Getting Your Child Ready to Return to Childcare

Along with most states in the country, Illinois experienced a shelter-in-place order for several weeks and then started a phased reopening. For many families, this meant their young children did not attend childcare or preschool programs for an extended period of time. If they did keep attending childcare, practices at their childcare centers likely changed.

Measures put in place to prevent the spread of illness can be confusing to young children, especially those with disabilities. As more children return to childcare settings in the near future, caregivers such as teachers and parents can help them understand and prepare for these changes using simple explanations, graphics, and practice situations.

While each childcare center, in-home provider, or preschool may do things a little differently, there are some common practices that may become part of a child’s “new normal.” These practices could include wearing a mask or seeing others wear masks; having their temperature checked upon arrival; getting dropped off at the building door rather than at their classroom; having fewer children in their group; washing or sanitizing their hands more frequently; sharing fewer toys, items, or food with their peers; and not getting physically close to their peers or teachers.

Phew! That list is long enough to confuse any adult. Imagine the stress these changes might put on a young child.

To handle these situations, a good first step is to find out what is required at your child’s center before returning for the first time. For example, if your child will not have his temperature taken at the door, you don’t need to bring it up. Instead, focus on what you know will happen.

Use simple explanations and visuals and practice actions as you are able. Doing these things, while staying calm yourself, can help ease any fears your child may have while also helping her understand the situation in a developmentally appropriate way. Here are some examples:

Anticipated changeExplanationVisualsAction
People wearing masks/face coveringsPeople wear masks so they won’t pass their germs on to another person. When everyone wears masks, we all keep our germs to ourselves.• Pictures of masks

• Pictures of family members, classmates, teachers, and the child wearing a mask
• Practice wearing masks around the house or in the yard
Temperature checksWe take our temperature to make sure we are not sick. If someone is sick, they can go home to rest.• Picture of a person taking someone’s temperature

• Picture of child getting his temperature taken
• Take your child’s temperature at the start of every day so she becomes familiar with this routine
Drop-off at outside doorWe say goodbye at the door now so that less people are in your school at once. This mean less germs for you and your teachers.• Picture of school front door

• “Selfie” of child and parent at the school door
• Create a special “school door” handshake, hug, or goodbye ritual
Smaller group sizeYour group is smaller/different now so that people have room to spread out. This helps us keep our germs to ourselves.• Individual photos of children in the group/class• Practice learning the names of everyone in the current group

• Write letters or make phone calls to friends no longer in the group
Handwashing stations/frequent hand sanitizingWashing hands is one of the best ways to get rid of germs! If you sing the ABCs while you scrub, you’ll defeat those germs!• Picture of child washing hands

• Picture of child using hand sanitizer
• Get in the habit of washing hands/hand sanitizing at the start and end of various routines during the day
Fewer “communal” itemsIt is so nice to want to share toys/supplies/food with your friends, but sometimes our germs can get on these things. We can be kind and not spread germs by keeping our items to ourselves.  • Picture of two children playing, each with his own toys

• Picture of children with individual trays of food at a lunch table
• Model substitute behavior. Instead of saying, “I like your doll. Can I play with it?” say, “I like your doll. I’m going to get my doll and play near you!”
Physical distancing (e.g., staying 6 feet apart)Germs can hop from person to person, and we don’t want that! When we scoot far apart, we won’t share germs.• Picture of friends standing or sitting 6 feet apart• Practice staying 6 feet apart at home. For example, you might say “You sit on the couch, and I’ll sit on this chair.”

• Practice showing affection in distanced ways (e.g., air hugs, air high fives, thumbs up, silent cheers).

Dr. Emily Dorsey Emily Dorsey

Dr. Emily Dorsey is project director of the Illinois Early Learning Project. She earned a Ph.D. in special education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2015. She has worked as an early childhood special education teacher, an educational consultant, and most recently as a faculty member at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
(Biography current as of 3/2020)
Reviewed: 2020