Dr Tucci of the ACF shares tips on how ECEC staff can support children in tough times
Pandemics, bushfires, floods and a fear of imminent war… all Australians have had a challenging few years but none more so than small children who struggle to make sense of it all.
Dr Joe Tucci, CEO of the Australian Childhood Foundation, recently spoke with the NSW Department of Education to share his tips and advice for early childhood education and care (ECEC) staff and providers about how to support children at difficult times. An extract of this conversation appears below.
Dr Tucci said that for children directly affected by floods, and for those who may be hearing about it from their parents or in the news, there is an overwhelming sense of confusion.
“For young kids, they’re seeing many of these things for the first time. There’s so much that doesn’t make sense. The impact of all of this is a sense of threat that’s been activated, which will affect their sense of safety,” he explained.
For children in flood-affected communities whose lives have been disrupted, the impact on their sense of safety is even greater.
“For kids who have been in the floods, the threat is real. They’ve experienced danger and its consequences. They might have lost their house or their possessions. The disruption is very significant,” Dr Tucci said.
When children experience threat or danger, ECEC staff, parents and other adults play a crucial role in helping them to process what’s happening.
Dr Tucci acknowledges that this can be particularly difficult when adults are themselves struggling to make sense of the devastation they’re seeing in their community.
“Our role as adults is to help children make sense of the world. That’s hard when the world doesn’t make sense to us. But we have to try.”
How does distress present itself?
Those working with children directly may be among the first to notice if children are showing signs that they are not coping.
“It will look different for every child,” Dr Tucci said.
“Some kids might be clingier than usual, and they might need a bit more attention. They might be more distracted and need more guidance to complete a task. Or they might be more disruptive.”
Dr Tucci said that one of the challenges is that young children might not have the words to express their feelings, so it is important to pay close attention.
“Some kids will stop eating or they might be more tired than usual because they’re experiencing problems with sleeping. They might talk about feeling sad or burst into tears without being able to explain why.”
Dr Tucci says that children’s feeling of distress will be greater if they do not have adults who are able to support them at home.
“Where parents are not coping themselves, they will not be able to attend to the needs of their children.”
One of the most important things that an ECEC provider can do is to offer a safe space to children and their families, where play and connection can occur.
Let them in, and let play heal
Dr Tucci said that at appropriate time, inviting parents and carers to the centre for structured activities with their children can support the connection that’s needed to establish a sense of safety again.
“Play is incredibly healing, because during play the closeness of the threat moves away. Time spent on interaction and play will do a world of good for the children, connecting them back to their community and a sense of fun.”
Acknowledgement and validation
When supporting children who are showing signs of distress, Dr Tucci says that acknowledgement is a powerful way to validate their feelings.
“Having a teacher or parent repeat back to a child what they’re feeling, sharing that emotion, and then offering a solution is really helpful.
“So you might say something like ‘it seems like you’re worried that the next time the rain comes, there’ll be another flood. I understand how you’re feeling. But next time we’ll be better prepared.”
Routine is also an important part of providing security, along with giving children more time to complete tasks.
“Don’t expect that children will be able to do things in the time it would normally take. Give them a bit longer than usual to get things done. And if they’re doing something they enjoy, let them do it longer,” said Dr Tucci.
When talking to parents and carers about their children, ECEC staff might like to share some of these strategies for them to use at home.
The Australian Childhood Foundation has also created a poster that can be used by ECEC staff, parents and carers, summarising some of the ways that adults can help young children make sense of the world.
For more information about the work of the Foundation please see here.
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