Covid 19 has shaken up all of us, adults and children alike. No one knows when life will return to n ormal, and this uncertainty makes the present even more stressful.
In addition to worrying about family, friends, and our own health, those of us who work in child care and schools continue to worry about whether we’re keeping everyone safe—whether we’re washing our hands and cleaning surfaces well enough, whether we’re staying far enough apart, whether everyone is wearing a mask.
For the children in our care, there is also a new normal:
For many, arrival and pick up take place outside (because parents and other caregivers aren’t allowed inside the building, although in some places they can enter the building but not the classrooms).
There can be no hugs (because children must keep their distance from their peers and adults).
Children can play only with the others in their group.
In many centers, everyone must wear a mask.
That is, the stress of living with Covid has undermined our physical and psychological safety and created a collective trauma.
The effects of stress
Stress that is mild, brief, or even tolerable isn’t harmful when we have someone to help us through it. But toxic stress—stress that is intense, frequent, and prolonged—is a different story. It produces abnormally high levels of the hormone cortisol, which activates our fight-flight-freeze response and shuts down our ability to think. Instead we just act.
Children in fight mode may become aggressive, kick, hit, bite, scream, or throw themselves on the floor.
In flight mode, they may hide under a table or blanket or run out of the room.
In freeze mode, which is the most common response in infants and toddlers, they may space out, daydream, or simply go to sleep.
When the stress response stays in high gear and the brain is flooded with cortisol for too long, it becomes easier to turn on and harder to turn off, creating a constant state of arousal that makes regulating emotion and managing stress very difficult.
Surprisingly, this is a time for us to develop resilience–to strengthen our capacity to control our emotions and prevent, tolerate, and overcome adversity by dealing with it. As we live through life’s ups and downs, our resilience grows, and Covid presents an opportunity to dig deeper into ourselves. What we discover enhances our knowledge, thinking, and self-management skills and enables us to better serve the children in our care.
How to Manage Stress and Build Resilience
Stick to a routine.
Limit your exposure to social media about Covid and balance negative accounts with positive ones.
Give yourself joy by doing something you usually don’t have time for.
Be creative—paint, cook, write poetry, dance, keep a journal.
Maintain and expand your social contacts and supports—talk about your feelings with people you trust and ask for help if you need it. The stronger your relationships, the better your resilience.
Keep track of your stress, identify the unhealthy ways you cope with it, and look for healthier ways that fit your personality, lifestyle, and interests.
Accept that change is part of living, and nurture a positive view of yourself and your life. Cultivate optimism and gratitude and let your negative thoughts float away. See yourself as resilient, not as a victim.
Set realistic goals and take steps to carry them out.
Toxic stress and children
Toxic stress related to Covid undermines children’s sense of safety and their ability to regulate their emotions and behavior. How they react to stress depends on their temperament, history, and their family’s culture, support system, and social and economic status. Whether their parents are essential workers, whether they live in an urban or rural area, whether they have siblings—and whether they’ve lost a loved one in the pandemic—all play a role in the way children respond.
Children exposed to toxic stress may have trouble sitting still, paying attention, following rules and directions, and managing transitions, and they may find it hard to communicate their needs in words. So it is no wonder if they lash out at any sign of a threat (whether real or imagined), suffer from separation anxiety, cling, cry, withdraw, become fussy, talk baby talk, or have toileting issues or temper tantrums. Even ordinary events, such as a new person in the room, an unexpected sound, a harsh tone of voice, or someone coming too close, may evoke challenging behavior.
Toxic stress also interferes with learning, making it harder for infants to learn to eat and sleep, for toddlers to learn to explore the world through play, and for preschoolers to learn to concentrate and make friends.
How can we meet children’s needs?
Our first responsibility is to help children feel physically and psychologically safe. If they feel safe at school or child care, they may feel that the rest of the world is safe as well. The best way to do this is to build relationships—let them know we’ll take care of them, keep them safe, and reassure them that they’ll be all right. As Dr. Bruce Perry tells us in The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook, the more healthy relationships that children have, the more likely it is that they will recover from stress or trauma and go on to thrive.
