The Early Years is a time of vast and rapid development of each part of the young child. When we teach young children, it is imperative to consider the whole child. Their social and emotional well being is just as important as them learning their ABC’s before entering into Kindergarten. If you ask a Kindergarten teacher, they would rather have a socially and emotionally ready child to enter into Kinder over one who knows their ABCs yet lacks those essential social, emotional skills.
This school year, our focus has been pivoted to social-emotional health and mental health more so than ever. When we began the school year, we quickly realized the deficits we saw in our classroom in these areas. In “normal” times, we see many mental health problems begin in early childhood, including depression, anxiety, ADHD, autism, and disruptive behavior problems (e.g., aggression, opposition, and defiance). Will the events of 2020 increase these numbers?
As educators, we always have in the back of our minds that early experiences shape our students’ brain development. Their day to day activities is changing who they are and who they will become. This means that COVID has already altered who they will be. So what do we do to support them?
We know that our genetic makeup does not write our destiny; however, it tells our bodies how to work. It is the environment and experiences that “chemically” alter our internal instructions, authorizing us to do or not to do something. This battle of continued stress-induced experiences and genetic predisposition provides a shaky foundation for a child to build upon. When they ask me why I chose to teach preschoolers, I always explain to people that my job is the most important in the world. My work helps to lay the foundation upon which all other education is built upon. So imagine how difficult it is to help support these foundations being built when you aren’t just working with genetics and average or typical environmental settings. You are combating a pandemic that has increased the stress of every person surrounding that child. That child’s care routine may have been disrupted (and more than once) due to temporary closures or, for some, permanent closures.
We must keep in mind that it is never too late, and the earlier, the better. So here’s what we are doing in our classroom to support our students and their families.
- STOP and LISTEN: It seems so simple, yet are we doing it in the rush of the day and the distractions of a classroom full of other students? Now more than ever, it is time to stop and reset how we prioritize our classroom schedule. Is the crafting so crucial that it has to start right at 9:15 and therefore interrupts you from giving your full attention to a child who is reaching out and talking to you?
- Be consistent and follow through on your promises: You are modeling to your students with this, showing them that when you say something, you mean it, and they can trust you. When they trust you, they will be more open in their communication with you. Don’t lie and be as honest as you can while keeping things developmentally appropriate.
- Reach out and hug them: I’ll be honest, programs that have policies against this upset me. A large part of my job in the classroom is connecting with my students, including physical touch. I understand WHY many programs have these policies. However, kids need a damned hug!
- Talk openly about feelings and YOUR feelings: Use words/vocabulary your students can understand; introducing new words and explain their meaning helps too (in so many developmental areas) but modeling your feelings and openly expressing them to the children help them feel they can do the same. I don’t do this during a particular time in our day; I do it as the mood strikes me throughout the day.
- Read children’s books to your class focused on mental health: As a society, we are (FINALLY) talking more about mental health. So this means there are plenty of book options out there for adults and now more increasingly for children. It’s time to hunt those down. Don’t just read them to your class, TALK about them too!
- Communication with families: Doing this allows you to understand what home life is like for your student. Creating a relationship with the families you serve is not only good practice for business; it also informs your teaching methods. The relationships we build with families are essential to understanding the child and adjusting how we offer support to the child and their entire family. So much of the mental health status of the rest of the family affect the student.
Here’s the bottom line, you should be doing all of the above anyway because this is just downright basic DAP. All you need to do is stop and take the time to consider the mental health status of the room. Assess what’s going on in the lives of your students and adjust your plans accordingly. What I am saying is, BE AWARE. Don’t deny issues and avoid red flags. Find solutions and help be a support to the families in your care.