Physical contact is a really important way to show attention and care to young children. You shouldn’t avoid it entirely, but now might be a good time to explore some alternatives.
Children around three years can start to understand social distancing rules. For those younger than three, physical contact is still essential for healthy development.
Dr. Mike Gaffrey isn’t concerned about social distancing causing long-term harm, so long as you do what’s realistic for your child care setting, and give affection when it’s really needed.
The thought of turning down a hug from a child just feels wrong. But under social distancing, isn’t that what we’re meant to be doing?
As child care reopens, there’s a disconnect between how social distancing looks on paper, and how it actually works in a room full of toddlers. These regulations were designed by grown-ups, with other grown-ups in mind. Pitching the idea of “rules” to a three-year-old is already a tough sell, and even more so when the rules come from a strange new world.
So how much social distancing should we really expect to see in our child care settings, once we reopen? How do we decide what’s appropriate, and what’s realistic? And how do we put children’s wellbeing front and centre?
To shed some light on this, I called up Dr. Mike Gaffrey. Mike is the director of Duke University’s Early Experience and the Developing Brain lab, and an assistant professor at Duke’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. His research focuses on neurological development in the early years, and how we can create environments that best support children’s wellbeing.
I asked Mike how social distancing might affect children’s development, and how child care settings can expect to adapt social distancing in their routines.
Here’s what I learned.
Changing rules with age
In thinking about social distancing in a child care setting, Mike sets a dividing line at around age three. Around this age, he says, children have developed some foundational language abilities. This means you can use more verbal comfort, rather than physical contact, to address their emotions.
But before age three, physical contact is essential. Things like being held by a caregiver, or reciprocal back-and-forth play are necessary interactions for infants’ development. The younger the children are, the more often you might have to relax your social distancing expectations. Still, it’s just not realistic to expect a completely socially-distanced setting in any case.
“The first two years are filled with moments of reactions by infants and toddlers that are challenging to comfort without physical contact, because of their limited language and understanding,” Mike says. “A warm, sing-song voice or distraction is helpful, but sometimes they just need to be held.”
With toddlers, you can explore more non-physical ways to affirm and engage them, and you can expect a little more understanding of social distancing. Still, tone and nuance matters — remember to express warmth through your body language. Kneel down to their level, and use a kind voice and facial expressions to show that affection.
Contact as communication
Physical contact is the first language we learn. It’s how we show attention and care to young children, before they’re able to understand verbal communication.
For babies in particular, physical touch is a matter of wellness. Contact is good for both infants and caregivers: It prompts the release of hormones that reduce stress and support bonding, and it helps support healthy sleep patterns, digestion and even brain growth in babies.
When we give children a hug or hold hands, we’re communicating that they’re safe, they’re wanted, they’re important, and they’re worthy of attention. With babies, physical touch is the best way to communicate that. But as children learn to speak and process emotions, it opens up new ways to express affection.
“How we respond to a child’s emotions could certainly involve the physical component, but it also involves the way we talk about that emotion. What’s happening, how they’re feeling, what are some possible solutions to the stress they’re feeling,” Mike says. “There are many other things we can do that don’t involve touch that are critical for child development as well, and some of those things are as important, if not more so, in terms of cognitive development.”
One tool in the toolbox
Mike describes physical contact as just one tool in a caregiver’s toolbox. Affection takes many forms, and under these circumstances, the non-physical forms are a little more important than usual.
“We can also hold our children in many different ways that aren’t physical, but still facilitate their social and emotional wellbeing,” Mike says. “When we think about how to provide children with the things they need for healthy development, a core part is being sensitive to their signals, and what they’re saying.”
Especially with children over age three, you’ll have to be more dependent on your expressions, your body language, and your voice and tone to show affection. Pay special attention to what’s upsetting or exciting them, and take the time to ask them questions and talk about it. Physical contact is an easy and rewarding way to show warmth to children, but it’s not the only way.
No cause for alarm
The good news is, Mike is confident that social distancing, done right, isn’t going to lead to long-term harm for anybody. It’s about being reasonable with our approach, and still remembering the importance of warmth and affection in child care.
“I believe we have enough science to tell us what we can do to help children thrive right now, and what they respond to in a positive way,” Mike says. “So there is hope here, because these changes won’t be detrimental to children’s long-term development, or to early educators and their ability to perform.”
We’ll have to introduce some new rules, and change the way we go about our days. But the most important part of your setting — the relationships between children and caregivers — will be there as usual.
Responding to children’s emotions is about validating their experience, and helping them feel connected with someone close over what they’re feeling. Mike recommends the following ideas as alternatives to close physical contact:
Attentive body language — You can still show care through your body language. Crouch down to meet children at eye level, and lean in to show interest. Your facial expressions are also a powerful way to show interest and engagement in what children are doing.
Mindfulness for beginners — If you’re comforting a child who is feeling anxious or stressed, try leading them through a basic mindfulness exercise. Count slowly up to ten together, take deep breaths, look at the clouds, or do a bit of simple meditation. Demonstrating calm, contemplative behaviour for the children can help relieve their stress too.
Comfort via distraction — It’s easy for children to fixate on what’s upsetting them. Luckily, it’s also easy to redirect them toward something more comforting. Ask children what you can do together to help them feel better. Read a book, or play with a favourite toy.
Going for a lighter touch — In a situation where you might go in for a hug, consider a lower-contact alternative, like a comforting hand on the shoulder. That physical contact still shows care and affection to the child, and it’s easier for the caregiver to just wash their hand afterward.
How to make adjustments
No matter your approach to social distancing at your setting, expect some slip-ups. It’s just realistic. Children need to get used to habits like extra hand-washing and more distance, but it’ll come with time. Right now, you should think about how to introduce the new rules in your setting, and how you’ll help children correct their behaviour when they forget the rules.
“Expecting young children to absorb a crash course in epidemiology is probably unrealistic. But what they can understand is new classroom rules,” Mike says. “This is just like when children return after a summer break, or a holiday — they’ll just have to get reestablished with a new routine.”
As you look toward reopening, here are some ways you can help prepare yourself, your staff and your setting for social distancing.
Introduce classroom cues — Physical cues in your classroom will help children understand the new rules. You could mark out ideal distancing on the floor, move tables apart, or play a keep-away game to help children understand what 2 meters (6 feet) of distance looks like. Hand-washing and cough etiquette posters will also remind children of the new rules throughout the day.
Prepare remotely — If you’re closed right now, you can still start helping everyone adjust. Send along the new rules to parents at home, perhaps with activities to help emphasize social distancing. Mike has a 10-month-old, and his child care providers have been sending along videos of the staff wearing face masks, to help the children adjust to the new look when they return.
Be patient — This won’t catch on immediately, and there will be times when social distancing just doesn’t work out. Be as patient and generous as you can, and be gentle in correcting missteps.
The good news, Mike says, is that the familiarity of your setting will already be a helpful comfort to the children. They’ll adjust in time to the new daily routine, and at the end of the day, the children will be alright.
“Children will be coming back to a familiar place and existing relationships, which is really helpful. These personal connections come back like muscle memory,” Mike says. “The bottom line is, children are pretty resilient and adaptable. We know that we can still provide them with what they need, even in these extraordinary circumstances.”
Official Danish Government Reopening Advice
Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.