Who Will You Find in Your Classroom? Opening Pre-Ks and Child Care Centers in the Time of the Coronavirus

Who Will You Find in Your Classroom?

Opening Pre-Ks and Child Care Centers in the Time of the Coronavirus

By Barbara Kaiser and Judy Sklar Rasminsky



Everyone is applauding everyone but our children! These little heroes have stayed indoors more than they’ve ever known in their lives. Their whole worlds have literally been turned upside down: Adapting to online learning; all these rules they’ve never known; loss of friends, family, daily activities, lessons, outings; adults talking about others becoming unwell, news reporting death after death; a life they couldn’t have imagined.

Our poor children’s minds must be racing. Every day they get up and carry on despite all that’s going on, and all they’ve done is paint pictures and put stuff in their windows for the heroes out in the world. So here’s to our little heroes: today, tomorrow, and forever.

–Our thanks to the anonymous Facebook poster 

Sweden never closed their schools and early childhood centers in response to the coronavirus, Taiwan sent their children back to school in late February, and now other states and countries are following their lead.

No one really knows when—or how—to reopen the schools or child care centers shuttered during this pandemic, including us. We are not epidemiologists. But we have some ideas about what teachers will encounter as Denmark, Germany, France, Norway, Quebec, New Zealand, and maybe even a few American states give it a try.

What do schools and child care centers have to do?

Some of the modifications they have to make are obvious: Hand-washing and physical distancing remain obligatory for both children and teachers, no matter how hard they are to achieve; children must be screened before they enter; parents must stay outside; and toys and equipment—including doorknobs and faucets—must be disinfected throughout the day.

In addition, officials, administrators, and teachers will have to figure out whether they’ll have enough staff, find ways to organize the space, agree about wearing face masks, and decide how they’ll limit group activities, provide circle time, seat children safely for meals, separate cots during nap, and restrict children’s contact to the members of their own group. They will even need to devise a policy on whether teachers should hug or hold a child.

Other decisions will involve families. Those in charge must determine how many children can attend each day and how to carry out that decision—for example, will those  who’ve returned to work have priority? Will attendance be optional or mandatory? If parents choose to keep their child at home, will they be able to keep their place? If so, will they have to pay? To see how Quebec is managing all of this, click here.

Will the children be different?

Perhaps the biggest question of all is this: Who will you find in your classroom? What will the children be like after so many weeks in isolation at home? What will their confinement have done to them? Will life in early childhood centers, schools, and after-school programs actually return to normal?

Not very likely.

Young children may not be able to communicate their feelings in words, but they know that something is wrong.

Whether or not their parents are working, by now the adults in their life are exhausted, stressed, and short on patience. As hard as they’ve tried to keep to a schedule and provide activities for their children, the days at home were probably unpredictable and not much fun. The children longed to go somewhere, even just shopping, and yearned for the playground, missed their friends, and likely spent too much time on their parents’ computers or iPads or watching television. If they lived in a city, they had to stay away from strange creatures with scary masked faces whenever they went outside.

Many families experienced unemployment, food shortages, or the loss of a beloved grandparent, and those who were struggling before the pandemic may be dealing with domestic violence or child abuse. These worries will continue because no one knows when all this will end. The chronic stress is sure to have an effect on everyone, even very young children.

In short, the children will no doubt be excited to see you and their friends when they arrive in your classroom, but at the same time they will feel frightened and stressed, unable to understand or control much of anything in their lives. And the fact that you’ve probably rearranged the entire environment and they may have to attend in shifts won’t help, although it may give you more time to tend to their separation anxiety.

It is fair to say that many of them will have experienced some level of trauma.

What behaviors are you likely to see?

Every child will react differently, but you can be sure that a child whose classroom behavior was challenging before COVID-19 will almost certainly have upped the ante, and it’s likely that other children will act in an equally provocative manner. This behavior might not show up immediately, but don’t be surprised if it appears after a few weeks.

Infants may be difficult to soothe and comfort, resist being held, and show no interest in “serve and return” interactions with you.

Toddlers and preschoolers may see the world as an unsafe place where no one can be trusted, and if their fight-flight-and-freeze system has kicked in, they may be hyperalert, constantly on the lookout for danger, unable to concentrate or pay attention, and have trouble learning, processing, and retrieving information.

Their behavior may even be aggressive or defiant. Hitting, kicking, throwing things, or refusing to follow rules or directions are surefire methods for protecting themselves, attracting your attention, and getting the help they need.

Children of all ages will have issues of separation at both the start and the end of the day, struggle with transitions and naptime, and be prone to outbursts, tantrums, meltdowns, limit-testing, anxiety, and stubbornness. They may be afraid to venture outdoors or touch people and things, even the grass. They may cry and become fussy or easily upset, refuse to be comforted, or cling to you or their family and need lots of reassurance and empathy.

They may withdraw, avoid their peers, and isolate themselves, thinking, “I’m not safe here. I don’t want to be here. What if no one comes to pick me up?”

You may even encounter regressive behaviors, such as thumb-sucking, baby talk, bathroom accidents, and difficulties napping—and parents may report that their children won’t go to bed, don’t sleep, and have nightmares.

Even children who are securely attached may show signs of insecurity if their families are very stressed. Children who’ve lost a family member or close friend may be worrying that they—or their parents—will catch the virus and die. And children who earlier in their lives lived with trauma, adverse childhood events, or a disaster—such as neglect, child abuse, a mentally ill or drug-addicted parent, a forest fire, or a hurricane—are especially vulnerable and liable to act unpredictably.

