Is there anything you find difficult to tell a grown-up?
“Yes. When mummy worries, it makes me worry too.”
Although this little boy answered my question by referring to his home situation rather than school, the emotion he was brave enough to share with me is universal.
Young children are acutely aware of their grown-ups’ moods, and are quick to take responsibility for any upset in the status quo.
This can extend to friends and peer groups too. We’ve all witnessed that moment of stillness in a group of children when one of them suddenly becomes upset; that temporary hiatus as the group forgets what they’re doing in order to focus on the child who is having an outburst.
It’s only too easy to underestimate how receptive children are to their surroundings.
Now, our status quo has been very much upset and anxiety abounds. I’ve been receiving an increasing number of reports of previously well-behaved children challenging authority and generally playing up.
All behaviour is communication and it’s my firm belief that what these children are exhibiting is stress. It’s anxiety.
Whether it’s first-hand experience of tension among grown-ups, or overheard reports on television and elsewhere, children will pick up on the current mood and internalise it.
As they wrestle with the concern that it is somehow their fault and the knowledge that they are powerless to fix the situation, this frustration and fear can manifest in acting out.
So what can we do?
More than ever our children need to feel safe, to feel secure. Use tried-and-tested techniques that offer reassurance; put clear routines in place and stick to them, let them realise that there are still aspects of life they can rely on.
Before embarking on anything, take time to explain what is going to happen, talk through it while it’s happening and afterwards, offer the chance to talk about what happened. Watch out for super-sensitivity in your children: you must be a rock.
Be extra careful about which stories you choose to tell and what activities you set up – even the words you use.
Work on restoring confidence and giving comfort.
Children who were at school before lockdown have returned to a very different situation, revisiting stories and activities they enjoyed before the pandemic can give children a metaphorical anchor.
An element of sensory immersion can help in difficult times. After all, while we are limited in the amount of physical connection we can make, we need to compensate in other ways.
We need to provide alternative physical stimulus and solace, to find other techniques to make that connection.
Music and dance help children explore feelings they may be having difficulty processing. You can set up restrictions as part of the game, whether with physical boundaries or by taking on the role of a ‘conductor’, thereby enabling them to express themselves safely.
I find the use of some kind of conduit invaluable when it comes to helping children with difficult or negative feelings.
For example, a simple puppet made from a face drawn on a paper plate attached to a chopstick, can act as an extra layer of protection to encourage children to communicate more truthfully. Bringing teddies and soft toys to life in play can provide a similar outlet.
And don’t forget yourself in all this.
Attend to your own needs, be kind to yourself and look after your own anxieties.
Remind yourself, as often as you can, of all the wonderful reasons you went into this job.
Remember to feel the joy. Joy is contagious too and will be your most effective tool against anxiety.
As part of the How to Speak Child project, Nikky has been collecting interviews with children about how adults communicate with them. she’ll look at a selection of prominent themes over the course of the series, but to read more now, you can…
Nikky Smedley is a writer, educator and passionate advocate for the child. Her book Create, Perform, Teach! (Jessica Kingiley Publishers, £14.99) is out now.