Corona-anxiety: how to assist anxious young children
Early childhood education teachers and assistants may be noticing emotional and behavioural changes in young children during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although it can be difficult knowing ‘the right thing’ to say to help relieve the anxiety and uncertainty in children, there are certain approaches to communicating with children which can ensure they are accurately informed but not overwhelmed with scary details.
Dr Judith Howard, a behaviour support specialist, academic and leader in trauma-aware education from the QUT Faculty of Education, notes that sudden changes to routine, fears about health and finance can cause anxiety for children, not just adults.
“Children of this age are very aware that this thing called “coronavirus” is being spoken about regularly by the adults in their lives,” said Dr Howard.
“They are old enough to know something important is going on and that it is perhaps upsetting or worrying grownups.
“Children will be trying to make sense of this, and adults in their homes and education environments can help with this – in a way that “does no harm.”
Questions children might ask
Dr Howard says it is completely normal for children to be inquisitive, and the things young children may ask adults may revolve around two main categories: questions about the virus itself and queries about why their usual routines and daily experiences have changed.
“Depending on how much exposure they have had to the topic, young children might ask questions like: “What is the corona virus?”; “Will you get sick from the corona virus?”; “Will I get sick?” said Dr Howard.
“Children might also be questioning to figure out why their normal routines are disrupted and might ask questions like: “Why can’t my friend come over to play with me?”; “Why can’t we visit Grandpa?”.
According to Dr Howard, the best approach to answering children’s questions is to provide short and simple responses, then encourage them to move on and continue playing, learning and engaging in relationships.
“At this age, they do not need to know too much detail about this health concern. That is the job of adults who are there to nurture and protect them,” Dr Howard said.
Anxiety in children
Anxiety in young children can manifest in different ways such as:
1. Fight response, where children become angry or defiant and behave in challenging ways.
2. Freeze response, where children become quiet and difficult to reach
3. Unwell response, where children show symptoms of illness, like nausea or dizziness. Although they may appear fine, their minds are racing and stomachs churning.
Dr Howard says children might take their feelings out on the adults around them and act in ways that suggest they blame you for their worries.
“This is very difficult to manage because it often feels so unfair, so we need to remind ourselves that it is the ‘anxiety’ within the child that is speaking,” she said.
It can come and go quickly and appear as children becoming grumpy, irritation with their peers or refusing to participate in activities.
“When anxiety levels become more worrying, children can become withdrawn and teary,” said Dr Howard.
“If these states of grumpiness, withdrawal or sadness extend for long periods, it could be a sign that a young child has heard and seen too much, that they are truly scared or worried."
For vulnerable young children who are living in unsafe or violent homes, early childhood education staff can be the only source of safety, stability and calm for them.
“Early childhood education practitioners must be extra vigilant when looking after the relation and wellbeing needs of these young ones,” Dr Howard said.
How teachers and assistants can help
Dr Howard said teachers and assistants should provide consistent and focused care and attention to assist anxious children return to their usual happy, functioning selves.
“Most of the time, with some love and attention, children will successfully get back to engaging well and being happy,” she said.
“We need to remember that the ‘job’ of early childhood education is to play.
“Playing is the way that children explore their physical and relational environments and is the process by which healthy brains and bodies develop well.
“So, keep discussion about the virus honest, simple and short, and then do all you can to get children back to their main job – playing,” Dr Howard said.
Staff wellbeing vital
Staff must consider their own wellbeing and provide collegial support to one another, as it is important adults feel supported and cared for too.
“It’s tricky, because sometimes the only way to keep working in these essential service areas is to actually ‘devalue’ the concern and try to switch off from the worries of the world and focus on educating children,” Dr Howard said.
“This is not easy and can take quite a bit of self-sacrifice, but people working in early childhood education are already quite good at this,” Dr Howard said.
Self-care during time off is an important way for teachers to reduce stress during the pandemic and ensure they are mentally equipped to help anxious children.
Our union’s COVID-19 Resource Hub contains the latest news, updates, guidelines and advice for members to help them navigate these unprecedented times.