As children return to your setting, you will all be going through a period of adjustment. How we communicate and relate to each other is key to our collective wellbeing. Being alert to signs of stress is important as you seek to support children in this transitional phase.

Signs of stress

You may notice children engaging more frequently in behaviours like:

  • Twiddling hair
  • Sucking fingers or hair
  • Chewing on clothing
  • Rocking on chairs
  • Wanting to hold onto toys

If you are supporting children you knew prior to the crisis, your assessment of changes in their behaviour will be important: are they their usual selves? Or have they become quieter or more defiant? These changes could be signs of stress.

The children need to feel safe, and ensuring we connect and communicate effectively will help them to feel secure in our settings.

Do not be afraid to talk about the pandemic with children, they will be aware of it at some level, and having adults avoid the topic can make it scarier. Listen to the children, through what they say and how they act and try to acknowledge their fears. Hearing an adult say what they are feeling is very reassuring to children as it lets them know it’s been understood and helps them to feel like they don’t have to deal with it alone.

The pandemic is providing us with an opportunity to teach a very important emotional lesson to children. One that will equip them for mental wellbeing throughout life. It is this: we are allowed to feel the emotions typically characterised as negative. There are situations in which it is right to feel sad, right to feel frightened. Allowing children to have these emotional responses without attempting to distract them from those feelings enables them to be their authentic selves and express their emotions fully. Approaches that seek to distract, subconsciously teach children that they are not allowed those emotions and in time they will learn to supress them in order to seek approval from you. Long term suppressing negative emotions can lead to things like depression and anxiety disorders.

Of course, we do not want young children overwhelmed by fear so we are not going to ask them not to be afraid of something which is indeed, and rationally, very scary. We are going to seek to teach them how to use that feeling of fear to keep themselves safe, which is precisely what that emotion is for from an evolutionary perspective. It is okay to feel sad, it is okay to feel frightened, but those feelings do not need to incapacitate us.

Linking the children’s fears to the strategies they have to protect themselves can help them to feel strong and resilient as they face this pandemic. Making the implementation of the strategies playful is a way of inviting children back into the joyful play-filled world of childhood, whilst still allowing them to bring their fear with them.

Here are some playful ways of approaching some of the things recommended in the current guidance.

Hand washing – Children may have been taught to sing “Happy Birthday” as they wash their hands, as this song tends to last about 20 seconds, the recommended amount of time we are being told to wash our hands for. You can play with this song as they sing it, point out how funny it is to be singing “Happy Birthday” when it isn’t someone’s birthday, suggest silly things to sing “Happy Birthday” to, why not sing it to the taps, to the plughole, to the spider on the wall, to the flowers outside. Ask children “who are you going to sing “Happy Birthday” to this time as you wash your hands?”

Mask wearing – Children are not required to wear masks under current guidance but playing with masks can help them to feel less worried by adults wearing them. As they play you can talk about the protective role the masks have in the crisis, helping them to shift their understanding from the worrying sight of adults looking strange in masks, to the more reassuring sight of adults using masks to keep them safe from the virus. You can have fun decorating masks, making masks for teddies, making displays of masks, you could even stick little post it note masks on photos in the room.

Antibac gel – Children may forget to disperse the gel between their fingers and on to the backs of their hands. To make it more playful, why not make up a 1950s hand jive, that everyone can do together? Get creative, adding all of the relevant moves for dispersing the gel with a few extras to get them giggling. Choose a favourite song, a good one to get you started is “Do You Love Me?” by The Contours. Have some fun, get everyone involved!

Avoiding the topic of COVID-19 won’t help children to feel safe, helping them to understand what’s going on will help them to feel safe. The serious stuff is there for a reason but there’s always room to make it more playful!

About the author

Katie Rose White is a Laughter Facilitator and founder of The Best Medicine. She works predominantly with carers, teachers and healthcare professionals - teaching playful strategies for boosting mood, strengthening resilience and improving wellbeing. She provides practical workshops, interactive talks and training days - fusing therapeutic laughter techniques, playful games and activities, and mindfulness-based practices. The techniques are not only designed to equip participants with tools for managing their stress, but can also be used and adapted to the needs of the people that they are supporting.


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