Where are we now?
While I will be avoiding the over-used term ‘unprecedented’, the whole world has been left reeling by, but is gradually getting accustomed to, life under lockdown due to the Coronavirus outbreak. Families are doing their best to continue their children’s learning experiences at home while perhaps also working remotely, managing both simultaneously.
As a parent and an early years (EY) professional, one thing stands out for me: some parents’ obsession with home-schooling their very young children which is fuelled by some consultants and schools bombarding parents with home-schooling tasks and recommended schedules. I am seeing and hearing of children as young as four being regimented into whole days of home-schooling from 9am to 3pm, and worse still, behaviour management strategies like ‘time out’ being used. While I appreciate that some parents believe their children ‘need structure’, this is highly dependent on the individual child. Factors like trauma (existing, and as a result of the impact of this global crisis), age, temperament, ability to self-regulate and the presence of any special educational needs (SEND) need to be taken into consideration when planning any learning at home.
We are all trying to navigate our way through this unknown and frightening terrain, managing our own fears and uncertainty while supporting our children to make sense of what is happening. How long will it all take to subside so that the life that we knew (or at least, the elements we liked), can resume? To quote Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: the waiting is the hardest part. Our resilience will prove critical during this global crisis – easier said than done for many adults, as well as children. Some parents have lost their jobs and are struggling financially, some will be subjected to abuse – which will compound feelings of helplessness, depression and despair.
So, what exactly does all this mean on a neurological and physiological level for children and adults during these strange and uncertain times? Understanding what stress is and the ways toxic stress can impact the brain and body is an integral part of keeping our children safe, secure and able to thrive. In small doses it is necessary to our survival - it gives us the motivation needed to overcome danger and get things done. It’s when the stressors are constant or toxic, that stress can be hazardous to our mental and physical health both in the short- and long-term. This is because the human body is not designed to be in a constant, hyper-aroused state. So when for example, a child is continually experiencing adversity (i.e. the present global pandemic) their brain and body become wired for stress – their neuroception (how neural circuits distinguish whether situations or people are safe, dangerous, or life threatening) becomes primed to detect pretty much everything and everyone as a threat. As a result, stressors can be real or imagined but the impact on the brain and body are real and can be debilitating for the child.
Consequently, the fight-flight-freeze response will be commonplace, perhaps without us even realising: the stress hormone cortisol and adrenalin are released to help us deal with the threat but toxic stress and cortisol disrupt and damage the neuroarchitecture (the structure of systems of neurons and their interconnection) of the developing brain and negatively impact a child’s ability to self-regulate. Some children will experience tightness in their chest, their face will feel hot/flushed, they may have headaches, ‘tummy’ aches, be constipated, feel nauseated and generally unable to feel calm. Some adults may feel more irritable, ‘on edge’, experience constant free-floating anxiety, experience headaches, gut and chest discomfort, drink more alcohol or comfort eat to alleviate some of the dis-ease, but as we know, these are maladaptive behaviours and do nothing to nurture self-regulation (SR). Figure 1 below gives a brief overview of the visible and hidden impact of the fight/flight/freeze response:
Figure 1 The fight-flight-freeze response
What about the children?
Given we are in the midst of a global pandemic, I would have hoped that parents were instead enabled to help their children understand what has happened and give them strategies for how to not only survive lockdown but also to make it an enjoyable experience for families. It’s becoming even more commonplace to hear of issues including, but not confined to:
- Clinginess and/or regression – this will be a common response to the disruption caused by the pandemic. Some children may constantly seek cuddles and kisses, some may regress to bed-wetting or thumb-sucking. Reassuring parents that this is expected and not making their children feel ashamed is critical
- Children will have extra need for reassurance – some more than others. Encourage parents to give this unconditionally and abundantly
- Emphasis on home-schooling schedules over child and family mental health
- Anxiety - adults and children who are prone to anxiety may suffer symptoms more frequently and intensely
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) – to instil a sense of control, when the world feels so out of control
Developing self-regulation is integral to managing our stress response and therefore minimising these issues, but how do we create a sense of normality when nothing in the world is ‘normal’? This is a very overwhelming and frightening experience for our children. Children are wondering why they cannot see their friends and family, why they cannot go to nursery or school and why all their usual activities have ground to a halt. Some have been bereaved, some are experiencing abuse, with nowhere to turn.
Our children will return to school traumatised – when school itself is a traumatising experience for some children. We must now use this crisis as an opportunity to prioritise our children’s mental and emotional wellbeing.
Figure 2 below, illustrates the impact of trauma on children’s wellbeing and resilience – while attempting to home-school.
Figure 2 The challenge of home-schooling during a traumatic event
In essence, a stressed brain cannot learn. This is because connectivity is reduced between the emotionally reactive, downstairs brain (home to the amygdala - brain’s ‘panic button’) and the thinking, upstairs brain (home to the prefrontal cortex (PFC) - where our executive functions reside). This reduced connectivity happens when a child is dysregulated – has ‘flipped their lid’ (Siegel, 2012): so, when the amygdala has been triggered, this results in the amygdala hijack, with the upstairs brain losing control of the downstairs brain. This is shown in Figure 3:
Figure 3 The downstairs and upstairs brain during the fight-flight-freeze response
Nurturing self-regulation: co-regulating children’s responses to stressors
How we as parents and EY professionals respond to children’s fears and behaviour during this crisis could shape their resilience to a wide range of adversity in the short- and long-term. Dr Shanker (2016) says:
In simplest terms, self-regulation refers to how efficiently and effectively a child deals with a stressor and then recovers.
SR cannot develop without co-regulation taking place first – and as you have learned, this co-regulation needs to be in place from birth. Infants are highly receptive to the emotions and responses and facial expressions and tone of their primary caregivers and these all influence how a child learns to self-regulate (or not). Your three ultimate aims when co-regulating emotional responses, are to:
- reduce stress levels
- help the child return to a state of calm
- model/provide SR strategies for them to use in the future.
How you can help to create a ‘keep your cool’ tool-kit for families:
Below are just a few free, tried and tested strategies that practitioners could take and pass on to families to help co-regulate their children’s SR. I like to use the concept of a ‘keep your cool’ tool-kit to use at home and professionally. This tool-kit includes:
Figure 4 shows some fun SR exercises for children to try at home or in the setting:
Figure 4 Self-regulation exercises
When our children return to nursery/school, what do we hope they will have gained or learned? Would I be happy knowing that my child completed all her home-schooling tasks provided by her school, is able to recite her times tables and can give ‘at least 12 examples of prepositions’? Not really. On a personal note, given my propensity towards intense anxiety and hyper-sensitivity, I would instead like to think that my child, along with other children:
- Has developed resilience
- Can identify when she’s starting to feel anxious and in need of reassurance
- Knows how to self-soothe
- Knows when and how to use the ‘keep your cool’ tools
- Has grown in self-confidence
- Has expanded their creativity and imagination.
Siegel, D. and Bryson, T. P. (2012). The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Proven Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind. London: Little, Brown Book Group.
Shanker, S. (2016). Self-Regulation: How To Help Your Child (And You) Break The Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage With Life. New York: Penguin.
Edited by Jules