Responsive Conversations with Young Children during Covid; Child Perceptions and Supportive Reactions for Children’s Wellbeing- Melissa Rodriguez-Meehan and Jessica N. Essary

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.” – Mister Rogers

Positive, empathetic pedagogical conversations have the potential to improve the mental health of young children (Edelkott, et. al., 2016). When children communicate with an adult who reacts in a caring and responsive way, children have a chance to participate in mutual discovery learning and explore their thinking. In this blog we spotlight evidence of child conversations which involved complex attempts to conceptualize Covid, as children realized the impact of Covid restrictions.  

Authorial Lens

The academic authorities of this blog are also mothers of young children (n, 4; ages 22 months, 3, 4, and 6 years). We have experienced, first-hand, conversations with young children related to the pandemic. The purpose of this blog is to present ethnographic evidence pertaining to young children’s understandings of COVID (e.g. conceptualization) through their self-initiated comments and drawings. 

Supporting children through stressful events

Some conceptualization and restriction reactions have the potential to create stress for young children. To make stress more manageable, people of all ages may benefit from social interactions. Empathetic dialog during current event discussions may help children and adults develop a personal narrative of the events happening around them (Essary, Barza, & Thurston, 2020).  

The COVID-19 Pandemic can be used as an example of a current event which required supporting children through tumultuous times. Children are able to have an understanding of Covid and other complex topics at a young age, with the support of adults. Suggesting that children are more malleable and willing to adapt to social changes than adults (Elkind, 1993) is a concerning philosophical stance and fails to align with cognitive science. Recent literature exemplifies the need to buffer children and adults from stress while supporting their complex thinking (Essary, Barza, & Thurston, 2020).

Conceptualizing Covid

With an extensive amount of exposure to Covid in the media, in family conversations, and in societal requirements, some young children are talking about Covid in terms of their greatest fears. “If you get sick with Covid it is like lightning going through your body.” -4 yrs.  This quote suggests that children are able to discuss Covid with profound creative expression (e.g. the use of a simile i.e. ‘like lightning’). Parents may respond to this by reassuring the child of their health safety practices, and praising the child’s language.  “Wow!  What a simile! You are creative to say that Covid is like lightning!”  Then, an exploration of the similarities and differences can be discussed.  “Is Covid like lightning?  I do not know, because I have never had Covid, but it will not strike all at once. If it hurts a bit we have hands to hold.” Then, help reassure children of their fears too. Validating children’s feelings and giving them a safe space to discuss those feelings is essential. Statements such as “I am here, and you are safe” and “what is your big worry?” can help children process their thoughts and begin to build self-regulation and positive coping skills. Reassuring children that all feelings are okay to talk about and reminding them that as adults, we often feel a variety of feelings too, may alleviate their stress.  

Moreover, children may conflate explanations of the virus with more tangible or concrete thoughts as well as uncertainty and fear. During an interaction with a kindergarten student, one of the authors noted how the student reflected on COVID,  “It can sting people and make people sick.” – 5 yrs. Adults may help the child elaborate their thoughts further. In similar situations, adults may inquire about what a child has said, “What do you mean it stings you?” Please tell me more about that notion.” As children elaborate on their ideas, adults may attentively listen and address misconceptions. Young children may also better understand when comparisons are made. For example, “the virus may not sting you like a bee might, but you are right, you may feel unwell.” Young children can make meaningful connections to these concrete examples. 

Wondering about concepts with children, in developmentally considerate ways, supports each child’s scientific thinking. This can be done by recognizing complexity in thought while adding information and inviting children to ask questions. Conversations about the pandemic with young children may allow them opportunities to receive empathy, process information, address misconceptions, and see the perspectives of others. 

Centering Childrens’ Voices

Valuing and honoring children’s voices, and ultimately their agency, aligns with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which emphasizes  “the importance of children’s opportunities to influence decision-making in which their voices should be heard in matters that affect them” (UN-CRC, 1989, p.3).  Young children often can produce complex reflections on their experiences and perspectives and deserve access to responsive adults who care about  their narrative. This includes the child’s participation in school spaces.

Education closures are a national emergency worth significant preventative measures (Samuelsson, Wagner, & Ødegaard, 2020) (i.e. the child’s sovereign right in accordance with the UN-CRC). Here are a few image artifacts of young children’s reactions to pandemic mitigations. Again, children are likely to react to Covid with complex ideas and big emotions, despite a common perception in society that children are malleable and able to cope without support.

This picture features Michael, age 4, attending school in Fall 2021. The use of masks was required in his classroom.

 “This is not fair. I want to go play with friends at the park. Why is the park shut down?” -Olaus, 3 years old

Drawn at school on the first day of kindergarten. -Guyal, 4 years, 11 month old 

“I am on my way to school with a lollipop, backpack, my dog, and a mask on.” Notice how the mask covers the entire face.  

Conclusion

The pandemic changed social and educational experiences for children across the World. “Stress becomes traumatic when it is accompanied with the loss of physical, psychological, and/or emotional safety in ways that overwhelm an individual’s or community’s ability to cope (Keels, 2022, p. 68).” With ongoing years of a pandemic there is a likelihood of increased stress exposure.  Increased exposure to stress can place individuals more at risk of trauma symptoms (Gottfried, 2010). The efforts put in place to honor children’s sovereign right to education and participation has varied around the world, but with this pandemic being a collective experience for all of us, it is essential that children are included in conversations and decisions impacting them. 

References

Edelkott, N., Engstrom, D. W., Hernandez-Wolfe, P., & Gangsei, D. (2016). Vicarious resilience: Complexities and variations. Ameri- can Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 86(6), 713–724.

Essary, J.N., Barza, L. Thurston, J.R. (2020). Secondary Traumatic Stress Among Educators. Kappa Delta Pi Record. 56(3),116-121.

Gottfried, V. M. (2010). Indirect trauma syndrome: Empirical validation of a model that synthesizes secondary and vicarious trauma. Retrieved from PQDT Open. (3437663)

Keels, M. (2022). Developmental & Ecological Perspective on the Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma & Violence. Daedalus, 151(1), 67-83.

Samuelsson, I. P., Wagner, J. T., & Ødegaard, E. E. (2020). The coronavirus pandemic and lessons learned in preschools in Norway, Sweden and the United States: OMEP Policy forum. International journal of early childhood, 52(2), 129-144.

UN General Assembly, Convention on the Rights of the Child, 20 November 1989, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 1577, p. 3.

Melissa Rodriguez-Meehan is an Assistant Professor of Early Childhood/Elementary Teacher Education at Florida Gulf Coast University and former early childhood/elementary teacher. Dr. Rodriguez-Meehan is passionate about opportunities to hear and include children’s voices and perspectives in her research. Play-based learning, developmentally appropriate practice, and equity issues in ECE/elementary settings are of great interest to her. Dr. Rodriguez-Meehan strives to support pre-service and in-service teachers in supporting all learners through evidence-based practices and by centering student voice and choice. Contact me: mmeehan@fgcu.edu 

Jessica N. Essary is an OMEP United Nations Representative. Early in her career, Jess was an elementary school teacher in Immokalee Florida, and then became a lead teacher at the University at Buffalo, Early Childhood Research Center in Buffalo, NY.  Currently, Jess is an Associate Professor of Education and a Program Director of Cazenovia College Inclusive Education (CCIE) teacher preparation degree programs. As an international educator, Jess was an expat in Dubai. Dr. Essary’s expertise includes formative design, diversity teacher preparation, and the history of ECCE. Contact me: jnessary@cazenovia.edu

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