Helping Young Children and Their Caregivers Transition Back to Childcare

Julie Ribaudo, LMSW, ACSW, IMH-E

Attending to the well-being of young children and their caregivers in the transition back to childcare entails attention to the physical, social and emotional health of all of those involved (children, parents, and childcare providers). Developing recommendations for infants and young children must  include strategies to maintain physical health and safety, while also being attentive to emotional health and security.  While social distancingis recommended to mitigate the spread of infection, emotional proximity is developmentally necessary for young children to feel safe and secure, especially in times of transition and uncertainty.  For infants and young children, social emotional health and well-being requires physical safety and the emotional security that comes from being able to turn to their trusted caregivers for comfort and care.

Facilitating young children’s successful transition to child care in the midst of a pandemic will require attention to several factors, including attention to children’s emotional reactions to the separation from their family, and reunion with their teacher/friends at childcare; the need to re-establish new routines; the developmental need for the continuity of a relationship with a trusted adult; and the ability of the child care providers to meet the emotional needs of the children, while recognizing that providers are also experiencing the wide-spread effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and also need to feel safe, secure and  supported. 

Another consideration is that children will experience the effects of this pandemic differently, and their individual responses as they return to childcare will likely vary. For some children, having more time with their parent(s) may have been a welcome experience, thus making a return to childcare a potential source of stress and sadness. For other children, the disruption of the routine and relationship with their childcare provider, may have been experienced as a loss and trauma, and the reunion with the caregiver who “abandoned them” (in the child’s eyes) may contribute to expressions of ambivalence and anger in some children upon the subsequent reunion with their caregiver/teacher. In addition, some children will have suffered other losses or endured experiences that have threatened their sense of security during the stay-at-home order. These children will require additional comfort, stability and emotional availability of their teacher/caregiver to help mitigate the negative impact of cumulative stress. 

Finally, to ensure the well-being of the children, it is also imperative to ensure the well-being of their teachers and caregivers, and to provide them with the emotional and administrative supports necessary during this time of re-integration, and in the months ahead. As essential workers in the COVID-19 pandemic, child-care providers may have worries  about their own physical or psychological health, and the potential risk to their family members at home. Because young children internalize stress vis-à-vis the adults who care for them, it is vitally important to provide supports and services to the childcare providers to ensure their emotional well-being.  Strategies to “help the helpers” can include professional development supports such as access to behavior health consultation, and reflective consultation, which can help providers  remain emotional available, sensitive, and responsive  to the needs of the infants and young children they care for.

Parents:

  • Two to three days before you plan to transition your child(ren), talk with them about going back to school. Help them to recall the routines, who they liked to play with, what they liked to do and the names of staff they will see again.
  • For young children, masks change a person’s appearance and can be frightening. Explain to children two years and older that their teacher(s) will be wearing masks. Help them “practice” by watching you put a mask on and off. If possible, let them play with putting a mask on and off a doll or stuffed animal. Practice talking behind a mask so they can become accustomed to hearing a voice but not seeing lips. 
  • Explain that the teachers will be taking children’s temperature before they go into school. Let them know that this is one way that adults are keeping people safe.
  • Let your child know that they may not be able to play on the playground (?) and explore how they might feel about that. 
  • Work with your child’s teacher to understand how the drop off and pick up routine will be managed so that you can thoroughly explain it to your child. Predictability gives children a sense of control so helping them know what to expect is important to their sense of security.
  • Much like the beginning of a new year, you may find that your child has a range of reactions to leaving you, seeing their teacher and reuniting with you at the end of the day. You might see sadness, excitement, anger, separation anxiety, sleep issues, etc. It can be hard to see your child in distress. Reassure them that you understand their feelings, that they can talk to you about it and that you and their teacher are there to help them if they are feeling sad, scared, worried or angry. 
  • For children who are slow to warm up or experience worry at separation, plan for a school visit with you (if possible), and for a shortened schedule the first few days.
  • Watch and respond to play themes such as hide-n-seek, peek-a-boo, lost and found, etc. These “games” are often ways that children express and manage their feelings about separation. Reassure them that you will always come back for them. 
  • Be gentle with yourself. This has been a stressful period of time for most people. You may find you have your own mixed feelings about returning your child to childcare. You might feel like a relief, a loss, fear for their health or some other mix. A range of feelings is normal. Utilize your supports, talk to your child’s teacher or call a hotline (#?) if you find your feelings about returning your child to childcare difficult to manage.

Childcare Providers:

  • You may have mixed feelings about returning to work. It is normal and expected that you might experience a sense of relief, happiness, worry and anticipation all at the same time. We hope you have sources of support to sort through your thoughts and feelings so you can feel as “ready” as possible to re-integrate children into their days with you. They will need your steady emotional and physical availability to feel safe with you again.
  • Some of you may have worries about your own health, financial worries, family worries, etc. The accumulation of stress can take a toll on any of us. We encourage you and your directors work together to provide you with the emotional supports and strategies to help you retain your emotional availability for the children
  • Wearing masks all day will be potentially physically uncomfortable and psychologically challenging for both you and the children. Without access to seeing “all” of you, children will need extra cues from you to know they are safe with you. Pay particular attention to your non-verbal communication including conscious attention to eye contact, reassuring voice tones and gentle touch.
  • Children who were previously settled in may show separation anxiety again. You may find it helpful to employ all of your “beginning of the year” strategies as you transition children into your classroom.
  • Children may have experienced loss, trauma, instability during stay-at-home – they may not be returning as the child they “were” when they left you at the start of the stay-at-home order. They will need your patience and understanding as they sort through difficult feelings. Some may feel that you “abandoned” them, and they may express anger or coolness toward you or be extra clingy yet hard to console. We hope you can find ways to be supported and stay emotionally strong and kind for children through this challenging and taxing time. 

What to Expect from the Children:

  • You already know that children express their thoughts and worries in a variety of ways. You may find their behavior somewhat confusing as they re-integrate to childcare. That may suggest the child sorting through their own confusion. 
  • Patterns of stress response you may see: 
    • Motoric hyperactivity, trying to hide, being giddy and seemingly out of control
    • Somber and withdrawn 
    • Actively crying and difficult to console
  • They are bound to be wondering about the “germ” and where it is. They may wonder why it is okay to come back to school now. They will notice and possibly react to changes, such as new routines, teachers in masks, the heightened emotions of the adults around them, loss of friends they expected to see, etc.  
  • Providing predictable routines and offering the reassurance of your emotional and physical presence can go a long way to help young children feel safe and secure. You can help them by building in games that deal with separation and loss, such as hide-n-seek or peek-a-boo.
  • When children’s behavior is confusing or upsetting, it can be helpful to pause and ask yourself, “What is the child doing? What might they be feeling? What do they need (attention, help, movement, connection with you or for you to notice and delight in them in some way)? How can I help them with their feelings and to restore their sense of emotional security and safety?” When children feel good, they usually act “good.”  It is worth the effort to sort through the meaning of their behavior, even though it is challenging for the caregiver at times. If you find yourself short-tempered or impatient, making “repair” with a child when you are calm by talking with them about what happened, apologizing if you frightened or alarmed them, and reassuring them of your care for them can help build their relationship with you.
  • Some children who suffered extra stress, or who have suffered earlier traumas, may be especially hard to help right now. Behavioral health consultants and/or a reflective consultant may be a source of support as you work to reassure and provide safety for these children and navigate  the challenging and uncertain days ahead.