Angela teaches three-year-olds in a program affiliated with a local hospital.
Her class normally has ten children in it, but currently several children are
staying home with their families. Lately, there have only been four children
attending regularly–their parents are health care providers in the hospital and
are working long, grueling hours. Under normal circumstances, a smaller
class means fewer behavior challenges, but lately it’s been the opposite. The
children are quick to lose emotional control, more likely to lash out at each
other, and less independent in their play. Children who had been using the
toilet without problems for months are suddenly having regular accidents, and
naptime is a daily struggle.
Angela also has a two-year-old son, Joshua, spending his days at home with
her husband who is teleworking. They are seeing many of the same
challenging behaviors in him, along with more frequent night waking and
Stress often translates into an uptick in challenging
behaviors. What can caregivers do to help?
The current COVID-19 crisis has drastically changed daily life for many
children and families. Children who once spent much of their days in early
childhood programs are home with their parents who may also be coping with
teleworking or sudden unemployment. Children who remain in the early
childhood setting because their parents’ work is deemed essential, may also
have big changes both at school and at home.
Those of us who work with young children know stress often translates into
an uptick in challenging behaviors. Tantrums, meltdowns, sleep disruptions,
and regression are all ways that children may show that they are having a
hard time. So, what can parents and caregivers do to help? Here are three
ideas for supporting children’s emotional development and managing
challenging behaviors during challenging times, whether you are at home
caring for your own children or working in early childhood programs
supporting parents in vital roles in your community.
1. Create a predictable, flexible schedule that minimizes transitions.
In Angela’s classroom, children are used to following a schedule. She has
pictures posted of them doing everyday activities like playing outside and
eating lunch, and she often directs their attention to their visual schedule
when they ask about what comes next. Lately, she has been emphasizing it
more, talking lots about what is happening now and what they will do
afterwards. She also added long blocks of free play and outdoor time, even
eating lunch outdoors when the weather permits.
Seeing how much Joshua is also struggling at home during transition times,
she makes a similar visual schedule for him. She takes pictures of him getting
dressed, eating breakfast, playing with toys, taking naps, and getting ready
for bed, and prints them on her home printer. She and her husband hang the
pictures up where her son can see them and point them out when it is time to
move from one activity to another. Together, they also brainstorm some ideas
for playtime that keep him engaged and busy for longer stretches of time.
(For example, Joshua loves baths – her husband begins offering a morning
“play bath” after breakfast, working on his computer on the floor while Joshua
plays in the water as long as he wants to.)
Young children aren’t planners–under normal circumstances, they don’t think
much about the future unless they are worried about it. But, when daily
routines are drastically changed, children’s worries about what comes next
may show up in their behavior.
A predictable schedule with enough flexibility to accommodate your daily life
can help! Children love to know what comes next–when you do the same
things in the same order as consistently as you can, it helps them to relax.
Make sure your schedule includes long stretches for free play, either with you
or on their own, minimizing how often you ask them to switch from one task
or location to another. Whether at home or at school, keep this routine
streamlined, providing extra time for activities that reduce stress for children,
like gross motor and sensory play. If children seem engrossed in an activity,
see if you can extend it, even if it shifts your schedule a bit.
Tell children what is happening and what will happen next, offering more
reminders than you usually might during this unusual time, and when there
are changes to the usual order of events, be sure you let children know in
advance. For preschoolers and older children at home, a visual schedule can
also help them understand what to expect. It doesn’t have to be anything
fancy–if you have a printer, you can print black and white images of your own
child eating breakfast, brushing their teeth, or doing other daily activities, and
then arrange them in sequence in a place they can see them. You can even
draw pictures if you don’t have a printer! Then, point out the pictures as you
prepare to move from one activity to the next.
Visual schedules help children both at home and at school.
2. Adjust your expectations—accommodate regression and meet
children where they are.
Art time has long been a favorite activity in Angela’s classroom. Earlier this
year, it was an activity most children could participate in independently,
allowing her time to spend time with individual children or jot down notes to
share with families. Lately, art time has been a disaster. Arguments over
supplies are constant, children are easily frustrated with their projects, and
spills are frequent and disruptive. After a few challenging days of art time,
Angela decides to change up the art center. She puts away the paints and
glue, leaving out crayons and a few colors of paper. In their outdoor play
space, she adds sidewalk chalk and introduces children to “painting with
water,” giving them brushes to make designs on the wooden fence that
quickly dry, allowing for new creations to replace them. With more space and
less structure, the children are able to enjoy art time again.