Our day-to-day social interactions lay the foundation for children’s attitudes, values, behavior patterns, and sense of self. As we care for them, we learn all about them, and they flourish because we’re treating them with respect and honesty, making them feel special and important, and giving them the sense they belong.
At the same time, the children are learning from our example. When we model appropriate reactions, convey trust in other adults, use socially acceptable interaction skills, and express emotions like anger, anxiety, fear, and helplessness, we demonstrate that it’s okay to have strong feelings—and that their own strong feelings won’t scare us away. We will be helping them build their own resilience, tolerate their own uneasy feelings, and create mechanisms that can protect them from being overwhelmed by their experience.
Building Relationships and Resilience 101
Greet children by name when they arrive.
Follow their lead in play.
Be an appreciative audience—listen to their ideas, stories, and worries. Let them tell you what they need, and acknowledge their feelings and concerns. Allow time to talk about their experiences over the past months. What have they learned?
Focus on what they can do and create opportunities for success.
Acknowledge their effort and show you believe in their ability to succeed.
Collaborate with them to find routines, strategies, and resources that best support them and meet their needs.
Recognize the value of their background and culture and what they bring to the group.
Share information about yourself and find something that you and the child have in common.
Post their work and ask them to bring photos and objects from home to share with their classmates.
Tell children you miss them on days when they’re absent.
Tell families about their child’s great day in front of the child.
Creating a safe environment
We can also help children feel safe by creating a trauma-informed environment—one that recognizes the impact of toxic stress and trauma, strives to make everyone feel safe, supported, and connected, and enables children to develop their full emotional, social, and intellectual potential.
Although it’s tempting to jump in whenever there’s a problem, it’s better to hold off; children need discomfort in order to work through their difficulties and develop resilience. When we ask questions that bounce the problem back to them and talk about mistakes—both theirs and ours—we teach problem solving and send the message that mistakes help them learn.
In these days when people still don’t often get together—and if they do they may be physically distant and wearing masks—social and emotional learning is more valuable than ever. Children need chances to see and practice social skills, so it’s a good idea to teach and model them proactively, focusing on their strengths and feelings and how their actions affect others. When we share control and provide lots of choice, play, dramatic play, and opportunities to share decision making, we enable children to explore the new normal.
Changing our approach to discipline: A paradigm shift
Perhaps the most important change we can make is in our own attitudes. Instead of asking ourselves, “What’s wrong with this child?” we can ask “What has happened to this child?”
Likewise, we can give children attention when they’re behaving appropriately, tell them what to do, not what not to do, and eliminate no, stop, don’t, and why from our vocabulary–because goal-oriented language helps them understand what they ought to be doing and avoids hidden messages. It’s even useful to recognize their close approximations of positive behavior.
When Challenging Behavior Occurs
Show that you care unconditionally.
Separate the child from the behavior.
Recognize and eliminate whatever triggers the challenging behavior.
Don’t take things personally.
Focus on the positive.
Respect personal space.
Remember that the work we do each day, in whatever way we serve children and families, is vital, noble, and appreciated. We can’t change children’s lives, but we can make a difference during the hours they spend with us.
But it also has a splendid illustration of implicit bias, which is far more subtle.
Toward the end of the movie, Mrs. Michael, a White manager (played by Kirsten Dunst), semi-apologizes to Dorothy Vaughan, an African American woman in NASA’s computing pool (played by Octavia Spencer), by saying, “I didn’t mean you any harm.”
Vaughan’s response outs her supervisor’s unseen prejudice: “I know. And I’m sure you believe that.”
What exactly are implicit biases, and who has them?
According to Walter S. Gilliam, the Yale psychologist who’s been studying them for years, implicit biases are automatic, unconscious stereotypes that form as a result of our upbringing, daily experiences, and media exposure and drive the way we take in information, judge situations and people, and make decisions. All of us have them—they are natural and pervasive.
Despite the fact that they shape our expectations and behavior and influence us at least as much as our explicit biases, these biases are called “implicit” because most of the time we don’t even know they’re there—just like Mrs. Michael.
Is there implicit bias in schools and child care centers?
