How to Help Young Children Heal from Pandemic Trauma

By Michelle Salcedo, M.Ed., author of Uncover the Roots of Challenging Behavior: Create Responsive Environments Where Young Children Thrive

How to Help Young Children Heal from Pandemic Trauma

As summer weather creeps in and vaccines go in arms, you can almost feel the collective exhale as many of us cautiously emerge into public life again. And while joyous reunions and maskless get-togethers are the start to the healing we all seek, we cannot gloss over the trauma our society has experienced over the last year and a half. As we move out of this pandemic, teachers will replace healthcare workers on the front lines as they support and address the pandemic’s lingering impacts on children’s emotional health and how this will play out in the classroom.

The impact of trauma is often physically invisible, but it has an insidious way of sneaking into a child’s brain. Over millennia, our brains have evolved to keep us safe. When faced with threat, the brain garners resources from systems not necessary for survival (such as self-regulation, getting along with others, and understanding limits) and redirects those resources to help us get out of danger as quickly as possible. This is commonly called the “fight or flight” response. As we have learned more about our responses to trauma, that idea has been expanded to include four F’s:

  • Fight: Getting out of a situation, no matter what (or who) we harm to make it happen
  • Flight: Getting away from a situation, again paying no attention to what (or who) we trample to get to safety
  • Freeze: Trying to disappear from a situation, making ourselves invisible as we disengage from the world
  • Fawn: Trying to win over the source of the danger in order to neutralize it, doing whatever it takes to appease the other and reduce the threat

An especially challenging aspect of trauma is that, with extended exposure, children’s brains can become stuck on high alert and cannot always tell the difference between a true life-and-death threat and a perceived threat. This means that a child’s brain might react in the same way to a teacher asking them to sit at circle time as it would to the sudden appearance of a growling bear—their survival response is triggered and those important resources start to be redirected. Across the country and around the globe, the four Fs will be acted out in classrooms as children’s brains continue to respond and react to the trauma caused by the pandemic.

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for trauma. It takes time and consistency to successfully send the message to a traumatized child’s brain: “You are okay, and there is no threat here.” In classrooms, we broadcast that message by focusing on creating environments that are safe, predictable, and full of grace.

Let’s look at what each of these means for an early childhood program.

Safe: In most cases, licensing standards define what needs to happen to keep children physically safe. But emotional safety is just as important, especially when it comes to trauma-informed care. Children feel safe when they know they are cared for and valued by their teachers. Children must trust that teachers knows who they are as individuals; understand what they can do and what they may struggle with; and do not place inappropriate expectations on them. Feeling safe also requires adults to be calm and keep their own threat responses in check in the face of a child’s challenging behavior. Teachers can do this by taking a deep breath and acknowledging, “This is not about me, and this is not who this child is. This is trauma, and I can handle this.”

Predictable: Another part of feeling safe is knowing what to expect. Creating a predictable (but responsive) environment is especially important when children are struggling with trauma. This means not only establishing a predictable daily routine, but also supporting a child in knowing details such as, “My favorite truck will be on the playground, my coat always goes in the same place, and the teacher I love will be there to greet me when I enter the classroom.” Identifying the forms of predictability each child needs will help you guide and support them as they process and heal from trauma.

Grace: In this context, I am using grace as shorthand for “cutting each other some slack.” Grace is the understanding that we have all had a rough sixteen months, and that a little patience and empathy would probably go a long way. Grace means that teachers allow for more free choice, and outside play, and silliness, all of which nourish the soul along with the brain. Grace also means that teachers cut themselves some slack. Things won’t be perfect—and they may not be for a while. But you, like many other people, are doing your best to nurture and love, and that is what children need now more than ever.

As a society, I am sure most of us would like nothing more than to put social distancing, mask mandates, capacity limitations, and everything else associated with the COVID-19 pandemic in the rearview mirror. But if we are not intentional about addressing the impact of trauma on children, the fallout of this time in history will be with us for decades to come. I know I am but one voice in the face of standardized testing and academic goals, but I would like to call for a year of healing. A year during which all adults—especially parents and teachers—are as intentional about planning for social-emotional health as we are about academic learning. Dr. Kenneth Fox said that focusing on academics while struggling with trauma is like “trying to play chess in a hurricane.” I challenge all of us, through our actions and words, to create environments that say to children, “That was scary, but you are safe now. I’ve got your back and we will make it through together.”

Michelle SalcedoMichelle Salcedo, M.Ed.,has worked in the field of early childhood for over 30 years, starting as a “teacher’s helper” in her younger brother’s center. She has served as a teacher, director, trainer, and family educator in numerous child care settings across Michigan, South Carolina, and Spain. She lives in Greenville, South Carolina.

Uncover the Roots of Challenging BehaviorMichelle is the author of Uncover the Roots of Challenging Behavior: Create Responsive Environments Where Young Children Thrive.

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