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Can we change the long-term impact of the pandemic on young minds?

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Little Lockdowners Webinar: Panellist FAQs

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Following the TTS Little Lockdowners webinar on 5th May, our panel of experts received lots of great questions relating to the topics and themes discussed. In this article, we share some of the questions asked to our panellists and their responses. 

Q – We are seeing more children who can’t play, they just don’t know what to do unless an adult leads something. We are supporting with lots of role modelling of things like a tea party in the house corner or being ‘silly’, interested to hear other ideas we can implement in settings?  
Michael Ungar: Good observation. I’d tend to step back, even more, remove the screens, have a ‘play date’ with other children and seed the room with plenty of things like empty boxes, art supplies, or outdoor play equipment. My guess is that the kids will, once undistracted, figure it all out. 

David Daley: I think the key issue here is modelling, but there is only so much modelling that staff have time for. I would recommend in addition to staff modelling for children who struggle with play are paired up with children who don’t so that additional peer to peer modelling can supplement adult modelling. 

Q- Curious to know more about PACE and how this can be implemented? 
Erika Christakis: This is an article I wrote about the importance of using playfulness, acceptance, curiosity and empathy in our approach to young children. It’s called Responding Thoughtfully to Children’s Fears and it was published in the November/December 2020 issue of Child Care Exchange. The short answer is that most adults need to examine our intense (and understandable) desire to reassure children and to “fix” things for them and instead focus on joining them, emotionally. I like to think that we should take children seriously, but not necessarily literally. By that, I mean that we don’t always need to have a concrete answer to every question. We don’t need to try to reassure, persuade, and explain everything. This is mostly a losing battle, as anyone who has tried to persuade/explain/and reassure a resistant adult must know! Sometimes the best way to respect children is to accept that we can’t have all the answers and instead must simply listen and offer a hug. This is where the playfulness, acceptance, curiosity and empathy come in. The article offers some concrete examples.

Q- How can we support empathy?
Erika Christakis: In my experience, adults are the ones with the empathy deficit, not children. However, there are ways to provide a supportive environment for empathy to thrive. Sometimes early years teachers err on the side of trying to rather pedantically “school” children in listening to another child’s perspective. When two children are in a conflict, teachers often sit them down and ask each one to ‘say sorry’ etc. This usually results in what I call empathy theatre. It’s not really very effective at building awareness of others. Empathy comes from lived experience: playing, listening, taking turns, seeing the world from another’s viewpoint. Caring for animals is a very safe and effective way to build empathy, which is really just another word for imagination: trying to understand what it’s like to walk in another’s shoes. Adults can also explicitly model empathy by talking out loud about feelings.

Q- How does a parent help a child who doesn’t like to fail at learning? 
David Daley: There are lots of reasons why children may fail or perceive failure, including temperament, personality, neurodiversity, and resilience. Having broad but clear outcomes for learning such as exploring, understanding, or investigating helps to avoid the perception of failure for both the child and the adult. When children do struggle it is also helpful for adults to model appropriate coping to promote reliance and foster motivation to try again. 

Erika Christakis: Play-based learning is not incompatible with failure, nor should it be. But the word failure should probably be retired (with respect to young children) in favor of a more developmentally-based perspective on children’s learning. In lieu of “failure,” I prefer to think about challenges or healthy stressors. The human brain is a complex organ whose growth depends on a healthy dose of stress. Too much stress – particularly what is known as toxic stress arising from trauma or neglect – is of course damaging to young children. But a “just-right” dose of challenge (healthy stress) is actually a stimulant to growth. But insufficient stress on the brain is also a problem insofar as it inhibits growth. Healthy levels of stress build resilience and can literally build neurons. We can learn what that healthy dose of stress looks like through careful observation of the children in our care, and with a foundation of knowledge about what is typical development. 

Sometimes adults feel obliged to protect children’s feelings when they have a setback or even to ‘rescue’ them. A better approach can be to normalize the disappointment and frustration that come with failure. We can talk about this in a natural way, eg “It’s so frustrating to lose a game, isn’t it? I can see how upset you are.” It’s also important to ofer children learning opportunities that are well tailored to what they can do. Too much challenge can backfire; but overly simplistic expectations can also be de-motivating. A famous theorist, Lev Vygotsky, talked about the “zone of proximal development,” which is a fancy way of saying the “sweet spot for learning.” Educators and parents should aim for this ’sweet spot’ for learning, which is the learning space between what a child can do on their own and what they can do with scaffolding/support from an adult. Failures in this optimal learning zone are less likely to enrage or discourage children and can be a wonderful fuel for growth.

