With the outbreak of COVID-19 globally, school closures and online education have become shared experiences for children, teachers, and parents around the world. As China emerges from lockdown, schools are preparing for re-opening.
National guidelines, issued by the People’s Republic of China’s Ministry of Education, on COVID-19 prevention and control at all school levels, focus on medical suggestions, physical health and hygiene. However, teachers everywhere are concerned about the mental and social aspects of children’s returning to schools. In this blog, drawing on relevant research from China and elsewhere, we summarize some of the major considerations for young children’s post-COVID-19 psychological and social readiness.
- Separation Anxiety
As children have spent long time at home with parents and other carers, returning to early years settings might lead to separation anxieties, especially for younger children. Research suggests that separation anxiety could manifest itself in various ways, such as attachment to families, silence, and refusal of assistance. Parents’ and teachers’ sensitivity to those signs is thus important in supporting children with separation and anxiety issues. Several strategies are suggested by research studies and guidelines to cope with children’s separation anxiety and emotional difficulties:
- Storytelling: stories from children’s own experiences or tales related to COVID-19 enable children to express their feelings, emotions, thoughts, and behaviours, helping teachers and adults to respond and support accordingly;
- Play: through play, children can also express their feelings and reflect their experiences during the COVID-19 lockdown. Allowing more opportunities for child-initiated play activities is particularly important.
- Familiarising: a familiar environment helps children to feel secure. Measures that familiarise children with their schools and peers, as suggested by Ms Guo from an international kindergarten in China, could include sharing photos with children of what the kindergarten currently looks like, pointing to the changes and also to things that children remember. Teachers in Ms Guo’s kindergarten, as in many Chinese kindergartens, are also organising online meetings with all children (class-based) once a week before they all join each other in class.
- Reassurance: as parents may have told their children repeatedly at home that it was not safe to leave home or go outside during the COVID-19 lockdown, reassuring children that it is safe in the kindergarten can support them to develop their sense of security.
- Signs of Trauma
In addition to separation anxiety, some children who have had family members contracting COVID-19 may suffer more during the pandemic period. Traumatic experiences can affect children’s learning and behaviour and the effects can be chronic. Practitioners and parents need to be sensitive to possible signs of trauma and communicate to make sure both sides stay informed. Some possible changes in behaviour that indicate signs of trauma include: decreased attention, increased activity level, irritability, angry outbursts or impulsive behaviour. Trauma-informed practices based on each child’s situation are significant in supporting each child’s needs. More detailed suggestions on supporting children with traumatic experiences can be found here.
- Death and Life Education
Professor Wei Yao, from Northeast Normal University in China, suggests that the pandemic period is critical for death and life education. The importance of life, protecting our lives and others’, what is death and how to face it, are topics for discussions with children in accordance with their age and experiences. Research has shown that young children are capable of learning to understand human body function and death. Practitioners, with proper guidance, could be confident in engaging with the topics of life and death. Suggestions are given here with detail.
In some extreme cases, children may have family members who have died of COVID-19. Children Bereavement UK has detailed guidelines on supporting a bereaved child in an Early Years setting, including:
- Contact with home
- Even very young children need information
- Children’s understanding of death
- Grieving behaviour in young children
- Explaining funerals
- Acknowledge what has happened
- Try to answer questions honestly
- Adults as role models
- Be prepared to repeat explanations and information
- Give reassurance
Explanations and suggestions on each item can be found here.
Overall, in supporting children’s mental health after they return to preschools, the key principles for practitioners are: sensitivity, considering the experiences of the children in your group, listening to children and communicating with parents.