Our ‘new normal’

Where settings are closed due to coronavirus, practitioners can gain a sense of purpose by finding new ways to support their children and families, whose well-being will be under pressure.

Emma Davis

The unexpected and sudden arrival of coronavirus has undoubtedly turned our personal and professional lives upside down. Our new normal is scarily different to what we're used to, causing many of us to experience anxiety at what we're facing. None of us know how and when this will end but, for now, we all need to take time to adjust to new routines, whether still in schools or settings or now at home.

This article has been incredibly difficult to write. The spread of coronavirus and the measures taken by the Government to limit this has meant that things have developed quickly. Schools and settings have had to respond to new advice and guidelines, often having to make quick decisions in order to safeguard the welfare of the children in their care. Those settings forced to close are now thinking about their financial futures. Although some local authorities are honouring funding, there are questions about revenue from fee paying families. How will losing this income impact on settings who have substantial overheads?

At the time of writing, schools and settings are only open to children of key workers. Many of us were taken aback at the extensive list of key workers, having to act quickly to ensure that children were cared for in a setting or, if closing, by another local setting. These arrangements are enabling parents to perform vital duties essential to the country.

However, there has been more than just the children to consider. Many staff were classed as being in the ‘vulnerable’ category published by the Government due to underlying health conditions. The recommendation was that these individuals socially distance themselves in order to minimise the chances of them contracting the virus. This has left many providers with limited staff to cover ratios, forcing closure.

The speed at which the Government has quite rightly acted has required us to quickly adjust to a new way of life. How we approach and manage this change will be different for everyone. What's important is to do what works for you rather than be influenced by others, particularly in regards to social media. Facebook and Twitter are swamped with posts about how individuals are reacting to the situation. Some are coping by busying themselves with a structured routine, focused on work. Others are adopting a more relaxed approach, not to mention those who are having to juggle additional responsibilities. Many of us are now looking after vulnerable family, friends and neighbours, a further change to our usual roles.

In these challenging times, it's important to acknowledge the impact the coronavirus will have on children, practitioners and teachers, not just now but in the future.

First let's think about the needs of young children

We don't know how much children understand about what's going on. The older children in the early years age bracket will pick up on cues related to the change in routines. Not only are they not in school or nursery but their physical contact with family and friends has been significantly reduced. Their world has become smaller at an age where we do everything we can to inspire awe and wonder, opening up the world, encouraging them to think, feel and experience all they can. Opportunities to interact socially will be reduced, communication and language development could be impacted and play skills affected. In a sector where we put the child first, accepting that coronavirus will inhibit a child's early experiences is difficult to comprehend.

For some, poverty will be a real issue with limited access to hot meals or other essentials. Although the Government has put in place plans to ensure staff are still paid at least 80 per cent of their wages, not everyone will be entitled. Who will support families where a parent has lost their job or had their hours reduced?

These circumstances would not only mean less money coming into the household but would be accompanied by feelings of fear and anxiety. It's understandable this tension could affect the well-being of families, including children.

Worryingly, families could be at risk and we might not even be aware. Complex needs within families could include domestic violence, mental health problems, alcohol and substance misuse and illness. Settings and schools would be protective factors in these circumstances, acting as a constant in the child's life, somewhere where they feel safe, protected and loved. As the focus shifts across the country towards our public health problem, the more likely these children will be forgotten.

What's really important in these challenging times is to acknowledge children's feelings, supporting them to develop their emotional literacy. With changes to routines, some children may be feeling anxious so will need help to recognise and label these feelings so we can talk and offer reassurance. Just as it's important to label negative feelings, we also need to recognise times when we feel excited, happy, thankful and surprised. There are things all around us which can be used to demonstrate these feelings – buds on the trees, blue skies, butterflies and ladybirds, the sun on our faces. It will be these things, especially during a period of lockdown that we need to appreciate.

How can we support families through the crisis caused by coronavirus?

