Last reviewed 26 March 2021

Research suggests that most parents are anxious about sending their child back to childcare or school and there is also widespread concern over the impact of Covid-19 on children’s mental health. Here we look at how early years providers can support the wellbeing of children as they return to their settings.

Supporting emotional wellbeing

Emotional wellbeing is so important in the early years and links directly to development and outcomes in later life. Children need to feel safe and secure in order to learn and develop and it is therefore essential that practitioners focus on children’s personal, social and emotional wellbeing as they return to their early years settings.

The ongoing uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic will have had a great impact on children, parents, and practitioners alike. Providers need to consider that every family’s experience of lockdown will have been different and assess the differing needs of every child in their care.

Staying at home for a prolonged period and the change of routine may have caused difficulties for some children, such as changes in behaviour or mood. Government guidance, Actions for early years and childcare providers during the coronavirus outbreak, states that settings should consider the mental health, pastoral or wider wellbeing support that children may need, including with bereavement, and how to support them with their transition into the setting after a period of absence.

Although the Department for Education (DfE) recognises many parents may have concerns, it is strongly encouraging all children who normally access childcare to attend their setting so that they can gain the educational and wellbeing benefits of early education.

Reconnecting with children and families

Most early year providers will have been in touch with families during lockdown and it is important to strengthen relationships and communication with children and their parents as settings reopen. Providers should talk to all parents to assess their family situation and consider that those who are returning may include:

  • vulnerable children

  • children who are due to start school in September

  • children who are attending childcare for the first time

  • children who have experienced bereavement or separation from a loved one

  • children who are anxious or confused about returning to their setting

  • those who have not have socialised with other children at a critical time in their development.

To support the transition back to nursery, providers need to reconnect with the whole family and address any concerns. Some parents may feel anxious about their children returning and will need reassurance that providers are taking all necessary steps to ensure their children are as safe as possible. The anxiety some parents may feel over their children returning during this challenging time can easily be passed onto small children. Helping parents feel confident in the steps you are taking will help to alleviate some of the anxiety. Good practice includes:

  • re-establishing the relationship between the child’s home and the setting

  • finding out how the child and family has fared during lockdown

  • planning for resettling children

  • re-introducing the child to familiar people such as key persons and explaining how new groups or “bubbles” will work

  • explaining to parents how you will be implementing additional protective measures to keep children safe

  • taking risk assessments for individual children or families if there is a chance that the child or someone who lives in their household is a shielded individual

  • explaining to parents any changes in routine, such as staggering drop offs, lunchtime, the structure of the day and whether parents are allowed into the setting

  • sharing social stories about returning to nursery using photos of your setting to share with families

  • updating information about SEND, health, and other personal data

  • considering the needs of individual children.

Early years providers should also ensure that any communications are accessible to all parents, such as parents with English as an additional language and parents of vulnerable children, so as to encourage attendance of these children.

Talking to children about coronavirus

Even very young children will pick up on the levels of anxiety around them during the pandemic, even if they do not fully understand the context of the current situation. Early years practitioners need to listen carefully to children and answer questions calmly and honestly in a sensitive and age-appropriate way.

Some children may have experienced separation or bereavement during this time so it is important that staff talk to parents and ensure they have a good understanding of the family situation so they can provide support and reassurance.

Early years providers should work with their local authority to determine what wider support services are available in terms of support for bereavement, anxiety, mental health, behaviour and social care, and identify children who were not previously affected.

Staff can also refer parents to the government advice: Guidance for parents and carers on supporting children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

The Children's Commissioner has published a free, downloadable Children's Guide to Coronavirus which aims to answer children’s questions about coronavirus, and tell children how to stay safe and protect other people.

Supporting vulnerable children

The Government continues to encourage vulnerable children to attend early years settings, unless they have underlying health conditions that put them at severe risk. Further detail on categories of vulnerable children is set out in Supporting vulnerable children and young people during the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak. For children with education health and care (EHC) plans, their return should be informed by a risk assessment approach.

Early years staff may require training on identifying and supporting vulnerable children and parents who are returning to the setting, for example by signposting them to appropriate local services such as mental health, domestic or substance abuse services. Providers should contact their local authority to identify what support is available.

The safeguarding and welfare sections of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) still apply and the DfE states that settings should consider whether any refresh or review of their child protection arrangements is needed in light of coronavirus (Covid-19).

Early years providers should also consider how vulnerable children, who have been attending settings during lockdown will continue to have their needs met and to be supported as the setting takes on more children.

Supporting children with SEND

Early years providers need to take extra care in planning for children with SEND who are returning to their settings. Some children with SEND may find readjusting to the routines more challenging than others, and staff will need to consider if they need more support in settling back in.

The DfE advises that settings should be alert to the fact that there may be children with additional or worsened social emotional and mental health needs as a result of coronavirus (Covid-19), and that there may also be children who have fallen further behind their peers as a result of time out of childcare, or missed diagnosis as a result of a period of absence.

Providers will need to ensure that they have adequate staffing to support children with SEND at safe ratios and that they have a member of staff designated as a Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO), interim SENCO or a named individual with oversight of special educational needs provision for children with SEND.

Supporting children at home

Early years providers should consider how to support the learning of children who will not be attending their settings including how these children can maintain contact with their key person and peers, and how parents and carers can be supported to provide a positive learning environment at home.

The Department for Education’s Hungry Little Minds campaign features tips and practical activities that parents can do at home with children to support their early learning. Settings can also direct parents to the BBC’s Tiny Happy People and the National Literacy Trust’s Family Zone for more ideas and content. The Department for Education has published further guidance on how to help children aged 2 to 4 to learn at home during the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak.

Settings should work with local authorities to monitor the welfare of vulnerable children who are not attending their early years provision, and other children they might wish to keep in touch with, for safeguarding purposes.

Supporting transitions

Some children will be due to start school in September and it is important that early years providers consider how they can support this transition as far as possible. Settings should:

  • work closely with schools and find out how they are currently communicating with new starters

  • adapt current transition paperwork to take account of a child’s experiences during lockdown

  • gather additional information from parents that can be passed on to schools

  • review the last summative assessment completed prior to lockdown and update it as far as possible in preparation for the school.