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Teaching your child how to behave is harder amid COVID-19 pandemic – USA TODAY


Elena Barragan, 5, Riley Smith, 5, Joshura Davis, 5, and Jayceon Bouchillion, 5, play together at the Urban Sprouts Child Development Center in University City, Mo., on Friday, March 29, 2022.
Elena Barragan, 5, Riley Smith, 5, Joshura Davis, 5, and Jayceon Bouchillion, 5, play together at the Urban Sprouts Child Development Center in University City, Mo., on Friday, March 29, 2022.
Jarrad Henderson – USA TODAY

Many children who have known little other than a pandemic world are struggling to socialize and share and sit still. They’re shy or uncomfortable or fussy in playgroups and classroom activities. They expect their caregivers’ undivided attention. They don’t quite understand personal boundaries. 

Early childhood experts said it’s incumbent on parents and caregivers to help their children learn social norms, regulate their emotions and thrive in a post-pandemic world. In many cases, that means teaching them through play and modeling good behavior as much as possible. 

The biggest points of raising and educating pandemic babies and toddlers revolve around “socialization – learning to communicate and learning to interact with people,” said Gigi Schweikert, CEO of Lightbridge Academy, a network of early-learning centers in the northeast United States. 

Teachers at her schools report discipline and classroom management issues are at an all-time high, and their observations were echoed by other early learning and care professionals across the country.

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What to do about challenging behavior

Survey data indicate that toddlers in the pandemic era are more prone to both externalizing and internalizing behaviors. The rates of caregivers who said the phrases “fussy or defiant” or “too fearful or anxious” fit their children’s behavior shot up in April 2020, according to RAPID-EC, an early-childhood research group based out of California’s Stanford University that has been regularly surveying parents of children five and under since the start of the pandemic. 

In March 2020, fewer than 1 in 3 parents surveyed through RAPID-EC (31.5%) indicated their child was being fussy or defiant, for example. That April, the same was true for more than half — 50.4% — of parents. The rate hovered around half for months. 

It’s important to remember that “children’s first language is emotion,” said Housman.

Especially when they’re young, before they acquire language, behavior may be one of the only ways they can express what they’re feeling. And a lot of what they’re feeling these days may be sad or scary or confusing. 

“Most of the anchors for very young children – the consistency, the routines, the support, the social opportunities – have all been kind of taken away,” Housman said. “They’ve been left with inconsistency, major change and disruption that can be traumatic without the presence of an attentive, supportive adult ​who is responsive to their needs and able to help them deal with and regulate their emotions.”

Instead of punishing or reacting to a toddler’s outburst, reflect on what’s causing this behavior – what emotion or need were they trying to express? 

“The pandemic created stress responses in all of us, and children are not immune to this,” said Lauren Starnes, a child development expert and chief academic officer of Goddard School, one of the largest franchised early learning providers in the country. 

Students sit at tables for lunch and participate in group activities at the Urban Sprouts Child Development Center practices in University City, Mo., on Friday, March 29, 2022. Pandemic shutdowns affected children ages 0-3 in especially unique ways, limiting their social and emotional development at arguably its most crucial time in life.
Students sit at tables for lunch and participate in group activities at the Urban Sprouts Child Development Center practices in University City, Mo., on Friday, March 29, 2022. Pandemic shutdowns affected children ages 0-3 in especially unique ways, limiting their social and emotional development at arguably its most crucial time in life.
Jarrad Henderson/USA TODAY

As a starting point, parents and caregivers can focus on helping children understand their big emotions, including how to recognize, label, understand, express and regulate them, said Donna Housman, a developmental psychologist and founder of Housman Institute, an early-childhood training and research center based in Newton, Massachusetts.

The institute’s teaching model is based on emotional foundations of learning and cognition, focusing on the regulation of emotion for both children and their adult caregivers.

You can show them visual representations of varying characters expressing different emotions through facial cues and body language – for example, a frown, tears ​and downturned eyebrows for sadness, and a grimacing scowl, glaring eyes, furrowed eyebrows and clenched fists for anger.

“Children learn through their senses, from their observations, and how we model, guide and respond to them and to others,” Housman said.

Once they’re familiarized with these visual representations, ask them about their emotions to help them build a connection to the cause. What makes you sad? What makes you scared? What do you do when you feel that way? Visual representations help ​children identify emotions ​while also helping them understand how others are feeling, which supports the development of empathy.

