Perspectives from a Parent and an Early Childhood Expert
At the Early Learning Lab, we are dedicated to helping families, teachers, and caregivers provide high-quality adult-child interactions for the young children in their care. Our work is informed by our knowledge of child development, deep experience in the field, and application of human-centered design to develop empathy with the families we work with. However, like most of the world, the COVID-19 epidemic has thrown us for a loop. But this crisis is giving us the opportunity to deepen our empathy for families even further.
The moms on our team are juggling working from home with child care and homeschooling. None of us know how long this situation will go on. Under the weight of this anxiety, it can feel overwhelming to even think about ensuring high-quality early learning opportunities for our children. We recognize this is a daily struggle for many families even beyond this pandemic. So how does this change the way we work with families and how much can we expect them to do?
These are honest questions that we are exploring in this piece, told from two points of view. First, Sarah Flores, our Director of Communications, describes her struggle to work from home while caring for her 2 year old, Ames. Then, Chris Sciarrino, our Director of Early Childhood Practice and Innovation, offers practical and humane advice to families who are juggling their new roles working from home full time while also caring for their young children. They both incorporate content from the Priority Practices, a simple framework we are developing to help guide high-quality adult-child interactions.
Sarah: A Parent’s Perspective
I was fine until about 8 p.m. Sunday night when panic set in and sent me into a tizzy of cleaning and organization. I stayed up until 1 a.m. furiously cleaning my house and mapping out a schedule for the first day of no child care.
By my first conference call Monday at 10 a.m., I was ready to cry feeling overwhelmed by the seemingly impossible task of trying to work from home while taking care of my 2.5 year old, covering for my husband who is also working from home, and making sure we all still eat three meals a day plus snacks – endless snacks – for the next few weeks or even months.
I realize I’m lucky because I work in the early childhood field with a female boss who is also a working mom. I’m lucky because I’m part of a two-parent household with a husband who is a hands-on father. I’m lucky because I have one healthy child, and I’m lucky for a million reasons.
But if I’m being honest, I still feel like I don’t know what or how to do so many things, and that was even before the Coronavirus.
On Day 2 of shelter in place, and my attempt to create a schedule for my family to follow, my toddler started to resist what I had planned, and I remembered I could and perhaps should simply follow his lead. So we went outside instead. I tried to teach him hopscotch and that worked for about 5 minutes. Then we looked at rocks and he yelled at me as I pulled some weeds, saying, “No, they’re growing!” Then we sat on the porch and ate rice cakes, and I think we both felt like we were having fun.
“But if I’m being honest, I still feel like I don’t know what or how to do so many things, and that was even before the Coronavirus.”
“…we might get through this surreal circumstance without me having to magically transform into a Mary Poppins-meets-early-childhood-specialist Marvel superhero.”
Knowing that I could let him lead sometimes and offer him guidance by giving him just enough choice has helped me to think we might get through this surreal circumstance without me having to magically transform into a Mary Poppins-meets-early-childhood-specialist Marvel superhero.
A few guiding principles are helping me:
Put your oxygen mask on first: I know that if I’m going to take care of and protect my child, I have to do the same for myself first. I need to be compassionate with myself and check in with how I’m feeling and find ways to support myself. Truth be told, I’m stressed and scared and that’s okay. What can I do to feel a bit better? Five extra minutes in the shower, eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, call a friend, eat cookies, breathing, and more breathing.
Follow the child’s lead: That silly thing they’re obsessed with – that’s the thing you could spend 20 minutes with them being totally enraptured. We spent a half hour scrutinizing each of the gutters on our neighborhood walk.
Read, sing, tell stories: Right! I can definitely do this. Of course there’s a lot related to this concept like voice modulation and dialogic reading, but we are in survival mode right now and this is enough for me to focus on now.
Use positive guidance: When I get this one right, the amount of tears and tantrums are so much less frequent and time moves much more smoothly. I have to resist the strong urge to say ‘No, don’t do that’ or ‘Stop!’ and instead try and tell my son what he CAN do, e.g., “I can’t let you hit your toy hammer on the window, but here’s a cardboard box you can bang on.”
