The children who left our settings last March will have changed. They have physically grown and for many their lives have been changed forever due to the experiences, challenges, and stress that they will have endured over the last few months. We are familiar with ample evidence that suggests that trauma experienced in the first six years of life can have a significant negative impact on children’s developmental processes with lifelong consequences. Toxic stress disrupts healthy development by interfering with a child’s capacity to develop positive relationships with adults and peers. It can impact on children’s ability to play and learn, and to self-regulate their emotions, attention, and behaviour. Over the last number of months, children have been exposed to different traumatic, and often frightening, experiences. The children who arrive back into our settings may now play differently as their play will reflect their efforts to make sense of what they have experienced, seen, or heard over the last number of months. In addition to separation anxiety, some children may have experienced illness or family illness or death as a result of the pandemic. Children will grieve in different ways and their responses to a bereavement will depend on many factors including their age/stage and relationship to the person lost. The pandemic has also resulted in children being separated from loved ones who require isolation and/or hospitalisation.
A trauma-sensitive ECEC setting is a safe environment that enables and promotes caring, respectful relationships with children, and between children. Environments are predictable and safe, and are attentive to transitions and sensory needs. Everything that Siolta (CECDE, 2006) and Aistear (NCCA, 2009) advocate. Several strategies are used by ECEC professionals on a daily basis to ensure that our settings are trauma reducing rather than trauma inducing.
Being sensitive to children’s anxieties and challenges
• Through the process of play children have the ideal opportunity to learn to not only express their feelings, but also to reflect on their experiences. Providing provocations for child initiated learning experiences are important. Learning opportunities are structured in predictable and emotionally safe ways. We can coax or change the narrative to ensure that any strong emotions, anxieties, and fears are attended to in a developmentally appropriate way.
• Books and stories can act as a great catalyst for conversation. Using oracy and children’s own language and experiences enable children to express their feelings, emotions, thoughts etc.
• A familiar and predictable environment leads to feelings of security. Reminding children of their routine and personal spaces will bring security. Reassuring children that they are safe in the environment with their teachers who have genuinely missed them also helps develop their sense of security.
• Children learn to self-regulate their nervous systems through consistent experiences with other calm regulated nervous systems. We are now aware that it is this co-regulation that leads to self -regulation. Self- regulation is a developmental process that begins around the 4/5 years of age. Attempts to get children to ‘self-regulate’ before they are ready can impact them and their relationships. As with all aspects of children’s development we need to follow the laws of nature.
• We cannot take care of others if we are not taking care of ourselves.
Self-care is an ethical imperative
Flight attendants remind us to put on our own oxygen masks before we attempt to help others and there is a very valid reason for doing so! If we become hypoxic we are of little use to anyone. When we educate and care for children, we educate and care for the holistic child - the whole child. We respond on a daily basis to challenges and sometimes chaos experienced by children and their families, never mind all the other personal and professional factors that we encounter. This takes its toll on our wellbeing and energy levels. It is essential that as ECEC professionals we protect ourselves. Self-care is not an indulgence and self-care is not selfish. Self-care is an ethical imperative. Let’s commit to making time for ourselves this academic year. Prioritise our own holistic health with some of these examples:
• Physical: Commit to trying to get sufficient sleep and rest, eat nourishing food, practice yoga and mindfulness, and do things that we enjoy.
• Social: Find support like a community of practice, ask for help, positive social media, and time together.
• Emotional: Identifying stressors, management of stressors, Let’s start thinking as highly of ourselves as we think of friends and others.
• Spiritual: Time alone, meditation, mindfulness, connection with others and nature, and journaling.
As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others. [Maya Angelou]