Q – Are there any parent resources you can share after this webinar to support your evidence and help adapt their daily attitudes such as the iPad’s in the car?  
Michael Ungar: Sure, I would recommend looking at the following: Madigan, S., Browne, D., Racine, N., Mori, C., & Tough, S. (2018). Association between screen time and children’s performance on a developmental screening test. JAMA Pediatrics, 173(3), 244-250. 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.5056.

My blog on Psychology Today also has more details. You can visit here: []. 

Q – Many children are seriously ill with Long COVID (often not yet spotted) and being in schools is making them worse. I know because my daughter had COVID in March 2021 and then got a diagnosis of chronic migraine and long COVID wasn’t even mentioned until the December. Are any of you thinking about the physical realities of this for children? 
David Daley: This is a difficult one to answer as we know so little yet about long COVID, and future research on long COVID is going to predominantly focus on adults. I would recommend that professionals remain curious about changes in behaviour and learning in children who have experienced COVID and maybe present long COVID. 

Q – We have found that parents dropping at the gate has a benefit in allowing the children to settle in. Are there any other suggestions for helping children with curious attachment issues?  
David Daley: Children who struggle with attachment are always going to be reluctant to separate from caregivers, so earlier separation at the school gate rather than at the classroom door may in fact provide them with more time to adjust before the start of the school day. Higher levels of reassurance and distraction and access to a trusted keyworker, with whom they have established a trusted relationship will help to mitigate the distress of separation. 

Q – Do you think that some of the ‘school ready’ expectations are developmentally appropriate?  
David Daley: I agree that play is often overlooked in favour of more traditional learning methods such as instruction. However, play is fundamentally important as a method of fostering inquiry-based learning and developing independent levels of intuition.

Q Post-COVID, do you think that more SEND has been identified or do you think this is failed executive function development?  
David Daley: It is difficult to answer this question conclusively. I do think that the results of lockdown will exacerbate some of the symptoms of disorders such as ADHD, which might make it look like an increase in SEND in schools. For example, less interaction with adults will no doubt have an impact on children’s concentration span. This is because we rely on adults to help naturally extend our children’s concentration span by using language and expansion (linking what is happening to previous experiences). Likewise, less interaction with peers will have an impact on the development of inhibitory control. This will result in more children appearing to be at risk of ADHD than we would usually expect. 

Following on from above, has there been a rise in toddlers being referred for Autism Assessment? Has the pandemic impacted this? 
David Daley: It is too early to say whether the pandemic has impacted the underlying prevalence and presentation of Autism. Furthermore, waiting times for assessments that were already long pre-pandemic has grown much longer post-pandemic. What is known is that the pandemic did exacerbate mental health problems such as anxiety in children with or at risk of Autism. 

Q – Nationally we are seeing a vocabulary gap. Has this heightened since lockdown? 
David Daley: There is very little research evidence to support a greater vocabulary gap post-pandemic. However, intuitively it would make sense that less contact with adults overall, and greater anxiety and stress among parents would negatively impact the patient discussions and teachable moments that underpin children’s acquisition of early vocabulary. Alternatively, it could be argued that the presence of parents and older siblings at home all day during lockdown may have enhanced vocabulary acquisition, but I would suspect not! 

Q – What are your thoughts on using more of the Scandinavian model where children do not reach formal learning to age 7? 
Michael Ungar: Ah, love it!!!! But I’m afraid our educational system is simply not ready for such a radical change. There is also a lot to the Scandinavian system regarding parenting, and community so the change would have to occur not just with schools but also include modifications of other institutions too. 

To catch up on the full Little Lockdowners webinar click here or tap the video below to hear our global panel of experts share their insights and solutions to support the development of young minds post-pandemic.

We also have a #TTSTALKING highlight on our Instagram (@tts_earlyyears) that has more information about our Little Lockdowners webinar and panellists.

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