The thought of turning down a hug from a child just feels wrong. But under social distancing, isn’t that what we’re meant to be doing?
As child care reopens, there’s a disconnect between how social distancing looks on paper, and how it actually works in a room full of toddlers. These regulations were designed by grown-ups, with other grown-ups in mind. Pitching the idea of “rules” to a three-year-old is already a tough sell, and even more so when the rules come from a strange new world.
So how much social distancing should we really expect to see in our child care settings, once we reopen? How do we decide what’s appropriate, and what’s realistic? And how do we put children’s wellbeing front and centre?
To shed some light on this, I called up Dr. Mike Gaffrey. Mike is the director of Duke University’s Early Experience and the Developing Brain lab, and an assistant professor at Duke’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. His research focuses on neurological development in the early years, and how we can create environments that best support children’s wellbeing.
I asked Mike how social distancing might affect children’s development, and how child care settings can expect to adapt social distancing in their routines.
Here’s what I learned.
Changing rules with age
In thinking about social distancing in a child care setting, Mike sets a dividing line at around age three. Around this age, he says, children have developed some foundational language abilities. This means you can use more verbal comfort, rather than physical contact, to address their emotions.
But before age three, physical contact is essential. Things like being held by a caregiver, or reciprocal back-and-forth play are necessary interactions for infants’ development. The younger the children are, the more often you might have to relax your social distancing expectations. Still, it’s just not realistic to expect a completely socially-distanced setting in any case.
“The first two years are filled with moments of reactions by infants and toddlers that are challenging to comfort without physical contact, because of their limited language and understanding,” Mike says. “A warm, sing-song voice or distraction is helpful, but sometimes they just need to be held.”
With toddlers, you can explore more non-physical ways to affirm and engage them, and you can expect a little more understanding of social distancing. Still, tone and nuance matters — remember to express warmth through your body language. Kneel down to their level, and use a kind voice and facial expressions to show that affection.
One tool in the toolbox
Mike describes physical contact as just one tool in a caregiver’s toolbox. Affection takes many forms, and under these circumstances, the non-physical forms are a little more important than usual.
“We can also hold our children in many different ways that aren’t physical, but still facilitate their social and emotional wellbeing,” Mike says. “When we think about how to provide children with the things they need for healthy development, a core part is being sensitive to their signals, and what they’re saying.”
Especially with children over age three, you’ll have to be more dependent on your expressions, your body language, and your voice and tone to show affection. Pay special attention to what’s upsetting or exciting them, and take the time to ask them questions and talk about it. Physical contact is an easy and rewarding way to show warmth to children, but it’s not the only way.
No cause for alarm
The good news is, Mike is confident that social distancing, done right, isn’t going to lead to long-term harm for anybody. It’s about being reasonable with our approach, and still remembering the importance of warmth and affection in child care.
“I believe we have enough science to tell us what we can do to help children thrive right now, and what they respond to in a positive way,” Mike says. “So there is hope here, because these changes won’t be detrimental to children’s long-term development, or to early educators and their ability to perform.”
We’ll have to introduce some new rules, and change the way we go about our days. But the most important part of your setting — the relationships between children and caregivers — will be there as usual.
How to make adjustments
No matter your approach to social distancing at your setting, expect some slip-ups. It’s just realistic. Children need to get used to habits like extra hand-washing and more distance, but it’ll come with time. Right now, you should think about how to introduce the new rules in your setting, and how you’ll help children correct their behaviour when they forget the rules.
“Expecting young children to absorb a crash course in epidemiology is probably unrealistic. But what they can understand is new classroom rules,” Mike says. “This is just like when children return after a summer break, or a holiday — they’ll just have to get reestablished with a new routine.”
As you look toward reopening, here are some ways you can help prepare yourself, your staff and your setting for social distancing.
- Introduce classroom cues — Physical cues in your classroom will help children understand the new rules. You could mark out ideal distancing on the floor, move tables apart, or play a keep-away game to help children understand what 2 meters (6 feet) of distance looks like. Hand-washing and cough etiquette posters will also remind children of the new rules throughout the day.
- Prepare remotely — If you’re closed right now, you can still start helping everyone adjust. Send along the new rules to parents at home, perhaps with activities to help emphasize social distancing. Mike has a 10-month-old, and his child care providers have been sending along videos of the staff wearing face masks, to help the children adjust to the new look when they return.
- Be patient — This won’t catch on immediately, and there will be times when social distancing just doesn’t work out. Be as patient and generous as you can, and be gentle in correcting missteps.
The good news, Mike says, is that the familiarity of your setting will already be a helpful comfort to the children. They’ll adjust in time to the new daily routine, and at the end of the day, the children will be alright.
“Children will be coming back to a familiar place and existing relationships, which is really helpful. These personal connections come back like muscle memory,” Mike says. “The bottom line is, children are pretty resilient and adaptable. We know that we can still provide them with what they need, even in these extraordinary circumstances.”
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