Since early March, the way we live our lives has been changed by COVID-19. This has been the same for children; this is an unprecedented situation. As researchers learn more about COVID-19 and as more definitive answers emerge on how to manage the spread of the virus, as a society and within professions, we need to continually balance guidance and practicality. The DCYA announced public health advice for Early Learning and Care settings and School Age Childcare. This Scéalta focusses on the Early Learning and Care setting.
Along with health and safety guidance, the government is introducing a ‘play pod’ model. The DCYA describes the model thus:
The “play pod” model restricts interactions between closed groups of children and adults as an alternative to social distancing, which is not possible with young children. The purpose of ‘play-pods’ is to limit the number of people a child has contact with, to facilitate tracing, and to support close, positive interactions between children and their adult caregivers, like in a key-worker system.
It is a welcome definition that recognises and accepts that it is not in children’s best interest to implement physical distancing expectations on children in settings. The ‘play pod’ model aims to be child-centric, therefore there are lots of practical elements to consider. The implementation of a ‘play pod’ model will need to be considered by each setting. Everyone is learning, and nobody has all the answers. The learning and care curriculum within an early learning and care setting is cyclical, and it remains a journey. Therefore, Aistear principles can help to begin and continue discussions, as settings plan for reopening. The guiding principles that encourage learning and care curricula to:
- ensure young children thrive in their lives in early childhood;
- focus on children’s connections with others,
- understand how children learn and develop.
Of course, settings will continue to adhere to strict hygiene practices and those recently announced by government. Yes, there will be policy and procedural changes. It will be a delicate balance, meeting the needs of children through a child-centred approach, while also meeting the needs of educators and families during a pandemic. But early years educators make complex decisions on an ongoing basis. As professionals, we understand the characteristics of young children as curious and active learners. The environment we create and the experiences we provide amplify children’s natural development. Our goal is to ensure that all children have a ‘quality’ childhood in learning and care environments, one that maximises their well-being and potential. It is always complicated and one that requires a multifaceted approach. However, what remains at the heart of every quality setting is the act of ‘respectful caring.’
Children may have already experienced rapid transitions into new home routines, along with reduced contact with peers and extended family. The transition, therefore, into the setting, must be holistic and nurturing. A focus on care and emotional well-being across the whole setting can help children and adults make shared meaning together, especially in these uncertain times and into the future. One of the purposes of small groupings is to support children in building a trusting relationship with consistent early years educators. However, the ‘pod’ must extend to other educators – this forms stability for children, mainly if a regular educator is absent. Children have and continue to live through the same insecurity as adults. Now more than ever is the need for each early childhood professional, whether working directly in practice (or not) to bring their expertise to ongoing discussions. To articulate and continue to highlight the importance of high-quality, nurturing, and responsive care that meets each child’s needs. But importantly, how this happens in practice.
For example, – How do you feel when you sense a lack of emotional connection with a loved one? Children will be returning, and some starting after a prolonged period in the home. Some will be enthusiastic about returning, other less so. Separation distress always requires such tuned-in responsive and respectful care giving. The drop-off time can cause intense stress for children and parents. Drop-off in turn, can be extremely stressful for the educator. The guidance around drop-offs will need careful consideration. Some things to consider include:
- Communicate with families about how their child will be supported, discuss the drop-off procedures, and any changes. Discuss the shared language parent and educators will use.
- Explain to children what is happening and provide them with lots of reassurance that they are safe.
- Use language that acknowledges feelings if a child is upset. ‘I know you feel sad, but I will keep you safe.’
- It is also essential to support collegiate relationships between colleagues and recognise when you or others may seem overly stressed.
Throughout the day, many children will need and will seek out affection. Of course, not only following the separation from a loved one, but as some children emerge from sleep, or within the play as children navigate through confusing emotions throughout the day. The pod model describes a key message – one of consistency. It will be necessary for children, educators, and families to have consistency as much as is practically possible. It may be useful to spend some time working with some of the common scenarios that come up in your settings. When a timeline is attached, there can be a rush to implement change. Still, the basis of high-quality early learning and care is reflective practice. Through reflection, educators will have the opportunity to consider how small groupings can work in a meaningful way. It is okay for this reflection to be slow and gentle. It is okay if, through observation, adjustments need to happen. It is the nature of the work. It is responsive. The physical comfort and loving interactions remain critical to meet the child(ren) needs. As we know, respectful connection and communication between early years educators and families are crucial to the current and continuing circumstances of each child. Maintaining respectful relationships with parents and staff will support children to feel attached, trust, and give them a sense of security.
To deliver respectful care to others, educators themselves must have time for self-care. A therapeutic focus will also support early years educators to navigate through uncertainty and continual change. While change is nothing new to educators, there are broader contextual challenges. For many, personal circumstances can impact emotional and physical well-being. Educators need to be kind to themselves and to each other. Early years educators are the practice experts, and within each setting, there is a wealth of expertise and knowledge. Questions will emerge, and there will be challenges and successes. Within each setting and more broadly within the early year’s community, we can help each other by sharing concerns and solutions. Whatever the difficulties and changes, we are all in this together – we all want young children to return to settings and to thrive. Let’s create ‘learning pods’ as a community, learning and caring together as we navigate these unprecedented times, bringing our expertise to bear, and keeping children and all aspects of well-being at the heart of all we do.
Milica Atanackovic is a Research & Professional Learning Manager with Early Childhood Ireland. Her background in the sector of Early Years is rooted within a passionate interest in Creative Arts and Child Participation. Milica originally studied Design Communication before moving into Early Childhood Care and Education in Australia. Considering training and mentoring as a key element of quality in the Early Learning & Care, Milica has worked as an educator, service manager and trainer. She also combines experience from a range of creative disciplines to her work.