Monday | 25 May | 2020
By Melodie Veldhuizen
Everybody is on tenterhooks to hear when the nursery schools will open again. Some toddlers have only started with nursery school this year and have perhaps just begun to adapt when the lockdown disrupted their routine and that to which they have begun to get accustomed. Some toddlers still do not understand why they have to stay at home for so long with dad, mom, brother and sister and why they may not even go to the store. Some cannot wait to get back to school. To others it could perhaps be so nice at home that they don’t want to go back.
We visited Etrezia Lombard, an experienced nursery school teacher, and Wietske Boon (child therapist). They give some advice on what parents should look out for so that they can act proactively and also know what to do if their toddlers are struggling to adapt.
- What emotions, fears and adaptation problems can one expect to find among toddlers?
Some of the friends are going to be very excited and it is going to be very easy for them to go back. The younger ones may by this time have “forgotten” their teacher and the school. They will experience separation anxiety and cling to mom and cry when they are dropped off and sometimes during the day as well, according to Etrezia.
During lockdown many children will experience emotions such as insecurity, loss, loneliness, fear, frustration and sadness. And yet, there could perhaps be more family time, playing together or visiting and a slower lifestyle, which is wonderful. Just as every child experiences lockdown in a different way, their experiences of going back to nursery school will differ. However, their emotions are not going to be restricted to one experience. It is complex. One child may be excited to see her friends and teacher again, but may at the same time be anxious to be separated from her parent(s). Another child will go back to school with an intense fear of the virus and experience everything as a potential threat to her health, but at the same time be guardedly excited to be reunited with friends. In the same way a child who is neglected or abused at home may feel relieved to go back to school but still experience a variety of trauma-related emotions.
Most children are probably going to experience insecurity, fear and anxiety because of the separation from parents, how she is going to be received at school, what the new rules regarding social distancing and sanitation are, and whether she could perhaps get sick. Getting used to the nursery-school routine again can pose a big challenge to toddlers and educators. At home children are not necessarily expected to sit still and complete activities as at school because home schooling and work from home pose their own challenges. At home children get used to individual attention, which is not possible at the nursery school. All these factors will play a big role when they go back to the nursery school, says Wietske.
- How can parents prepare their toddlers for the changed situation and school environment?
Parents must be positive about their wearing of masks, the school and even the government. Children hear everything the parents talk about and take it personally. Knowledge is power, even to a toddler. If they know why something happens in a certain way, it calms them. Be honest with your toddler about the wearing of masks and other things that are important to her. Assure her that the teacher and her friends are still fond of her. It is also important that she should know that things are not going to stay as they are now, according to Etrezia.
Explain why it is important to wear masks, wash hands and to maintain a distance between each other, without creating unnecessary fear of the virus. Children often cooperate well if they understand why certain rules exist. Washing hands and personal hygiene should in any case be part of every household’s routine. Reward cards can be used to encourage these routines. There are several free, downloadable resources available with age-related information, pictures and stories to inform children about the virus and essential precautionary measures that have to be taken. Now is the time to start making your child used to wearing a mask. In the case of young children role playing or fantasy playing can be used to talk about how they experience the mask. Let Teddy wear a mask and pretend he is really going to school. Teacher (the child) is also wearing a mask. Teddy and teacher could then have a short conversation about how each one’s mask makes their eyes look pretty and that the mask protects them against viruses. Teddy and teacher wave each other goodbye instead of hugging and they go home. A safe distance can be measured by means of a hula hoop. Suggest games where the hula hoop is the child’s safe space within which, for instance, she cannot be caught.
Because children need physical contact to show and receive love, it is important for them to understand that should teacher not hug them, she still loves them. Give extra hugs at home or read stories while your child sits on your lap.
3. What signs will show that your child is finding it difficult to adapt?
Most children adapt within a week but some may take up to six weeks. Stomachache, vomiting and bed-wetting are signs of adaptation stress, says Etrezia.
Changes in behaviour is usually a good indicator that something is amiss. There are a few signs that parents should be on the lookout for, such as tantrums, excessive sadness and weepiness, irrational fears, withdrawal, psychosomatic symptoms, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, and negative self-talk or thoughts, says Wietske.
4. How can I help my struggling child to adapt?
See the teacher as your ally, not your enemy. Talk to her, she has handled many children with adaptation problems. Ask if you could send your scarve, beads or perfumed handkerchief along – anything that will reassure your toddler that you will return. Do not hang about too long at the school, but do not simply disappear. Stick it out during this adaptation period and do not keep your toddler at home because this will only prolong the adaptation period. Don’t transfer your own anxiousness to your toddler. If she is still struggling to adapt, make an appointment with a play therapist or child therapist.
Be aware of your child’s experiences during lockdown. It is advisable to pay attention to lockdown-related problems even at this early stage. Communicate with your child and the nursery-school staff. Know the nursery school’s routine and Covid-19 policy so that you can prepare and support her. Be aware of your child’s behaviour at school so that potential problems can be intercepted and addressed. Listen to what your child is saying or not saying and recognise her emotions and reactions ─ this will convey the message that you understand her experiences. Be patient and stay calm when your child is experiencing separation fear or is more weepy than previously.
Get professional help if necessary ─ therapists are available to treat Covid-19-related issues. Several therapists also offer online sessions if you are uneasy about contact sessions.
Etrezia Lombard (nursery-school teacher )
BSocSci (Hons) Psych; MDIAC Play Therapy
Pierre van Ryneveld, Pretoria
* All information was correct at the time of publication.