by Gary Bingham
Professor, Department of Early Childhood and Elementary Education
Director, College of Education & Human Development’s Urban Child Study Center
As we continue to get bombarded by COVID-19 articles and resources, it can be difficult to make sense of information presented through the media or to prioritize what children need at this time when we, as parents, are expected to juggle so much. I’ve compiled a list of principles that every parent of young children (ages 0-6) should keep in mind during this crisis. These principles are based upon accepted research knowledge and my experiences working with children and families for the last 20 years, and they include links to resources that I find helpful. Although every family is different, these principles have been shown to be universally important for families from various cultural or socioeconomic backgrounds.
Go easy on yourself, your child and/or your partner. Even during regular times, parenting is challenging; adding new work from home and/or home school expectations can make this job even harder. Go lightly into new experiences, knowing that you might just be able to do one or two focused activities a day with your child in addition to whatever you might manage with your employment. Your child just needs you as a parent. The research is clear: Parents who are stressed, anxious or depressed are less able to meet the needs of their children. In order to be effective parents, we must be in tune with what children need or are trying to communicate and be aware of what we need as parents. Go easy on yourself and those around you as you try to implement the other principles. The American Psychological Association has curated a variety of resources aimed at supporting child and parental well-being.
Build a schedule that works for your family and stick to it. Although it can be difficult to establish a “normal” routine during stressful times, children need structure and daily routines. Make a schedule for your family and use it to guide your day and your child’s behavior. Time is an abstract concept for young children, but they do understand “before,” “next” and “after.” Post your schedule with pictures so that children can refer to and learn the schedule, which can be a fun way to support your child’s developing self-regulation skills (e.g., how children manage their emotions and their behavior) and also teach them about print. By pairing the picture with a word or phrase, you can point out the word that is associated with the picture, thus building their knowledge that print can be read. There are a variety of online resources that highlight how to build a daily schedule, including articles on routines and transitions from the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Get outside. Although parks may be closed, going for a walk or a bike ride is important to physical and mental health and helps break up a long day. It is also an important way to stay connected with your community, even during times of social distancing. Find time to engage in predictable outside activities, such as observing the weekly garbage and recycling collection or keeping track of when the mail is delivered. Springtime is a perfect time to experience the outdoors; use children’s interests to make daily observations about what you notice and document these through conversations or some form of note taking. Children can be given a simple clipboard to track these items and their interests (i.e., “What do you think the birds are communicating?” or “What is that squirrel doing way up in that tree?”). These interests can then be used to provide opportunities for further investigations at home. For parents who might need to keep their children indoors because of health challenges (asthma/allergies) or unsafe neighborhoods, you might try GoNoodle, which allows parents to create a free account and get access to interactive dancing and movement videos that children find very motivating.
Play with your child. Play is children’s work, and children learn a great deal through actively manipulating materials (i.e., stacking cups or cans), acting out imaginary roles (i.e., playing house or pretending to be an airplane pilot) and building simple structures. As children play, they learn to classify and sort materials, experiment and problem solve. Children’s play promotes mental and physical health and builds and strengthens relationships. Because children make meaning of their world through dramatic play – taking on adult roles, such as cooking or being a doctor – parents who engage their children in play can gain deeper understanding about children’s thoughts or feelings. Dramatic play provides insights into how children experience the world around them and how they are learning. Inside and outside play should be scheduled, prioritized and encouraged each day. Supportive language interactions are key to facilitating children’s play; here is a list of talking tips that provides information about how adults can support children’s language development and understanding.
Read, write, count and experiment with your child. Even during a crisis, children’s learning can be supported by intentionally embedding learning into everyday routines. Parents can capitalize on meaningful moments, such as cooking, setting the table, bath time or outside time, to support children’s literacy, math and science skills. Reading to children regularly builds language skills, understanding of print and world knowledge (i.e., understanding of the world around them). Try to also provide opportunities to write or draw and provide children with rich conversations about their ideas, concerns or problems. Writing notes to neighbors can be a great way to practice social distancing while still being connected to the community. Experiences that encourage children to count, classify, sort and measure support math skills. The key is being intentional about using children’s play and everyday interactions to create learning opportunities. Scholastic provides a variety of resources for parents and teachers of young children, which include thematic projects and activities to make home a powerful learning context for children.
Get creative with your social support network. Every family has a network of family, friends or neighbors that help them function successfully. Even at a time when we must physically distance from one another for our health and safety, we can still stay connected. Research demonstrates that social support increases parenting competence; parents are more effective when they have others that support them. Social support networks should be leveraged to help you and your child get through the day or week, particularly since it can be hard work to be at home with active children while still having a job outside your home. Reaching out should include an intentional focus on helping your child see other family members, early childhood teachers or friends on a regular basis. This might involve establishing time each day to video chat with key family members or friends or share video messages through Marco Polo, a fun video-based app. Here are helpful resources for building and fostering social support networks.
Be positive. Although children likely don’t understand COVID-19, they do understand change and that things are different right now. Because these changes are a source of stress, children may act out as they attempt to deal with their own emotions and changes in schedule. It is important to acknowledge that acting out is an attempt to self-regulate one’s emotions and behavior. Setting clear expectations for behavior, and in a manner that is positive and logical, is important for supporting children’s self-regulation skills. Try to positively phrase your guidance of children’s behavior (“Throwing toys isn’t safe because it can hit and hurt someone” or “The water needs to stay in the bathtub”). Also, set clear expectations and stick with them. Children often resist these attempts at first, but fall in line when parents are consistent and clear with their expectations. Praise or celebrate positive behavior when you see it (e.g., “Wow! You got dressed all by yourself! Thank you for working hard to take care of yourself.”). Here are helpful resources on supporting young children’s positive behaviors and additional guidance from experts on extinguishing challenging behaviors.
Unplug. Technology is a helpful tool, but screen time should be limited. Technology disrupts in-person communication, so find times when you have uninterrupted time with your family, such as at mealtimes or before bedtime, and put all devices away. It is important to limit children’s screen time, as studies show that too much screen time undermines emotional and cognitive development. For young children, technology should be used sparingly and for specific purposes. For example, watching a video with a child about squirrels may address questions that the child had about what they eat and where they live. Technology is a tool and its appropriate use should be modeled explicitly for young children. Two good resources for developmentally appropriate programming for children are Fred Rogers Productions and PBS Kids. Also, here is helpful guidance on digital exposure and strategies for parents.
Although it will be difficult to get a sense of normalcy at this difficult time, keeping these principles in mind when interacting with young children can help parents prioritize what is important. The good news is that children are resilient. Parents who are responsive and sensitive to children’s needs have children who are physically, cognitively and emotionally healthy. Focusing on positive communication and leveraging everyday routines as learning opportunities can support young children’s development. Engaging in physical activity daily and facilitating children’s play can make time together more meaningful.