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Children and communities can thrive in and after the pandemic

The year 2020 has been a year of struggle and change for people all over the world and, a year that has fundamentally disrupted schools and workplaces. As adults continue to overcome the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is important to remember that our children have been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic in ways we are just beginning to understand. For example, some infants and toddlers may be developing more slowly due to less stimulation, touch, sleep and contact with other children as a result of being at home with parents who are stressed by working from home while trying to care for and teach multiple children, or worse, being unemployed in record numbers and struggling to keep their families afloat financially.

Many childcare centers remain closed and are in crisis themselves due to the effects of closure, therefore families are missing a valuable partner in stimulating their child’s brain development. Access to high quality child care is important because 85 percent of a child’s brain is developed by age four, setting the stage for children’s ability to learn for the rest of their lives and, research documents that parents with access to high quality child care have higher attendance, production and promotion potential at work.

For school-aged children, the extended break from school routines has resulted in a lack of social contact with other children, less direct instruction and less on-going skill assessment. This creates challenges for children from 3K-high school and their teachers, as schools reopen. While school districts continue to plan for how best to help students meet the challenges of grade mastery and resilience in the year ahead, they also understand that the children and youth most negatively impacted by the level of crisis in our communities now, are those that were vulnerable to crisis due to poverty, special needs and/or resource disparities by race, well before this pandemic. It will take all of us, acting as “the village” to support our school districts and ensure that all of our community’s children have what they need to ensure success in the new school year and in a future that remains “under construction.” It is imperative that we ask our legislators to invest in our education and child welfare systems this year.

Locally, many community members, parents, school district personnel, leaders of non-profit organizations, representatives from the business community and philanthropists are working together to begin the critical work of recovery with our school systems. This work ranges from promoting high-quality childcare for parents returning to work, to promoting employment services for people who are out of work. A very important part of recovery includes partnership with local school districts to anticipate safety, structural, staffing, curriculum content and student and family support needs when schools reopen. The Tri-county Cradle to Career Collective recently sent out a community impact and needs survey and plans to use the data obtained to generate support for recovery efforts impacting education and workforce development programs across our region in immediate, on-going and sustainable ways.

We should applaud our four local school districts for doing a commendable job partnering with parents and caregivers to ensure instructional and support services for students learning from home for the last 12 weeks of the school year and ensuring that critical family supports and meal services were delivered in new ways. As the community prepares for reopening, our school districts need our full support as we jointly prepare for changes in school routines consistent with public health guidelines and, integration of students’ pandemic experiences to promote resilience. Children and youth will need safe, welcoming, inclusive and nurturing school environments to return to in just eight weeks and will be much less stressed in adapting to changes in school routines if we work together to prepare them for their return. We are ALL in this together and each of us can do something to ensure our community’s children are prepared for and successful in, the next school year.

Here are some ideas for activities parents and others can do with children to support school readiness this summer and in the year to come:

Reading to and with children is the greatest influence on life-long academic achievement. Read with your child 20 minutes a day. If you are social distancing from children you love, why not read to them over Zoom or another platform? Or if children you care about live close enough, why not schedule a neighborhood “book club” inviting them over to your yard or porch for stories once a week? If you staff an “essential” service (i.e. pediatrician’s offices, WIC offices) why not invite volunteers to read to children in the waiting room?

Encourage collaboration, communication and problem solving through play and household routines. Encourage building, creative and sequential play: for example, build a play fort or go on a scavenger hunt, focusing on shared goals. As problems arise, rather than telling children what to do, help them think through the challenge and communicate with each other to overcome it. Teach then that practice makes progress and our best work takes time.

Project-based learning is a great way to develop your child’s ability to stay on task and follow instructions. Consider a baking or household repair project you can work through together with multiple steps. For younger children, a paint-by-number set they have to complete over time as colors dry, or an introduction to basket weaving or needlework, can be engaging projects. For older children building something (birdhouse, go cart, shelf, etc.) out of recycled materials, or creating a “show,” or their own book, can be skill and confidence growing projects. These types of activities teach design, interpretation, assessment, correction and completion skills that will be critical for tomorrow’s workforce. For a rainy-day activity, consider doing a puzzle together emphasizing beginning with a frame and looking for patterns, or create your own board game with everyone contributing to the rules.

