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.