Everyone is experiencing a degree of trauma amid the uncertainty of the coronavirus outbreak, including young children. Despite this, there appears to be a collective expectation that children can easily shift to remote schooling and will continue to advance academically as if they were still in the classroom.
By not recognizing the mental health toll of this crisis, this demand for academic achievement is putting enormous and unrealistic pressure on children, parents and teachers across the country, and ultimately compounding the crisis.
Mental health professionals working with families during the pandemic have seen an uptick in stress, anxiety, depression and fear. Our daily lives now include a new set of demands and concerns, including remote learning, social isolation, economic pressures and stress associated with health and sickness. These factors are often compounded by a lack of access to stable employment with livable wages, affordable housing and educational opportunity.
With all of these factors at play, it’s important to remember that the part of the human brain responsible for memory and learning is the same part that registers stress and trauma. If we want to ensure young children come out of this crisis ready to learn in school and capable of reaching their full potential, we must first address their emotional well-being.
For all children, social and emotional development is the foundation of academic success. As parents, we tend to focus more on recognizable cognitive skills such as learning the alphabet, counting to 20 and knowing the days of the week before kindergarten. But if children master social and emotional skills before starting school, including paying attention, following directions, getting along with others and being excited to learn, the cognitive skills will develop more easily.
Supporting our children as they navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and endure the most dramatic schooling disruption in history will require deliberate planning and investment in social and emotional health at home. Here are some important guidelines for parents and guardians to support young children’s development:
First, children are depending upon their relationship with you. The No. 1 factor that will help children be resilient during this time of great adversity is having adults in their lives who can attend to their emotional health. You can help them feel safe and secure by being sensitive and responsive. Right now in particular, children are looking to adults for important cues that even in the midst of uncertainty, things will be all right.
Second, it’s likely your child will exhibit behavioral changes or other signs of emotional distress during these disruptive days. Many parents are seeing an increase in these types of issues with their children, especially in highly active kids who are now having to remain indoors. If your child regresses, has emotional outbursts or demonstrates aggressive behavior, that is your cue to provide more attention, support and love. If you need extra support to help navigate these trying times, consider contacting your child’s pediatrician for a referral to a mental health professional.
Lastly, routines are as important as ever. Though many children are enjoying the increased interaction with their families, they are likely still missing their routine of life, such as seeing their friends and teachers every day. Young children thrive with routine as it helps them feel calm and in control. Using a predictable schedule during this time of remote learning will help children gain a sense of comfort.
Research widely documents the negative lifelong impact that early childhood trauma can have on health and well-being. Parents who are concerned about their children overcoming trauma should focus on supporting them as they mourn the loss of “typical” childhood experiences and strengthening their abilities to self-soothe, self-regulate and regain a sense of security. If we skip this and expect our children to learn, learn, learn through photocopied homework packets or while glued to a computer screen in “virtual” school, we are setting them up for long-term failure.
Geoff Nagle is president and CEO of Erikson Institute, a graduate school in child development.