You name it, you may see it.

What can you do to help?

Your first responsibility is to help the children feel safe. If your classroom is a safe place to be, they can begin to learn that the outside world may be okay, too. The best way to do this is to connect with them—to build a relationship. Show that you love them, tell them you’ll take care of them and keep them safe, and reassure them that they’ll be all right. Because children are very aware of nonverbal communication, be sure that your facial expressions and body language match what you say. Don’t forget to smile.

Let the children’s words and actions tell you what they need. Make it clear that it’s okay for them to have feelings and there is no right or wrong way to feel. Giving them time and space to ask questions and talk about their emotions and experiences enables them to feel heard, process what they’ve gone through, claim some control over their lives, and reach out when they need your help.

Listen hard, and respond honestly and clearly. But before you answer the children’s questions, find out what they know—what they want to know, what they’re thinking, what they’re worrying about. Correct and explain things they’ve misunderstood, but remember to make your answer developmentally appropriate and not to overwhelm them with information.

Emphasize social emotional learning because early childhood trauma affects children’s ability to recognize their own feelings, understand the feelings of others, and identify social cues accurately. Read books and talk about being afraid so that they can understand that it’s okay to be scared and there are ways to feel safe. Remind them again and again that you’ll take care of them. It’s also important to role-model and explain how you manage your own upset emotions—by taking deep breaths, hugging a family member, talking to a friend, going for a walk, baking cookies, doing a puzzle, reading a book, listening to music.

Mindfulness exercises can help children to relax, and it’s a good idea to create a cozy corner with blankets, pillows, and music where children can curl up and calm down when they’re feeling stressed.

But play is perhaps the best way for children to deal with their feelings. When you keep the dramatic play area open and set up a host of free play and open-ended activities, you provide ways for them to express their fears and cope with and solve their problems. They need opportunities to play alone, to play with you, and to play together. Keep your ears open to learn what’s on their minds and follow their lead—you may hear themes of illness, isolation, hunger, fights between siblings and parents, maybe even death. Help them to focus on the helpers, the doctors, nurses, firefighters, ambulance drivers, EMTs, paramedics, etc.

Art—drawing, painting, writing stories—and pretend play also offer chances for them to express what they can’t say in words. And blocks, Lego, and other construction toys help some children to relax and concentrate on the present.

This is not the moment to introduce new material. In these uncertain times, predictability and structure are essential to helping children feel safe and secure. Create a schedule with regular routines and rituals so they always know what’s coming next. This is particularly important for children who’ve been exposed to trauma.

Focus on individual strengths and interests to build their mastery and self-efficacy. Provide choices and trust the decisions they make. This will help them to regain a sense of control over their lives.

When challenging behavior occurs

You need to be in control of yourself. It’s essential not to take children’s behavior personally or let it push your buttons. Instead take a deep breath and recognize that every child needs a bit more space and understanding than usual. Separate the child from the behavior, and rather than using aversive consequences find ways to show you care and will listen. Be aware of your nonverbal communication and distance from the child, and watch for cues that indicate that he or she is calming down.

Feeling overwhelmed and traumatized yourself?

Teaching young children is stressful enough under ordinary circumstances, without worrying about whether you’ll catch the virus and die or make your family sick, or how you’ll pay your bills, or if you’ll continue to have a job, or if you’ll have personal protective equipment, or how you’ll teach online, or how you’ll take care of your own children. You may be wondering how you’ll be able to teach at all.

We can assure you that it’s possible, but the bottom line is this: Before you can take care of others, you must take care of yourself. As they say on airplanes, put on your own oxygen mask first.

This advice is especially relevant when you’re working with children who’ve been exposed to trauma, because in order to meet their needs you must be your best, most regulated self. Try to be flexible and patient and open to new ideas. Adjust your expectations. Remember, behavior is a form of communication, and your job is to understand what it’s telling you. Then you can prevent your own negative emotions from intensifying children’s anxiety and fear and inadvertently triggering a stress response that sends them out of control. Emotions are contagious. If you’re calm, the children are more likely to feel calm and safe.

How can you take care of your own needs?

  • Taking deep breaths brings down your heart rate and blood pressure.
  • Limit the time you spend watching or listening to the news.
  • Exercise.
  • Each day do something that makes you feel good, such as dancing, singing, taking a long bath, doing yoga, or practicing mindfulness.
  • Connect with your own family and friends for emotional support. Strong relationships strengthen our resilience.
  • Allow yourself to laugh and cry.
  • Take up a hobby.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

This won’t be easy. You’ll probably be exhausted at the end of the day, but what you do for children and their families is vital, appreciated, and noble.

How are you dealing with the idea of returning to work?

We’d love to hear what you’re thinking and feeling. What are your views about the situation you’ll face and how you’ll handle it?

Helpful resources



Reopening guidelines available at https://wisconsinearlychildhood.org  Go to “New Resource Page: COVID-19.” There click on “Child Care Operations During COVID-19,” and then download “Reopening During COVID-19 Guidance.”

Malley, H. (2020). Not forever but for now: A story for children about feelings during the pandemic. Lake Balboa, CA: Stuart Tartly Press.

One Comment on “Who Will You Find in Your Classroom? Opening Pre-Ks and Child Care Centers in the Time of the Coronavirus”

  1. It’s interesting that children can learn social-emotional learning and can help with social cues. My sister is afraid of putting her daughter in childcare since she’s scared of COVID. She should find one that is taking the necessary precautions since childcare is good for their growth.

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