Our role is essential in helping families adjust to this new normal. Family circumstances will vary widely with some or both parents still working, others now at home full time, some parents caring for others, including older siblings who are also now home.

We need to offer reassurance that we are experiencing an extreme event and it's OK to take time to adjust. Rather than pressure families to home school, keeping to strict timetables, they should be supported to manage this adjustment in a way that suits them. We can offer play and learning ideas to try at home, activities to fill the time, keeping children engaged and interested. Ensuring lines of communication remain open can be a lifeline for some parents and carers. This could be through online learning journeys which many schools and settings now use or by email, text or Facebook groups. Enabling this connection means families feel supported, have a space to share and can reach out if needed. Many families will prefer to manage their time independently, but some will rely on us to maintain the link to their ‘normal’ world.

Those setting activities to try at home need to be sensitive to the home circumstances of families. Not everyone will have access to some of the resources required for wonderful ideas found on Pinterest. Focus on items which are available in the home –

  • Cereal boxes can be cut up to make simple puzzles
  • Milk cartons can be washed out and used to make shakers
  • Packaging is great for junk modelling
  • Envelopes can be used for writing on
  • Items in the kitchen cupboards can be instruments
  • Socks can support matching activities

The well-being of practitioners and teachers…

Those working in early years will have experienced a time unlike any other.

Feelings of anxiety, apprehension, worry and fear are absolutely normal.

Some might find it difficult to label their feelings and that is OK too – how can we label a feeling we've not experienced before?

There will be some of us still working as usual but under very different circumstances. Caring for the children of key workers will mean possible exposure to the virus and concerns for our health and that of our families. I would like to write about how this feels but I can't as my setting is currently closed. It would be unjust to put into words the feelings of those still working when I'm not experiencing it myself. What I can talk about is working from home and the feeling of being isolated and overwhelmed. Again, completely normal feelings in a situation which is wholly unfamiliar.

With changes to their routine some children will be feeling anxious.

What is important to remember is that although our physical contact with family and friends is limited, there are other ways to stay connected. We need to think creatively, using facetime, Skype, Zoom or the good old telephone. This is a complete life change so a support network is vital in having a space to share worries or just catch up. It will take time to adjust so we need to be kind to ourselves as we get used to new routines.

These new routines could involve learning at home with our own children, looking out for vulnerable family, friends and neighbours and catching up with paperwork we don't usually have time for. Many of us will continue to communicate with the families from our settings, most likely through online learning journeys.

This can give a purpose to our days as we research ideas, tailoring them to children and their interests or stage of development. Some of us will also be managing Facebook pages for families, enabling them to connect with each other and share ideas of how they are managing a period of isolation. Setting managers continue to be setting managers so will be emailing, connecting with staff, updating essential paperwork, engaging in CPD and preparing for return. These tasks for those in early years can be a welcome distraction from the reality of what is going on around us. However, it's so important to factor in time to prioritise our own needs.

During this period of uncertainty, we need to keep a check on our emotions, acknowledging that it's perfectly normal to feel anxious and scared. We'll be worried about the health of ourselves and our loved ones, thinking about the children from our settings as well as considering the wider issues such as our health service and economy.

With news of the virus everywhere, it's difficult to escape. This could easily fuel anxiety so think of ways to address this. Perhaps limit your exposure to the news and only check official channels such as the Government website or Public Health England.

As this is all so new to us, there are undoubtedly concerns about the children and the impact the coronavirus will have on their education. We don't know when we will return so it's difficult to predict the effect on children's development. Will we be back before September? Will children join school without a transition? Are we doing enough at home to support them? There are so many questions but so few answers.

If you're responsible for staff, check in on them. Let them know you're available for support – you're still colleagues even though you may not be physically working together for the time being. Is there anyone to check in on you? Don't be too busy helping others that you forget about yourself. Together, we can get through these troubling times. Stay safe.

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