Get to cooperation through connection: This has become a mantra. When I want my son to do anything, I have to hold my goal – for example, having him put on his shoes – and his goal in my mind simultaneously. His goal may be to play with a particular LEGO toy. If I acknowledge his goal by saying “That LEGO is very special, and we can say bye to it now and it will be there when we come back,” then he can know that I am honoring his priorities as well as mine.
Establish rituals and routines: Right now, having a rigid schedule is not working. If someone could superimpose my toddler’s color-coded schedule with my work schedule and my husband’s schedule and then our cooking and eating schedule, then I might have a workable plan. For now, it’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and the key markers I need to remember are eating and sleeping combined with a list of indoor and outdoor activities I can refer to on the fly.
- Chris: Advice from an Early Childhood Professional
“We are all doing our best. Take it one step at a time.”
I am witnessing so many different reactions like Sarah’s. Speaking as an early childhood lifer with 30+ years of experience in early childhood practice support, and as a grandmother to a two year old, two kindergartners, and a high school senior, my biggest message to everyone is this: We are all doing our best. Take it one step at a time.
If you want some tried and true kid-tested principles and activities, here are some that could make life a bit easier for you as a working parent:
CREATE DOABLE SCHEDULES AND ROUTINES
I realize that creating a schedule is easier said than done, but at a time when things seem to be changing by the day, it is important to remember that children (and adults) find comfort and security in predictable routines and schedules. Establish one that makes sense for your work demands.
- Create a visual schedule with pictures to help children know what comes next in the day
- Establish zones in the home – a quiet place, noisy space, work space, etc. If a table functions as both a work space and an eating space, create signs with children that can be posted to signal working time or eating time.
- Create signs for children to know that you are on a work call that cannot be disturbed (Stop/Go; Thumbs up/Thumbs down)
- When possible, start a routine with your child, then set the expectation of what things the child may do while you work. Set a timer and let your child know you will be working while he/she is working and will check back in when the timer goes off. Then make sure and come back!
CREATE AND MAINTAIN CONNECTIONS EVEN WITH SOCIAL DISTANCING
Balance screen time that is focused on not just watching videos but using tech for fun interactions.
- Digital playdates
- Facetime parties
- Read-alouds with grandparents
STOP AND BREATHE
Like Sarah said earlier, give yourself the time and space to breathe! Taking long breaths can help you refocus and recharge.
- Stop once an hour for a breathing break with your child.
- For little ones, use a pretend flower and candle. Model smelling the flower and blowing out the candle.
MAKE TIME FOR PHYSICAL ACTIVITY
It will be easier to focus on work when children (and parents) have their need for physical movement met.
- Family yoga
- Walk or do some type of physical activity after breakfast, after lunch, after nap
READ, SING, TELL STORIES
There are so many ways to get creative with this one. The important part is this is an opportunity to engage with them while also building language and literacy skills.
- Start reading times by reading with your child while they are on your lap or sitting close.
- Schedule reading playdates to involve grandparents, aunts, uncles, or neighbors. They may also be able to extend the book into a puppet show or make up silly songs and stories together.
- Write simple stories about what is happening around you. Try creating a story page every day that says “When Mommy works at home then I…” Your child can draw and then dictate the story to you at the end of each day.
- Create videos of things your child has created or is proud of. Let your child narrate the video.
- Give children a phone to take a certain number of pictures then have them tell a story about those pictures. Let them know the pictures should be in different rooms or pictures of a certain color or shape, etc.
VARY LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES
This will help keep things interesting for children while giving them a well-rounded learning experience.
- Infuse math, literacy, science, and art into daily routines.
- Balance learning games that a child can do alone with some that you can do together.
- Explore the list of resources that our partners at Promise Venture Studio have compiled that families can use to provide early childhood learning opportunities at home.
Above all, try to keep your sense of humor and have fun. There is no perfect way to do this. It is new for all of us, but you may just be creating a whole new way to connect with your child.