Praising children is critical for developing confidence at any age. It is equally important to praise them for who they are and what they do. Whenever you are in the presence of young children or young adults, look for what they are doing right! Give genuine and specific praise for what they are doing (i.e., “Thanks for sharing that with your brother,” “Nice job cleaning your room,” “I saw you try and try again to get that done: good job!”) Take time to notice and affirm your child’s character strengths as well (i.e., “You were kind to Mr. Simmons today, I love that,” “You are such a good helper, I appreciate that.”) As we move into the new school year, this is a learning support we can continue with our children’s peers, teachers and school staff. They will all be experiencing change and will benefit from confidence built by each of us noticing what they get right, more often than we raise concerns.

Feelings exploration and expression is also very important to children’s mental health and ability to process information from all five of their senses as part of the learning process. For middle and high school youth, try encouraging them to keep diaries or videos of their experiences and thoughts during this time, as a piece of their own history they may want to look back on. Its fine if they use many different ways to express themselves for example, drawing in their journals, including lyrics from their favorite songs, or saving pictures or news articles that represent the way they felt. Remember, journals are very private and should be viewed with their author or at their invitation only. Open questions from parents like “How do you feel about that?” or “What do you wish was different?” can also help children of all ages find a way to share their thoughts, feelings and support needs. Books and puppet play can accomplish the same goal for younger children. Two books to try include Trish Cooke’s Full, Full, Full of Love and Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Bad Day. Using a child’s puppet or stuffed toy to lead a feelings discussion may also help overcome a child’s natural reserve about sharing their inner thoughts.

Time in nature is critical for children of all ages. The natural world feeds our sense of connection to time and place, which periods of social isolation (as experienced in the pandemic) can disrupt. Young children benefit from periods of “free range” play outside where they can exercise their bodies and minds together. Older children and adults, benefit from play as well and often find peace in completing other tasks outdoors. You may want to consider starting a window or patio garden your children can help tend, setting up creative activities outside (i.e. chalk art or painting) when possible and encouraging outdoor play dates or adolescent gatherings as that becomes safe.

Exposure to the arts also helps children of all ages build imagination, release stress and see the beauty within and around us, while encouraging a sense of community belonging and connection with people who live in other places.

The Charleston region offers many free and low-cost events, many of which can currently be accessed online. Check out Engaging Creative Minds summer programs, the Gaillard’s Education Program, the Gibbes Museum, the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry, Charleston Stage and the Charleston Symphony Orchestra to name just a few of the organizations promoting exposure to the arts for children and youth. For children who lack Internet access, public television programs, art books and teaching cultural arts relevant to their own history can accomplish the same goals. Libraries have reopened and are a valuable resource for these materials, as well as, small group children’s activities.

Last, but not least, good nutrition is important to building strong bodies and resilient brains. One of the easiest and best strategies for keeping your children safe from any virus this summer, while helping them learn, is to reduce the amount of processed food and sugar they eat, replacing it with fresh vegetables and fruit. Help them develop the life habit of “eating a rainbow” of fresh food daily. Many families are struggling with food costs currently, therefore, please know that local food pantries can help meet this need and local farmers markets are honoring SNAP benefits. If you have time to volunteer at a local food pantry, or the ability to donate to a food pantry or “plant an extra row” in your garden to share with others, doing so would be a great way to introduce your children to the need for healthy food and the value of volunteering.

Want to learn more about helping children become lifetime learners? Please visit www.exponentialevaluation.com to view new infographics each week for promoting resilience and reflection in children, youth and your family; inspiring the love of learning in children; leveraging your family’s home schooling experience for success in the new school year; and reinforcing your child’s native strengths and intellect. New resources will be available each Wednesday from July 1, to August 12, 2020. We also offer assistance promoting relevance, resilience and reflection in lesson planning for teachers and nonprofits involved in promoting educational access and equity. When we work together, crisis can become opportunity: here’s to a future designed to support our youngest neighbors and tomorrow’s leaders!

Eileen M. Rossler, LMSW, is the owner and lead consultant for Exponential Evaluation and Development Services, former elementary school teacher and author of the Rage to Resolution Anger Management (from the strengths perspective) Curriculum.

Cathy Marino, MSEd, is co-founder of the Children’s Center at Carolina Park, former elementary school teacher and principal, early childhood consultant and children’s advocate.

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