Returning to Early Childhood Programs After COVID-19

About this resource
Reviewed: 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed our lives. Our routines have been changed. We have been unable to see our loved ones. We are concerned for our health and the health of others.

As children and families slowly transition back to work and childcare, families and caregivers may have concerns about how to best manage this change. While it may not be a child’s first day in a center, the first day back can also be stressful. Childcare will look different for a while, with new routines, policies, and requirements. The Illinois Early Learning Project staff have gathered resources to help children, families, and providers with this transition.

In addition, the Ohio AEYC hosted a webinar with Barbara Kaiser, Getting Ready for the New Normal: Supporting Children, Staff, and Families When Your Center Re-Opens. This webinar covers the impact of sheltering in place, collective trauma, modifications that will be required, and the impact this will all have on children’s sense of safety and their behavior and your ability to respond effectively. It can be viewed for free, but registration is required.

Children's Feelings

Most adults are able to find ways to manage their emotions, from talking with friends to using mindfulness practices. Many young children, however, may find it difficult to express their feelings. When children return, they may be experiencing many different feelings, but they may be unable to express them. They may feel:

  • Sad
    • They may miss a parent or family member.
    • They may miss a loved one who died during the pandemic.
    • They may miss friends who are no longer in their class.
  • Scared
    • They may be scared about getting sick or a family member getting sick.
    • They may be afraid of the masks and additional personal protective equipment.
    • They may be scared about being alone.
  • Anxious
    • They may not know the new routine.
    • They may be more sensitive to noises.
    • They may not want a parent to leave.

Recognizing Stress

As caregivers, it is important to recognize that these feelings of stress may be shown in different ways. They may look like:

  • Clinginess
  • Acting out / temper tantrums
  • Isolating / wanting to be alone / withdrawal
  • Regression of skills – language, self-care, sleeping
  • Crying
  • More questions than normal
  • Impulsive behavior

Caregivers can support young children as they return by:

  • Being sensitive to the child’s needs
  • Being patient with the child
  • Letting children know about changes to their old routine
  • Providing a consistent routine
  • Providing short and honest answers to questions
  • Providing opportunities for play
  • Providing reasonable choices
  • Reading books about COVID-19 and tough times
  • Using techniques to support self-regulation
  • Remaining calm
  • Offering empathy and support
  • Using positive guidance

Supporting Children

As caregivers, it is our nature to be concerned about the children in our care and their families. Because of the extended shelter-at-home period, some families may need additional support because of trauma or violence. If families have been living with additional stressors, such as violence, trauma, or homelessness, these feelings and emotions can be even more difficult to manage.

Connecting with these families is crucial to helping families access resources and promote safety. The National Center on Parent, Family and Community Engagement has developed a resource to provide Strategies to Support Families Who May Be Experiencing Domestic Violence.

The Wisconsin Infant Mental Health Association has produced a four-page resource, Tips for Supporting Infants & Young Children’s Transition as We Reopen, on supporting children as they return to early childhood programs.

For information on COVID-19 for early childhood in Illinois, please visit the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development‘s page.

For Families

Families may also experience similar feelings of stress and anxiety during this transition. There may be many questions about the center and the changes that have been made during this time. Young children’s mental health includes how they feel about themselves and other people, and how they cope with life. If you have questions or concerns about your child’s reaction to the shelter-in-place situation or other stressors, please reach out to your child’s teacher for information on available resources in your community. IEL’s COVID-19 resources can help families manage this trying time.

Childcare will look very different:

  • Drop-off and pick-off procedures will be different to minimize contact.
  • There will be physical distancing while engaging socially with staff and other children.
  • Daily health screenings for both children and staff are required.
  • Group sizes are smaller, but may increase as we progress through the reopening phases.
  • Multiple groups may not be in the same space at the same time.
  • Anyone exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms will not be admitted to the facility.
  • Toys and surfaces will be sanitized frequently.
  • Hand washing will be more frequent and more thorough.
  • Face coverings will be worn in common areas and in classrooms with children over age 2.

Additional Resources

Additional sources for on-demand professional development:

Sources used for this tool kit: