Counting the emotional cost of Covid

Written by Early Years Lecturer Ian Currie.

Children returning to early childhood settings after a sudden and unplanned exposure to a less predictable world are noticeably different from those who left to enter lockdown almost three months ago. The settings they are returning to are also substantially changed. With human contact significantly reduced and, in some settings, discouraged altogether, we find much of our existing ‘best practice’ eviscerated. The ‘human’ element of social and emotional care reduced to a distanced form of (literally) sanitised interaction that jeapardises the emotional literacy of a generation.

Children frequently need emotional comfort, the simple expression of which combines an appropriate choice of words with some kind of physical contact – a hug, holding a hand, stroking a bruised cheek. They have spent their first few months and years of life learning this and benefitting socially and emotionally from such consistent expressions of care. We know that such patterns of interaction between children and care-givers are amongst the crucial foundations of the attachment bond and the trust that underpins such early relationships.

We even understand the neuroscience of how the brain develops structurally in response to the predictability and security of one’s environment but in three short months we have pulled the predictability rug from under a generation of children. Of course we have not done so intentionally. We as adult carers and parents have been wrestling with our own uncertainties and insecurities about the pandemic. Our world too has become much less predictable and as we have tried to make sense of hearsay, gossip, official advice and data, our vocabularies have changed. We have conversations about ‘lockdown’, ‘Covid 19’, ‘R-rates’, ‘Corona virus’, ‘hospitals’, ‘death’ and ‘fear’. We forget that children hear these conversations, whether amongst ourselves and our families and friends, whether on the 5pm televised Government briefing, whether between siblings or peers. Children’s worries and insecurities are emerging in play. We are seeing ‘lockdown’ games and Covid monsters, we are hearing conversations about death and dying and we are seeing fear and aggression exhibited in play activities. Literature on childhood trauma recognises such behaviour but in a world-wide pandemic where our own knowledge and understanding is incomplete how should we respond to these expressions of insecurity amongst our children? How do we manage emotions amongst children who are trying to understand new boundaries? How do we support children to articulate their concerns? How do we create stability in the new and unpredictable normality? How do we manage our own mental health and resilience?

A key worker’s perspective on lockdown Early Years education approaches.

Written by student Mary Warsop who is studying for her BA (Hons) Early Years Practice at Holy Cross College, Bury.

I am a Teaching Assistant, University student and parent to a toddler. I work in an inner-city primary school. Since the government’s announcement, to support the NHS and our critical workforce, I have been working on a rota basis to look after the children who are required to remain in school. I fully understand the rationale behind keeping our critical workers at work.

People ask me how we manage to keep children socially distanced? The answer is, with great difficulty. Anyone who has spent any amount of time with small children will know that they gravitate towards each other, it’s a part of being human. In a way, I have a sense that what we are doing feels innately wrong and somehow damaging. The prime areas of development (prioritised because of their importance in humanistic and brain development) are personal, social and emotional, communication and language and physical development. We tell children to stay away from their peers. This is the opposite to the usual approach taken towards supporting children’s emerging social skills. We are not to touch children unless we are administering first aid and are wearing personal protective equipment. Children may talk to each other but conversation is stifled by a physical gap and the fact that they are now in mixed classes and may not have a classmate they know.

To stop children from playing games with each other goes against my principles as a yearly year’s practitioner, as I usually champion the fact that young children learn best through play. I feel that isolating children in this way and reminding them every 2 minutes that they must not touch one another, though necessary to stop the

spread of infection, may have negative effects for children’s developing sense of self, issues around trust, and interpretation of social norms.

The way that my setting has interpreted the governments advice will differ to other settings. This is all respective of the senior leadership team’s priorities. A local school to me seems to have much less restrictive rules. I saw children holding hands as they played outside and a teacher hugging a child who seemed unsettled. This would be completely unacceptable at my setting where a game of ‘chase’ is not deemed acceptable, as inevitably someone will come into close contact with another (this is the point of the game after all). Play equipment isn’t to be used or any of the climbing frames or benches. iPad’s are out of bounds and the children are mostly engaged in solo creative activities.

What confuses the children most, is why we at school are being so mean, when they have been “playing out with all their friends” this whole time. It would seem that social distancing is more understood in some neighbourhoods than others. Rigorous testing and contact tracing systems seem a million light years away. So, for now this will just have to do. When we reflect on our practice at this time, I hope that we can say that we did our best.

Written by Mary Warsop.

Working and Teaching in the Early Years

Elle Gentle

Hi I am Elle Gentle I am a second-year student studying a BA (Hons) Working and Teaching in the Early Years, currently researching the benefits of children being allowed to take risks. Has health and safety gone too far and are we restricting their development if we wrap them up in cotton wool?

Kids Club on a beach

Over the years I have spent a lot of time working abroad in places such as Egypt and Malaysia looking after children as a Kid’s Club representative, providing various activities and a range of arts and crafts for all different ages. However, for this article I wanted to focus my attention on the work that I did in Malaysia on a small island resort called Sea Gypsy Village Resort. The island where the resort is located is called Pulau Sibu Besar and I have worked there on and off for about three years. As described on their website, the place is “A resort surrounded by jungle with a beautiful, safe, secluded, virtually private sandy beach. Perfect for families and couples who are looking to escape the stress of the city. Transport yourself back to a time before phones and email, engage in a digital detox to rediscover the value of time spent together”. https://www.siburesort.com/

People crossing a foot bridge

I think one of the reasons why I have fallen in love with this place is this last point, the digital detox. I have been able to see families coming together, children playing outside, running around and exploring both jungle and ocean. As for the parents, they are able to relax as they know that their children are safe on this secluded island. This is something so often lost to the industrialised world as our children become increasingly surrounded by technology. Whilst there are many benefits to this technology, are our younger generations playing outside like we used to do? The benefits of outside play are endless, as stated by Greenfield (2004, cited in Little and Wyver, 2008: 36) ‘the risks and challenges of being outdoors provide rich opportunities for learning, problem-solving and developing social competence’.

Building a shelter on a beach

The resort also provides educational school trips several times a year. From the minute the children set foot on the island, they take part in games and tasks that promote teamwork, leadership skills, problem solving and survival skills. The activities can include anything from making bandanas to creating team chants, from gutting fish to making shelters and from orienteering to beach competitions. The children are constantly surprised by what they are capable of and go home exhausted and elated. The necessary risks assessments are completed by the resort and standard operating procedures are put in place to ensure the safety of all children. One of the main activities which could be described as risky, is the Survivor game. The children are taught basic survival skills such as making fires with flints, building shelters from natural materials and even how to gut fish. Once these skills are taught, we take them to a small deserted island and make out as if they will be staying there overnight. The children must work as a team, gather the resources needed, put together a shelter and make a fire. The skills that the children develop from this are incredible and include resourcefulness, team-work, perseverance, problem solving. So much learning happens from such a hands-on experience. According to Craig (2007, cited in McArdle et al, 2013: 249) ‘Confidence to face up to new and challenging situations is a condition that, we suggest, encourages resilience’. Could we be doing more in the UK to facilitate these types of experiences?

References

LITTLE, H. and WYER, S., 2008. Outdoor play. Australian Journal of Early Childhood. 33 (2), pp. 33-40. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1177/183693910803300206 [Accessed 31 January 2020].

MCARDLE, K., HARRISON, T. and HARRISON, D., 2013. Does a nurturing approach that uses an outdoor play environment build resilience in children from a challenge background? Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning. 13 (3), pp 238-254. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1080/14729679.2013.776862 [Accessed 31 January 2020].

Supporting Children to be Mentally Healthy

Supporting Children to be Mentally Healthy: A Whole School Approach (CPD Session)

Written by Elisa Fellone-Scott, Year 3 student trainee on the BA (Hons) EYE with QTS  programme

In this article I will be discussing the information for the recent training session ‘Supporting children to be Mentally Healthy: A Whole School Approach’. The speaker at the CPD Session, Professor Jonathan Glazzard was clearly passionate about mental health, being a Principal Researcher in the Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools. This is a great research project supporting schools in making positive changes to the educational system through providing information and resources on mental health (Leeds Beckett University, 2019)

The World Health Organisation (2003:1) defines mental health as ‘a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.’

Often people think about teenagers and adults when poor mental health is discussed, however, it is essential to understand how poor mental health can impact children from the early years of life. The National Health Service (2017) highlighted the child mental health is continually rising and reported that 5.5% of children between the age of two and four experienced a mental disorder. This raises questions as to why mental health is not discussed more in primary schools and early childcare settings if it is a growing concern (Nagel, 2016).

Potential Causes for Poor Mental Health

Poor mental health in children can be a result of a range of factors including, individual disability, family conflict, neglect, social deprivation, poor attachments and school culture. It is essential to acknowledge that children are often more aware of things happening in their environment that many people believe. Furthermore, school culture is a big cause for stress due to testing, expectations and being in a new and busy environment. Meyer’s (2003:8) model of stress explains that although stress may affect everyone, people of minority tend to struggle with more stress due ‘distal’ and ‘proximal’ stress. Distal stress occurs when an individual experience violence due to discrimination, on the other hand, proximal stress is experienced when the individual anticipates that they we be discriminated against. It is fundamental that practitioners are aware of the different types of stress to get a true understanding of the child’s lifestyle and mental health.

A Whole School Approach

To improve mental health, it is essential that all areas of school life are involved. This model taken from Public Health England (2015) highlights that leadership and management teams are fundamental in implementing effective strategies. To promote an ethos and environment grounded in respects and diversity, schools should represent all faiths and cultures. This can be done through multi-cultural displays and stories demonstrating different traditions and beliefs.  Curriculum teaching and learning can support mental health through providing opportunities for the children to discuss their feelings and reflect on their experiences. Student Voice is evident through providing autonomy in the classroom, this could be choosing stories to read to class representatives. The saying ‘you can not pour from an empty glass’ is clear when it comes to teaching. Teacher’s mental health needs to be healthy to ensure that they can help others around them. Therefore, the staff should be given training on how to support their own mental health as well as the children’s mental health and wellbeing. Identifying a need through recognising the signs of mental health issues and using interventions to help the child’s mental health. It is important to note that in specific cases the practitioner should refer them onto specialists to help the child. Finally, it is essential that practitioners work alongside parents to help them support their child in their home life, this support could include converting a part of the child’s room into a calming area or encouraging the parents to help the child reflect on their feelings.

Signs of Mental Health Issues

  • Physical signs for example, bruises, cuts.
  • Become withdrawn
  • Changes in behaviour
  • Decline in progress
  • Lack of personal care
  • Low self-esteem
  • Lower attendance in school
  • Self- blame
  • Tiredness/ lethargic

Strategies

Scaling

Ask the child to rate an aspect of their life, for example, their teamwork skill from one to ten. Once the child has answered the question, the practitioner should ask questions such as,

  • Where would you say you are now?
  • What are you doing that makes you think you are at this number?
  • What will tell you that you have moved one point up the scale?
  • What might you be doing then that you are not doing now?
  • ‘Where on the scale do you hope to get to over the next [e.g. week]?
  • What will you be doing then that’s different?’

Exception Finding aims to find a time where the child was not struggling to discover what could be the trigger for the problem.

  • When are the times that (the problem) doesn’t happen as much?
  • Tell me about a time when (the problem) happened but didn’t last as long?
  • When are the times when other people would notice you (e.g. behaving, working, being kind…) in a good way?
  • When were things a little bit better for you? What was different then?
  • Tell me about a time when (e.g. you stayed calm) in that difficult situation?

Complimenting is focusing on small things that the child has done well to help their self-esteem.

  • ‘It seems to me you’ve somehow been able to keep going with that, when things have been difficult, that you’re a person who can keep going even when things are tough. Is that true about you?’
  • ‘Something I’ve noticed today is that you’ve answered every question I asked you, maybe with an “I don’t know” answer, or maybe something else’.

Peer Mentors (Nagel, 2016) research found that children are more likely to talk to their peers about problems as they fear that adults will tell their parents. It is suggested that schools could train some pupils to be key listeners and understand when to inform the teacher of any problems.

Meditation helps children relax and gives them the opportunity to reflect on their day in a non-stressful way. These can be short daily sessions or long less frequent session.

Calming Jar- Put water and glitter into a jar and the child turns the jar and watches the glitter fall through the liquid, this is beneficial as it calms the child down.

Nature- There is a vast amount of research on the benefits of the outdoors on child mental health for example, children tend to speak to more children when they are playing outdoors meaning that they are more likely to build strong relationships.

Useful Links

  • Wellbeing Measurement Framework for Primary Schools (Evidence Based Project Unit, 2017) is a framework in partnership with Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families. This framework a method of measuring how mentally healthy children are by working with the child to answer statements such as ‘I break things on purpose’ based on a never, sometimes and always scale. Link:  https://www.corc.uk.net/media/1506/primary-school-measures_310317_forweb.pdf
  • Mentally Healthy School Website (2019) is sponsored by health charities such as Young Mind to provide information on mental health as well as resources to support children with mental health issues. Link: https://www.mentallyhealthyschools.org.uk/

How do you support children wellbeing in your setting?

References