March 27, 2020

“I’m Worried” – Young Children’s Experience with Social Distancing

“I’m Worried” – Young Children’s Experience with Social Distancing

Mariane Gfroerer – New Hampshire Learning Initiative

First and second-grade teacher Belinda Smith delivered smiley balloons to each of her students’ mailboxes this week. “It warmed my heart to hear their reactions when they found the balloons,” she said. 

Tara Spencer, a certified school psychologist since 2003 for three elementary schools and the preschool in Concord, NH, has thought a lot about what these weeks of social distancing and remote learning are like for the young population she works with. 

As one elementary student put it, “Three weeks is a long time to be away from my friends.”

One young child began missing his best friend after two days. “I don’t know what happened to him. I don’t have his phone number. I’m worried.”

Younger children did not have the time to process what was happening with school closures that adults and older students had. They might not have had a complete knowledge of what was going on in the world that prompted the fact they are not going back to school.

“They may struggle with not having closure,” Mrs. Spencer explains. “In some schools, they left on Friday with a smile and “See you on Monday” from the teacher, and then found out over the weekend that they were not coming back. There wasn’t an opportunity for the kind of closure that they get with school vacations – no goodbyes; no chance to give phone numbers to friends.” 

In circumstances like this, typical young children can react with a sense of how unfair it all seems and they feel angry, frustrated, confused, lonely and sad. Behavior at home might be initially a reflection of excitement: “We’re not going back to school! Hooray!” And then the reality of separation and loss of friends, supportive school adults, routines, and interesting mental activity sets in and we see, “Oh. We’re NOT going back to school.” 

As a school psychologist, Spencer has seen first-hand the responses of children to these changes. “The routine of the school schedule provided a sense of comfort and familiarity. Without that, some children feel anxiety – they don’t know what’s next or when they’re going back.” The result of that uncertainty, combined with a young child’s limited ability to articulate their questions and worries to adults, may lead to homebound kids becoming emotional more quickly at home, she says. Parents can see anything from sudden tears to kids acting angrier than they normally would. 

“I think about our kids – the kids in the schools I support – certain kids that we adults know when they come back from school vacations, they’ll be a little dis-regulated. They get a little clingy before the school break and when they come back afterward it takes a while. So, something like this that they couldn’t prepare for could really affect them.”

“I’m always concerned about kids who live in income-insecure homes, or who have unstable home situations. This is a long time to be without those school adults being involved for checks and balances.”

“When we get ready for school vacations, we prepare kids mentally for the separation from the supports of school – both adults and peers. Not all children look forward to vacation and to being away from their school. It may not be a fun break for them. So, we’ve stopped saying “Have fun!” or “I bet you can’t wait for vacation!” We prepare them for separation by saying things like “I can’t wait to see your face when you come back!” and “I’m looking forward to seeing you again!” We didn’t have a chance for any of that preparation in this situation. And we know that some families have more resources than others and more of a support system. Teachers and staff have pulled together with care and love for students and with ideas to keep the school community a real community.”

There is a deep psychological impact in seeing the faces of friends and caring adults. To bridge this gap, and lessen children’s loss of the school community, administrators, teachers, support personnel and others have taken action and their actions are practical, emotionally supportive, caring, and impactful. 

Mrs. Spencer has sought and received permission from book publishers like Scholastic and others to record herself reading children’s books with positive messages like friendship, getting along with siblings, appreciating yourself, and family. She’ll share these recordings with parents and children so they can hear her voice and remember the positive support of their relationship. (The recordings must be deleted at the end of the school year, the publishers say, to protect copyright).

“I’m Worried” – Young Children’s Experience with Social Distancing

She recommends the website Choose Love to parents for ideas on how children can show positivity and love to others during tough times, leading them to feel strong and capable rather than helpless in this situation. With her own young children, she encouraged them to use sidewalk chalk for positive messages like “You Matter” and “Be Kind” for people walking by to find. Posting those positive messages for others made the children feel less alone. 

A preschool teacher asked parents to send photos of each student waving or smiling and saying hello. She put them up behind her so that when she records a lesson to send to homes, the kids will see their classmates. 

In one elementary school, the administrator records the school announcements every day and sends the audio file to parents for the children to hear the familiar voice. The principal asks each person in the school to take turns with an audio message telling the kids they are cared for and missed. 

Special educators, speech and language specialists, physical and occupational therapists, and other supportive professionals that children saw at school are continuing to consult with parents about needs, and providing an unbroken chain of services to the children, preserving those connections. 

Cafeteria staff around New Hampshire are making sure that kids still get food – the school buses are dropping off food at houses in special coolers by the door or on the porch, sometimes with supportive notes and messages for kids.

Phys Ed teachers are filming themselves doing physical activities outside and encouraging students to get out and exercise. Music teachers are sending videos of themselves playing musical instruments and/or singing. Recordings using Zoom educator tools can work well for this but even a simple phone video is encouraging for students.

In one school, students are continuing to write the student newspaper and it is being emailed to families by the principal. The newspaper recommends books, movies, games, video games, activities to do outside, and jokes. 

One preschool teacher delivered home-learning packets to her students dressed in a Unicorn Halloween costume and waved to her students through their windows. 

School counselors and school social workers are keeping the connections with their students through emails and phone calls and encouraging them to get out and walk, ride their bikes, and exercise to reduce their stress and posting reminders to “use the tools in their emotional toolbox” like mindfulness, breathing exercises, and calming activities such as kinetic sand, Legos, and reading.

Isolation is a really hard time for both parents and kids. But it doesn’t have to be. No child needs to feel like they are separated from friends and supportive school adults. With caring, innovative ideas, connections can continue. 

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