Gilliam’s interest in implicit biases dates from his discovery in 2005 that African American children—especially boys—were being suspended and expelled from state-funded prekindergarten classes at an alarming rate, much higher than White children and children in K-12 schools.
Why are Black boys at such high risk?
These statistics made Gilliam ask, why are Black boys suspended and expelled so often? From his 2005 study, he knew some of the risk factors:
Children of color often live with more stressors than White children.
They frequently attend poor-quality child care programs.
Because of their difficult lives, their families probably need more child care than most families, and as a result their children’s daycare day is very long.
Four-year-olds are more likely to be expelled than three-year-olds, perhaps because they’re bigger and teachers fear they’ll harm the other children.
Teachers who are depressed or experiencing job stress are more apt to suspend and expel the children in their care.
But Gilliam also suspected that an implicit bias lay at the root of these findings, and he set up an experiment to find out.
Gilliam recruited 135 early childhood educators and told them he was studying how teachers detect challenging behavior, sometimes even before it appears. Then, using sophisticated eye-tracking equipment, he showed them a video of four preschoolers—an African American boy, an African American girl, a White boy, and a White girl.
The result? Even though the children were actors and the video contained no challenging behavior, the teachers spent more time watching the African American boy, who they said required the most attention. That is, they expected him to misbehave because of his race.
In the second part of the experiment, Gilliam asked the teachers to rate the behavior of a child in a written vignette. He manipulated the child’s race and sex by using different names—DeShawn or Jake; Latoya or Emily. The ratings suggested that both Black and White teachers had a stereotyped belief—that is, an implicit bias—that Black children are more liable to misbehave.
Some participants also received a description of the child’s family life, and their own race seemed to guide their reaction to it: If teacher and child were of the same race, the teacher could empathize with the child and the behavior seemed less severe. On the other hand, when they were of different races, the teacher considered the child’s behavior harder to deal with.
Researchers hypothesize that Black teachers are better able to understand Black children’s lives and culture and use that knowledge to respond to their needs.
What can we do about this?
Children with challenging behavior who are harshly disciplined and suspended and expelled from prekindergarten, preschools, and child care centers are missing out on a vital opportunity to prepare for—and succeed in—school. Luckily there is now some evidence that reducing our implicit biases and increasing our empathy can give them a much better start.
So most of us are largely on our own. We have to hold ourselves accountable and rely on what we and our colleagues can do together. As Carol Brunson Day put it at the last NAEYC conference, “We must all work continuously to insure unintended consequences don’t come from our behavior.”
Here are some suggestions
The key is to know yourself, and self-reflection is our number one tool. There is no shame in having biases—everyone has them—but before we can change them we have to admit that they exist. This takes courage, but if we stick with it and fight the urge to run away or hide, we will make progress. We could help one another by pointing out an action or a response that seems due to bias—or by observing a colleague who has a particularly easy relationship with an African American boy.
It’s extremely important to build strong relationships with all the children we teach and use every interaction to show how much we care about them and believe in their ability to succeed. Little things mean a lot, for example, saying their names correctly. Mispronouncing or changing a child’s name insults the child, the family, and their culture and can have a lasting effect on a child’s self-image and world view.
Get to know the children’s families and learn about their lives and culture, paying special attention to those whose beliefs and experiences are different from yours. Head Start has shown us that family involvement and home-school collaboration improve children’s behavior at school. Home visits open doors, both literally and figuratively.
Make a point of connecting with people who are different from you. This can be hard because many of our neighborhoods are segregated, so use your ingenuity. Invite guest speakers into your classroom, attend a service at an unfamiliar church, or follow the example of Justin Minkel, 2007 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, and arrange a meet-up for families in a park or playground.
All of this enables us to challenge our stereotypes. Arizona teacher Cheryl A. Redfield put it this way: “We tend to characterize a whole people group from a few encounters. We don’t challenge our conclusions. So rethink, reflect, and resolve not to succumb to the convenience of overgeneralization, especially when it comes to people. They can surprise you.”
Whenever they do surprise you, your horizons expand, your empathy and compassion grow, and your biases lose some of their power.
Over to you
Have you had any experience dealing with implicit biases, either your own or others’? How did you become aware of them, and did you have any success in changing them?