By Molly Breen
According to recent census data, less than half of US children ages three to four attended preschool in 2020. Is this surprising? Perhaps not. During the COVID-19 pandemic’s early days in this country, early care and education programs in the United States had to act quickly. Many closed temporarily only to reopen to untenable low enrollment; others scrambled to stay afloat amidst the innumerable pivots required by new and ever-changing public health guidance and a wavering workforce. To say that it was a confusing and frightening time is an understatement.
What About Families?
Parents were equally pinched and afraid, often feeling as though they had to choose between their children’s health and well-being and their ability to work from home or in-person. And in the crosshairs of these complex decisions, children’s development was at risk: Would they get what they needed at home? Would there be a “loss of learning”? Could we keep them safe and healthy AND stimulated and socialized, with possibilities for direct experiences outside of a school setting? There was no way to know.
And What Now?
Now we are seeing the first evidence of the pandemic’s impacts on child development. Kids who were only twelve to eighteen months old at the start of the pandemic are now preschool age, but are they registering to attend? The census data indicates no. At least not the majority of kids. This has serious consequences—both practical (How will programs pay the bills and continue to operate?) and societal (What does this mean for school readiness and general child development?).
Anecdotally, we are experiencing the impacts of the pandemic in my early childhood program. While we don’t have the low enrollment that the census data would indicate, we teachers are noting the lack of social experience and lower coping ability for a (somewhat) structured school setting. Self-help skills are lagging and kids are pinging off the very stressed out adults who are steering the family ships and leading in the preschool classroom. It’s hard for everyone! But I don’t think that the pandemic years indicate a “loss of learning” or lack of school readiness. I think that the bigger question is: Are programs and practitioners ready to respond to the needs of the children who spent their early years in relative isolation? There is no going back to the old way of doing things, but are we ready and willing to find a new path forward?
While we cannot predict the future effects of the pandemic, we can take a moment to attune to what is happening right now. Kids have always needed our presence, our intentional awareness, to help guide their development. But I believe that now more than ever in my lifetime kids need us to be with them. And I don’t mean with them like holding hands on a walk (although there’s nothing wrong with that) or preparing a very thorough lesson plan (also a good practice). I’m thinking more like we still hold hands, and we still bring plans, but we focus on coregulating and getting kids to feel their well-being at school and beyond. And if that means we shift our lesson plans or family plans around, so be it.
The very important fulcrum point for this type of change is the provider. For better or for worse, we are the ones who will set the tone and teach our students how to be in the midst of many societal stressors. While it may seem counterintuitive to focus on our own well-being, this is the starting line for effective coregulation with our students. You know that spiel about putting on your oxygen mask before helping others on the plane? Same thing here. And we know from research that there cannot be any cognitive learning when the autonomic nervous system is activated for fight, flight, freeze. If we want kids to learn, and if we desire harmonious classrooms, we have to begin with safe adults.
How Can We Restore a Felt Sense of Safety?
For adults and for children, getting to a felt sense of safety may take different paths: for some of us, when we are stressed, we “downregulate” and disengage, check our phones, ignore, and so on. For others, we “upregulate” and get busy, trying to stop or problem-solve whatever the stimulus may be. And of course, there are some of us who go blank or “freeze” and have no idea of how to respond.
First of all, there is room for all of the responses and we should do our best not to make qualitative judgments about our own states or those of others. The best thing we can do is begin with awareness. For example, at the start of the day, we can ask ourselves: What am I bringing with me today? How do I feel? Next, if at that moment or during the course of our day with kids we need to get back to feeling safe, we may need to “upregulate” or “downregulate.” Upregulating might include clapping our hands, stomping our feet, wiggling our shoulders, or scrunching up the muscles in our face—anything to wake up the nervous system. If we need to downregulate, a deep breath or three goes a long way. Try breathing deeply into the belly and then exhaling for longer than the inhale. Coming out of a freeze state may take more gentle coaxing—a big stretch and yawn, holding some tension in the body and then releasing it, some gentle movement like wrapping our arms around our shoulders as if to give ourselves a hug. These are powerful messages to our nervous system, our brain stem, and even our prefrontal cortex—that part of the brain that allows us to access our executive function.
If we are able to regulate our own systems in this way, we can help students do the same: this is coregulation. Not necessarily by teaching it, in the top-down sense, but instead through modeling and quite literally being it. We can’t expect kids to self-regulate if we, the adults, cannot first model it for them.
So when it comes to school readiness and the effects of the pandemic, maybe it’s time for a new approach in preschool and beyond. Perhaps it’s time that we focus on connection over acquisition of skills and stamina for the structured learning day. And in the midst of ongoing stressors and increasing unknowns, we can develop our own capacity for resilience and lead our students toward the same. Because if ready for school means ready for cognitive learning, we have to start at the heart of learning: relationships. Instead of worrying about low enrollment or learning loss, why not emphasize our capacity for growth, for resilience, and for connection? If we do this, we have everything to gain and nothing to lose.
Molly Breen, M.A., E.C.E., has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.
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