By Sonali Khan
The COVID-19 health emergency has brought unimaginable change to families all over the world. According to UNESCO, over 1.5 billion learners in 165 countries have been affected by school closures. A large proportion of these are students at primary and secondary school. They have had to quickly adapt to the online educational opportunities that the government and schools stepped in to deliver. But, for millions of preschoolers, sources of safety, comfort, social interaction and mental stimulation found in the familiar routine and structure provided by planned activities at school, have been abruptly taken away.
As homes multitask as office, school and living space, parents now find themselves in a bind. They have the extended time they always wanted with their children, but the pressure to juggle multiple roles without support structures has proven stressful, leaving them with less quality time to enjoy parenting.
A survey conducted by the Indian Psychiatry Society has found a 20 per cent rise in mental illness since the start of pandemic, underscoring the high levels of stress across society. Young children are quick to pick up on their parents’ moods and anxieties and can carry these imprints for a long time. What then, can we offer as signposts to parents experiencing an ironic poverty of time in their children’s most impressionable years?
The crucial need for self-care
Child well-being begins with parental well-being. As parents with young children find themselves with fewer support structures for care giving, they must remember to care for themselves and find ways to relax. Ten deep breaths, a walk to the window, music, meditation, exercise or even a welcome cup of chai may seem like obvious suggestions, but they serve the powerful purpose of shifting focus away from anxiety back to positivity and joy. A conscious, mindful attempt to take these ‘self-care’ breaks can help parents ease up on themselves, remind themselves that they are doing their best and bring a renewed playfulness to the time they share with their children.
All children need structure. For young children, routine brings a welcome predictability that can allay their anxieties about things beyond their control. Parents can benefit from chalking out routines in collaboration with children. Girls and boys as young as three and four years can draw and respond to picture charts that help them map the turn of events in a day. With control comes confidence that can help a child navigate the ‘for now normal’.
Reading and responding to children’s behaviour
Right now, every child in the world is experiencing some form of distress, though the degree of that distress may vary. For some, it is just an unwelcome disruption in routine, for others, it means physical hardship that might leave permanent scars. Parents, caregivers and educators need to be aware and watchful of behaviours that speak of underlying anxieties. Temper tantrums, aggression, bed-wetting or increased clinginess are just some of the ways a young child may express herself. By acknowledging these expressions, reassuring them and empowering them with a vocabulary to talk about what’s upsetting them, parents can help children slowly build resilience to external events.
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Social distancing does not mean social isolation
Researchers at the Harvard Centre on the Developing Child share that the two priorities that science identifies for your young children in this uncertain time are social distancing and supportive relationships. While a child’s universe may centre around her parents for now, frequent reminders that the proverbial ‘village’ she is growing up in has not vanished overnight can help a young child stay connected to loved ones and continue to support socio-emotional development. While virtual meetings like a phone call or a video chat can never replace the joy and learning of interactions in the park, they can help a child understand that there are other little people in a similar situation and make the experience a shared one.
Supporting learning through play
Preschool may have come to a halt, but children’s bodies and minds continue to grow. The early years are a time of rapid brain growth, with a child’s brain making as many as a million neural connections every second. Continuing to engage and stimulate a child’s growing mental capacities does not require expensive toys or elaborate preparation. Pre-math skills are just as easily learned while sorting and counting laundry and language skills can be accelerated by simple games like ‘letter treasure hunt’. A run through the house on a word search becomes a learning opportunity for the child and a welcome calories and stress buster for the parent.
Keep the faith – in love and silliness
The pandemic will pass. The true test is about how well we were able to navigate it and the joy we were able to bring to ordinary moments as we hunker down and wait. This is a time for creativity as we stretch to protect and support our young ones and, perhaps, even equip them with better life skills to cope with changes that the future will bring.
(The writer is the Managing Director of Sesame Workshop India)
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