By Barbara Kaiser and Judy Sklar Rasminsky
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.
Maybe it’s one of your nightmares about the beginning of the school year: There’s a child with challenging behavior in your class, and you don’t know what to do.
Like many teachers, you probably had very little training in this subject. But believe it or not, you can help this child to behave appropriately and at the same time create a classroom that’s pleasant, relaxed, and conducive to learning.
Prevention is the best intervention. Here are some tips on how to do it.
1. Know the children well. If a child with challenging behavior can’t function, she may distract or frighten the other children, destroy their work, even hurt them. She will monopolize your time, deplete your resources, and keep you from teaching. But when the environment meets her physical, cognitive, emotional, and social needs, she feels capable of success and needs challenging behavior less.
By anticipating when she’ll have trouble, preventing the situation from occurring, and reminding her of what to do instead of waiting for her to make a mistake, you can construct a new pattern: She will feel good about herself and yearn to have that feeling again.
You may have to change your teaching style to meet her needs, but you will have more to give to all the children.
2. Make your classroom a community. The social context of the classroom has an enormous impact on the way children behave. Although you can’t see or touch it, the social context—which grows out of our words, actions, and body language—is everywhere, telling us what attitudes and behaviors are expected, accepted, and valued.
While young children are learning self-control, they rely on the external environment to help them. Teachers can support them by developing caring, responsive relationships and surrounding them with a positive, prosocial, predictable social context.
When children participate in structured cooperative activities or work together toward a common goal, they have a better chance to feel included. Class meetings; music, dance, and drama activities; cooking, murals, noncompetitive games, large construction projects; and reading aloud to the whole group every day foster unity, shared interests, prosocial behavior, and cooperative social interaction.
3. Watch your (body) language. Remember that you’re always a role model. When you smile and show your affection and enthusiasm, the children notice, and you set a positive tone for the whole class.
Eliminate no, don’t, and stop from your vocabulary. “Stop running!” opens the door for trouble: Should they hop, skip, jump? Instead use positive, direct language that tells them what to do. “Please walk in the hallway,” stated clearly, calmly, and respectfully, informs them of the expected behavior.
Avoid why, too. Andrew may not know why he spit, and if you ask, he’s likely to fabricate a reason. He may even believe that an explanation will make the behavior acceptable. But unacceptable behavior is always unacceptable, and why puts some children on the defensive, making it harder for them to regain control.
Saying “please” and “thank you,” expressing your feelings, being sensitive to others’ feelings, and offering and accepting help all show that you respect and value the children—and demonstrate how they can respect and value each other.
4. Help the children create rules, which teach expectations and set boundaries for behavior. Three to 5 are enough—it’s easier to remember them when there aren’t too many. They should be clear, explicit, stated in the positive, general enough to cover almost any situation, and important enough so that there will be no exceptions.
Begin with the primary need of everyone in the room—to be safe. Children and teachers have proposed:
- Respect yourself / Take care of yourself / Be safe
- Respect others / Take care of others / Be kind
- Respect the environment / Take care of the environment / Be gentle
The children will understand, respect, and follow the rules more readily if they create them themselves, with your support and guidance. Explain that rules enable people to treat one another fairly, kindly, and respectfully. This is a difficult concept, so work on it over time, including lots of examples and discussion so that the children come to a common understanding of what the rules mean. For instance, “respect others” may mean “listen when other people are talking” and “use an inside voice in the hallway.”
Post the rules with illustrations by the children and give each child a copy to take home. Throughout the year, use natural opportunities and activities to reinforce them. Children tend to forget, and practice helps them to remember.
5. Provide choice. When children can make their own decisions, they don’t need inappropriate ways to seek power and independence. Give them opportunities to succeed and to feel comfortable trying, and supervise closely so that you can reduce or add choices or teach new skills as circumstances require.
Even when you have a great circle or meeting time with lots of variety—sitting, standing, jumping, singing—give the children the choice to leave and return so that they don’t learn to rely on inappropriate behavior to meet their needs. Be sure to create a procedure for leaving and returning.
6. Teach social and emotional skills proactively and on a regular basis. They help children to make friends, regulate their emotions, gain self-esteem, resolve conflicts, and perform better at school.
Adults model, teach, and reinforce social and emotional skills, but because children imitate those most like themselves, they increasingly learn these skills through interaction with their peers.
Children with challenging behavior have great difficulty in the social and emotional realm. Often rejected by their classmates, they have few chances to learn and practice these skills, so it’s a good idea to teach social and emotional skills to the whole group. All of the children benefit; no one is singled out or stigmatized; and everyone learns the same concepts and vocabulary, making the skills easier to model and use.
Reinforce them in real-life interactions by staying closely attuned and coaching, prompting, and cueing to ensure children get the desired results.