At home, Angela notices Joshua is also struggling with some things that used
to be easy for him–bedtime in particular. After several nights of long,
frustrating bedtime struggles, she decides to pull out some of the books they
read at bedtime when he was a younger baby and offers him his special
blanket, which had been in a drawer for the last few months. Tonight, instead
of kissing him goodnight in his bed, she rocks him for a few minutes after they
read a book, letting him get sleepy in her arms before putting him to bed.
With the extra support, their bedtime routine begins to get easier–for Joshua
and for Angela!
Many families are dealing with enormous changes in their daily lives, juggling
the responsibilities of working and schooling from home while trying to
manage the stress of sharing spaces in ways they are not used to. Children
and adults alike miss their friends and their daily routines. Living with
uncertainty and anxiety around the pandemic takes a toll on our emotional
energy. We are all doing the best we can in very challenging times.
Children don’t necessarily understand what is happening in the adult world
around them, and they may not have the language to express their worries.
But, they are exquisitely sensitive to the tenor of adult emotions, and even
infants may know that something isn’t quite right.
A very common response to stress in children is regression. Some common
areas for regression include sleep, toileting, problem-solving, and
independence. Children may be clingy or demanding, or revert to behaviors
you haven’t seen in awhile, like climbing in bed with you at night. Even
language might regress–you might hear “baby talk”, or find that early literacy
or math skills seem to have suddenly disappeared.
Try not to worry about these changes. Instead, meet children where they are.
If your three-year-old suddenly wants to be rocked to sleep again, try to
accommodate her if you can (or offer a compromise: “I can rock you for five
minutes, and then I will tuck you into your bed and kiss you goodnight.”)
Forgo structured academic activities–instead, spend more time reading
together and talking about things you see and do together, building language,
literacy, and math skills in your everyday interactions instead. Offer familiar
foods, keep your days simple, and offer lots and lots of opportunity to play.
Take the opportunity to nurture your little ones and hold them tight just a little
longer. Over time, most children will go back to their more grown-up ways as
things start to feel more normal.
Doing art outside allows for more space and less structure.
3. Attend to your own emotional well-being.
Author and advocate L.R. Knost wrote, “When little people are overwhelmed
by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.” This can
be exceptionally difficult to do when we don’t have much calm to share!
During challenging times, it is critical that adults caring for children also care
for ourselves so that challenging behaviors don’t overwhelm us when they
The best way to attend to your own emotional well-being varies widely,
depending on your temperament and circumstances–there is no one-size-fitsall
solution. For most people, extra attention to good sleep, nutritious food,
and healthy movement are a good start. Reaching out with phone calls or
video chats to people who can support and nurture us emotionally is also a
great strategy for maintaining emotional balance, as is limiting time spent on
social media. No matter which strategy you choose, the most important thing
is that you take time daily to recharge, even if just for a few minutes.
Here are a few good places to look for ideas for self-care:
Young Children at Home during the COVID-19 Outbreak: The
Importance of Self-Care from ZERO TO THREE
Stress and Coping from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Fifty Ways to Take a Break – a free printable infographic you can hang
up at home!
Take good care of you–your work with children is so important, and your wellbeing
It’s Friday and it has been a long week for Angela—she is looking forward to
time to rest and recharge over the weekend. In the evening, she and her
7/14/2020 communityplaythings.com – Coping with Challenging Behavior during Challenging Times
husband cook a special meal and put on a favorite cartoon for Joshua while
the adults eat together and reconnect. Afterwards, her husband puts Joshua
to bed while she takes a long bath, listening to her favorite music and letting
her body relax. She heads to bed early, catching up on much needed sleep
so she’s ready to be fully present with her family the next day.
Fiechtner, J., Forrester, M., & Albrecht, K. Five parenting strategies to support
emotional development. (2018). Tomball, Texas: Innovations in ECE Press.
Forrester, M. & Albrecht, K. Social emotional tools for life: an early childhood
teacher’s guide to supporting strong emotional foundations and successful
social relationships. (2014). Tomball, Texas: Innovations in ECE Press.
By Jennifer Fiechtner
Topics: Social Emotional Development, Professional Development
Date: May 12, 2020
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jennifer Fiechtner is a writer, editor, and educator. She is
the author of Five Parenting Strategies to Support
Emotional Development and the editor of Social
Emotional Tools for Life: An Early Childhood Teacher’s Guide. You can
find out more at www.innovationsinece.com.