They may say they hit. They may say they yell. Ask if that helps solve the problem. Explain that such behavior can be hurtful to others. That a better solution might be to let the other person know how you’re feeling. For example: I’m mad because you pulled the toy away from me. 

The goal, Housman said, is to help children identify what they’re feeling and then express it in a constructive way. A child who can manage their emotions is better able to solve problems and thus feels much more in control of themselves – much more competent and confident.

Ultimately, “one of parents’ primary jobs is to co-regulate their children,” said Alyssa Meuwissen, a research associate at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Early Education and Development. 

Co-regulation is a process in which caregivers help children regulate their emotions. With infants and toddlers, co-regulation includes feeding them when they’re hungry and helping them sleep when they’re tired. An adult can co-regulate an anxious or stressed child by cooing to or cuddling them.

“It’s really hard to be that stable, regulating presence when you yourself are really overwhelmed,” Meuwissen acknowledged.

Experts suggested talking things out with loved ones, seeking therapy or joining a community group as strategies that can help parents and caregivers cope with the stress of parenting

More: COVID-19 means more preschool-age kids won’t be ready for kindergarten

How to acclimate pandemic babies to society

If you have to take your child into a formal group setting for the first time, don’t panic, said Jamiylah Miller, an advocate in Norristown, Pennsylvania, who provides home-based education under Early Head Start, the federal early learning program for families from pregnancy to age 3. 

If your child is anxious, start by taking them around children they’re familiar with or to playgrounds and parks, “areas where that social setting naturally exists,” Miller said. The Maternity Care Coalition, a Philadelphia-area advocacy organization with which Miller is associated, is hosting “socialization” days at the park where children participating in its programs can meet and play with one another.

If a child isn’t ready to play with other kids, Miller said, blocks can be a useful tool. With blocks, children can still play on their own while gradually moving into parallel and even cooperative play – placing one out of reach, for example, so they can briefly interact. An adult may want to point out the similarities of what they’re building – wow, both of yours look like towers!

Reward positive interactions out loud but don’t force anything. “It’s almost like a trial and error, allowing things to naturally take place,” Miller said.

Goddard School’s Starnes said caregivers can read books with their child and ask them open-ended questions about what happens: “How was Frog a nice friend to Toad?” or “What did Little Critter do when he was feeling mad?”  

The prompts can help children learn how to interact with others, label emotions and develop self-help skills, Starnes said.

“Children should also be introduced to different social settings with some simple guiding behavioral reminders,” Starnes said.

Before going out to eat at a restaurant with grandma, for example, remind your child to say please and thank you or use an inside voice. Affirm the positive behavior. For example, “I like how you are using your spoon to eat your peas. Using our spoon shows nice restaurant manners.”  

“Use gentle guiding questions to prompt children when needed without being overly corrective,” Starnes said. “This allows the child to self-correct and internalize the desired social skill.”

For example: “I see your milk is here. Did you want to say something to our kind server for bringing you your drink?”

Parents should display the behavior they want their children to emulate. In other words, model those pleases and thank yous. 

“Modeling how to interact with others goes a long way when teaching children social skills,” said LaMonica Williams of Teaching Matters, a New York City-based professional development organization for educators.

And be explicit with your expectations, Williams said. When teaching your child about how to be a good friend, you can say: “A good friend listens to what others want to do as well as shares what they want to do.” Then you can model that behavior: “I want to play with the cards. What do you want to play with? Maybe we can take turns.” 

Indeed, parents and caregivers are the most important teachers when it comes to young children’s socialization, said Marina Rodriguez, the New Haven senior director at All Our Kin, a national Connecticut-based nonprofit that trains and supports family child care providers. 

Young children are always observing and imitating how the adults in their life interact with others, so pay attention to your own habits, she said. “Children don’t miss a thing,” Rodriguez said. 

Questions can serve as a particularly effective means of fostering life skills such as empathy and curiosity. 

“Make your thinking known by talking about your thinking out loud,” said Nicol Russell, vice president of implementation research for Teaching Strategies, a company that provides early learning curriculum and assessments. You could say, for example: “I wonder why that person is crying. I cry when I feel sad or when I am hurting. What do you think happened?”

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association’s Reporting Fellowship.

Contact Alia Wong at (202) 507-2256 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @aliaemily.

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