Head Start at YMCA of Frederick County

Maria Wardlow, left, and Irene Slevin practice mindfulness and breathing exercises with the children in their Head Start class at the YMCA of Frederick County to help them learn ways to build resiliency against stress and anxiety.

This article is sponsored and paid for by Frederick County’s Interagency Early Childhood Committee. It has been approved by the publisher as an article of general interest.

Whether espoused by child development experts or seasoned parents and grandparents, there is one parenting adage that has stood the test of time: Children thrive on routine.

Yet during the age of COVID, life for children has been anything but routine. Regular school and caregiving habits have been disrupted; play dates have gone virtual; and for some, the pandemic has resulted in the deaths of loved ones, near and far.

In short, the new normal is anything but normal or routine.

That includes the process of returning to the classroom after nearly a year of virtual learning. For young children especially, this may be cause for additional anxiety and stress on top of what they are already experiencing.

“When it comes to anxiety about returning to school, if you name it, I’m hearing it,” said child psychologist Alison J. Bomba, Psy.D., who works in Frederick. “This includes things like ‘What if I get the virus?’ ‘What if I bring the virus home and my grandma gets it?’ or ‘What if kids don’t follow the rules and won’t wear their masks?’ Their fears are all over the place.”

Because younger children may be unable to verbalize their fears, their anxiety often manifests itself with physical symptoms. A review by the National Institutes of Health reported that younger children were likely to demonstrate symptoms of clinginess, as well as increased irritability and inattention. Parents reported that their children experienced disturbed sleep, nightmares, poor appetite and agitation.

Bomba believes one of the best things parents can do to help their children cope with stress over returning to school is to actively discuss it. “A lot of kids want to go back to school, but they are afraid,” she said. “Parents need to learn how to respond to their children’s anxiety.”

Children in the YMCA of Frederick County’s Head Start program returned to in-person classroom settings in September—the first Head Start program in the state to do so. They have quickly adapted to new habits and find comfort in established expectations. “[The children] know that when they come to school, they were their masks,” said Colleen Guardia, family services manager for the YMCA of Frederick County. Head Start is currently offering in-person learning to 90 students ages 3 to 4 across eight classrooms. “It is just part of what they know as their normal routine now, and we all know routine is important to young children.”

But even with routine, experts know that children may still be anxious about being in school when the virus is still not contained. “I often talk to children about ‘worry bullies,’” Bomba said. “I work with them to use logic to shrink them so that the size of the worry matches the reality of the situation.” That means helping children recognize that if everyone follows the rules—wears masks, washes their hands, keeps safe distances—the fear of contracting or spreading the virus is greatly diminished. In other words, the worry bully is shrunk down to size.

In Head Start’s classrooms, Guardia said they often employ “social stories” to help children process and cope with fears or anxieties. “These are simple, age-appropriate stories that explain what we do (wear masks and sit far apart) and why we do it (to stay safe),” she said.

Despite their young ages, the children sometimes also participate in breathing and mindfulness exercises, which have been shown to help reduce stress and anxiety in both children and adults.

It’s hard to believe that anything good could come from a pandemic that has cost over a half million American lives, but child development experts believe youth who weather this storm may be well equipped to face other crises later in life.

“I tell the children I work with that they have to ‘lean in’ to—or practice and celebrate flexibility—in the face of the uncertainty,” Bomba said. “This pandemic is a true test of our skills in flexibility and resilience.”

But it is a test that the Guardia believes her little ones are passing with flying colors. “The kids are amazing! They have been following all these COVID protocols and will be role models for others,” she said. “They are truly leading the way.”

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