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It is back-to-school season, and stuffed inside all those new backpacks and lunchboxes are lots of jitters and emotions, especially as we send off our littlest learners for the very first time.
Our so-called “Covid Generation,” children born right before or during the pandemic, are carrying all the usual excitement, worries, and questions; however, they are also carrying the impact of two-and-a-half years of disruption, stress, anxiety, and trauma.
The first thousand days of a child’s life are critical to development, a vital window of opportunity to inform and shape the architecture of the brain for life. We are now almost 900 days into this unprecedented time, and it has taken its toll.
Young children are missing basic social skills and experiencing behavioral issues and dysregulated emotions. Parents and educators are seeing this as they themselves are dealing with their own stress and anxiety.
We also know from research and experience that when feelings are dysregulated, thinking is impaired. When the brain is dealing with unregulated emotion, it cannot learn. So we have a spin cycle - anxiety building on stress, and worries about lost skills and learning. Children’s, educators’, and families’ mental health and well-being need to be priority one this fall.
How do we prepare our youngest children, and ourselves? Our children are starting off on wobbly footing lacking many skills, such as the fine motor skills required to tie shoes, but also the social skills required to follow instructions, take turns and listen. Mainly, they are lacking the self-regulation skills to be able to manage and regulate their thinking, feeling and behavior, which is necessary for the growth of executive functions skills. Those skills include: the ability to listen, attend, focus, control impulses, and problem solve.
We must first understand how children develop and learn – which is within the context of relationships. They learn by observation, imitation, and how we model, guide, and respond to them and to others. To be the models our children need, we first address our own emotionality – how we communicate about and deal with and manage our own emotions – the oxygen mask rule. Unless we take care of our own needs first, we’ll be no good to our children or ourselves. They will pick up on and absorb our stress, anxiety, frustration and worries.
Think about how we build a house. The first thing necessary for a stable and secure house is to have a strong and solid foundation. The same is true when we are focusing on the development and building of a strong and secure sense of self. The foundation for children is consistency, predictability, and a reliable routine, especially now when they have been engulfed in a pattern of inconsistency, unpredictability, and disruption - all ingredients that do not provide them with a foundation of safety and security.
Next, in continuing to build a strong and secure sense of self, we need to provide the walls of the house. We need to have conversations about how young children are feeling, and be available to listen empathically to their thoughts, ideas, and their emotions. Be sure to ask important questions, such as: “How are you feeling about going to school?”, “What are your concerns?”, and “What are you excited about?” Help them feel that their emotions are valid and understood.
Why is opening the door to talking about emotions so important?
Emotions are central in all we do – in our thinking, our behavior, and in our learning. When we can help our kids be aware of, recognize, understand, constructively express, and appropriately manage the intensity of their emotions, all that energy in holding in or onto our worries and struggles is then available for learning, exploring, creating, making friends, resolving conflicts and solving problems.
As parents, caregivers, and teachers, it’s important that we talk about our own emotions, and share stories and experiences. This helps normalize emotions. When children see we have emotions too, it helps them to feel they are not alone. In this way, we are communicating to young children that all feelings are normal, both the cozy and prickly ones - it’s what we do with them that matters most.
Finally, there needs to be a roof on our house of support and well-being. There have been a lot of questions about how best to address emotions in schools. One possible solution discussed has been hiring additional school psychologists and social workers to address the mental health crisis facing so many of our kids. But to address the swath of mental health needs facing most of our kids, we need an approach that is systemic, a preventative intervention model that can address the needs of all children and those who love, educate and support them.
A good house requires a solid weather-safe roof. When we create a systemic approach to emotional well-being, ensuring emotions are at the heart of all we do in a learning community, we are providing security, a sense of self and well-being, and the opportunity for growth and optimal learning for all.
We do this by providing the necessary training and support our teachers need so they can better deal with their own emotions and also to be the role models kids need to help teach and guide our children in how to effectively manage their own emotions and understand those of others in the development of self-regulation and empathy.
Additionally, engaging families in a partnership of shared communication, understanding, and a united consistent responsiveness with our children helps to foster and provide that systemic and cultural change within the entire school community. When we do this thoughtfully and purposefully, we are then working together in a well-built house designed to deal with and combat the mental health concerns and learning worries–opening the doors for all to flourish and thrive in this new school year and beyond.