, minds and hearts in order to allow them to emotionally process the events of the past few months, as well as the additional turmoil of another transition and separation experience.

At this time, children need understanding, time, acceptance and love. (To read more about ‘love’ within an Early Years context, you can here.)

You cannot comfort a child from a distance. You cannot console a child at arms length.

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