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Returning to Child Care: Big Feelings, Common Behaviors and Practical Strategies for Teachers

By Lara Scott, M.Ed., LPC

It’s August, which means many young children and teachers across Arizona are returning to child care centers and home programs after extended time away during the pandemic. Others are coming to the early learning setting for the first time. These transitions often result in an array of feelings such as excitement, hopefulness, fear, sadness or frustration for both children and adults. Teachers are challenged with creating schedules, new routines and managing the day. Children are challenged with understanding new expectations, while learning at the same time. This year, these changes feel even bigger, as we’ve all been through a pandemic and felt the effects in different ways.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over the last year, most young children had significant changes in daily routines, limited access to health care, decreased socialization and their families were faced with financial strains. Starting early in life, our brains tell us when change is happening. While young children may not fully understand, they recognize when something is different and often express change and feelings through their behavior.

Big Feelings and Common Behaviors

Children have the same feelings as adults, but don’t have the words or language to express themselves like adults. As a result, we often see big feelings in their behavior. Some of these behaviors include crying easily or frequently. screaming or yelling clinging to adults, rough contact or play with others and isolating or playing alone.

When thinking about common behaviors, it’s important to consider typical development. For example, although frustrating, it is common for infants and young toddlers to bite others, because they are getting teeth and have little to no verbal language. However, if an older child is biting, we may want to think about what else may be happening for them and what feelings are behind the behavior.

There are many reasons children may show challenging behaviors. As adults, we might not have all the details of a child or family to fully understand. However, we can be hopeful in understanding that children express themselves through behavior and we have the ability to support them through their big feelings.

What Can I Do?

  1. Observe. Take note of when the behaviors are happening. Is it during a specific time of day? Does the behavior happen around specific people or peers? Having this information may allow you to modify something in the environment to support children.
  1. Check in. Notice how you are feeling when challenging behavior happens. Are you frustrated? Are you anxious? Take a few deep breaths to regulate yourself before responding and engaging.
  1. Comfort. It can be difficult to comfort children with big feelings. However, the bigger the behavior, usually the more comfort and support they need. Get down to the child’s eye level and use a comforting tone. This demonstrates you are available for them, even when they are having a difficult time.
  1. Narrate. Children learn from what we say. Narrating is simply labeling what we see. “I saw you throw the block, and you look frustrated.” “I heard you yell at your friend. You seem scared right now.” Narrating is the beginning of teaching children about feelings and emotions. Even children with language may not know the words for their feelings yet. By narrating, you are giving them the language they don’t have yet. 
  1. Model. Children learn from how we are. As adults, we are always modeling for children. Being intentional and aware of our tone, posture and words shows children how we hope for them to communicate. Engaging children with a calm tone helps children feel safe. Children must feel safe and comforted to learn new ways of responding.

Lastly, but most importantly, you can take care of yourself. Self-care allows us to have more patience with ourselves and others. 

Take Care of Yourself 

It’s easy for busy teachers to overlook, but self-care is critical when working with children. This means planning and taking intentional time for our physical and emotional needs. Basic physical needs include staying hydrated during the day, proper nutrition, sleep and regular exercise. Even walking for 15 minutes a few times a week can impact our physical and mental health. Playing an outdoor game with children that includes running or jumping can be a great way to get your regular exercise.

We all have emotional needs which are just as important as our physical needs. Caring for our emotional needs means planning and being intentional about self-care. Examples are taking short breaks or quick moments of downtime. It might be sitting and breathing for 5 minutes during nap time, doing a short mindfulness activity before children arrive for the day, reading or listening to calming music during your break. If other adults are present, take turns with some of the more intense tasks and supporting one another with challenging behaviors.

Think about what you can do at the end of each day to release whatever has happened and recharge. For example, talking to a coworker, family member or friend about your day. Taking a quick nap, taking a short walk, reading an interesting book or article, listening to music and journaling are great ways to replenish.

As you welcome children back to your early learning setting, we hope you will remember to care for yourself, so you can help care for children’s big feelings and common behaviors. Every action you take makes a difference in children’s lives today and in the future.

At Quality First, we love to hear from you! What changes are you working on in your program? How are you supporting children’s big feelings and behaviors? Send an email to qualityfirst@firstthingsfirst.org.

Resources from around the web

CDC’s COVID-19 Parental Resources Kit- Early Childhood offers practical tips to help support families in recognizing challenges and support their health and well-being.

Teachstone’s 13 Children’s Books for Social Emotional Learning in 2021 offers a selection of excellent children’s books that focus on social and emotional skills in engaging ways for young learners.

About the Author- Lara Scott is a mental health consultant and supervisor with Smart Support, an evidence-based program proven to support the social and emotional development of children and help providers respond to children with behavioral challenges. Lara has worked in the mental health field for more than 15 years and has been with Smart Support for the last seven years. Her overall experience includes working with all ages and families, providing clinical therapy. One of her favorite things about mental health consultation is seeing teachers understand what is happening for children, especially for children who are struggling with expressing emotions and behavior. To learn more about Smart Support, visit swhd.org/training/smart-support or call 1-866-330-5520.