Last reviewed 26 April 2021

Rebecca Fisk looks at how early years practitioners can support children’s social skills following time spent at home during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns.

Easing of lockdown restrictions

Many young children will be starting or returning to childcare as the nation begins to release the pandemic restrictions and more parents return to work. The ability to interact with others positively and form friendships is a life-long skill, and many parents will have tried hard to maintain virtual and distanced contact with others, so their children have had some experience of interactions outside of the home.

Challenges faced by the children and parents

However, on returning to starting childcare, there will be many challenges for children who have spent all or a large proportion of their lives just at home and in the immediate vicinity of their homes. They would not have had opportunities to go swimming, to play in ball pools with other children, to have fun on holidays in new environments, to meet wider family members or to have attended a parent and toddler group or toddler gym in person. They are unlikely to have had friends around for tea or played with others out and about. They may not have experienced regular contact with grandparents or been cared for by anyone other than their parents. They may not have been to a library, a supermarket, the local high street, or even the playground if it has had restricted access. Thinking about this lack of wider experience in the community and all the interactions and new vocabulary these experiences bring, children are likely to find adjusting to larger groups of peers confusing and a little daunting at first.

Early years practitioners are working hard with families to make transition into a post-lockdown childcare environment as smooth as possible by sharing videos of the setting, arranging for virtual or individual tours, making regular contact from the child’s key person, and carrying out keeping in touch sessions. For those children and families that have already had experience of childcare this connection has been a key ‘lifeline’ for many. Practitioners have provided activity ideas to share at home, and even recording themselves reading stories for the children, or delivered resources to the front door.

Parents who have never had experience of a childcare setting or those who have new additions to their family may find social contact with unfamiliar early years practitioners a bit harder. If the child has not attended childcare before, it may be difficult for parents to gauge what the age-related expectations might be of their child, and even more so now a year of ‘lost time’ with peers may have set the child back socially and possibly developmentally in terms of cognitive, language and physical skills.

‘Babies in lockdown’

It will be important for early years providers to stay informed of recent research into the experiences of families as well as learning from the local families themselves about their lockdown. Parents who have had new babies in lockdown have voiced both positive and negative experiences of this time.

The Babies in Lockdown research (Best Beginnings: August 2020:39) showed that positive experiences include the following:

  • Opportunities to relax and prepare.

  • Fathers and other co-parents being able to spend more time with their babies and young children.

  • Time to bond with baby.

  • More time to play with babies and toddlers.

  • Valuing family relationships.

  • Outstanding care during the birth.

Negative experiences were recorded as:

  • Fathers and other co-parents being absent from antenatal care, labour and birth.

  • Changed birth plans.

  • Birth trauma.

  • Fears of parents themselves becoming unwell or dying.

  • Fears about risks to babies – socially, emotionally and physically.

  • Difficulties with breastfeeding.

  • Crucial missed opportunities and cancelled appointments.

  • Loneliness and isolation.

  • Concerns about child behaviour.

  • Worries about socialisation for babies and toddlers.

Parents have reported not being as confident about parenting, feelings of loneliness and exhaustion affecting their ability to cope, and of their children becoming increasingly clingy, especially if the parent is trying to juggle home working at the same time. Whilst undoubtedly there will be families who have benefited from spending more time together and from having more time to bond after the birth of a child, it will be some time before the impact of the lack of face-to-face social experiences is known and understood for children arriving into childcare settings in 2021 and beyond.

What will children need from the early years adults in their new social world?

Children will need compassionate and kind adults who are able to ‘go at the child’s pace’. It may take longer for children to settle in a childcare environment, and induction times will need to be adapted to the individual child and family. Parents and children might be feeling anxious and fearful of starting or returning to childcare. Everybody will have been changed in some way by the pandemic experience, including the staff themselves. It is essential to boost parent’s self-esteem as well as that of the child and reassure them to reduce feelings of guilt and negativity. Ensuring that the child’s key workers find out about the child’s likes and dislikes can help establish a sense of security for the child, and a purpose to interact about things that interest them. Adults can play alongside children in a supportive and calm way, following their lead in play, scaffolding their vocabulary, and helping them to negotiate interactions with other children. Some children may be very quiet on the return or start of childcare and prefer to watch from the side-lines. Support them to do so comfortably and reassure that this is acceptable. Children will join in when they feel more confident.

Children will need stresses to be minimised so they can start to play and learn with ‘intention’ rather than through immediate reaction to their social and internal world (University of Harvard Centre for the Developing Child). Practitioners can keep consistent routines, including transition arrangements, mealtimes, and rest times. This will help children to feel more secure in their new environment. Staff can also minimise the number of different adults looking after each child so there are opportunities to build strong adult-child relationships where each unique child is understood and responded to according to their needs. Children will need time to practice being with others, and to repeat learning experiences, to embed new ways of interacting and socialising with their peers and those around them. Children will learn to self-regulate their emotions, thoughts, and behaviours through the process of co-regulation with sensitive and loving adults. (Birth to Five Matters 2021:20) Birthto5Matters-download.pdf

Play experiences that incorporate cooperation such as rolling a ball to each other, can boost children’s ability to connect with other children and take turns. Making sure there are enough resources so that sharing conflicts are minimised also helps as children learn to negotiate being with others. Some children may not understand what is appropriate when interacting with other children, and limited expressive language can cause frustrations leading to use of physical means to express themselves, such as biting. Children may simply not have had the chance to observe others and learn social skills supported by their parents, such as in toddler groups, prior to coming into childcare. They may have spent months only interacting with adults where competition for the same resources has been minimal.

Early years adults will need to carefully observe to assess a child’s developmental stage and progress. Most children can progress quickly with the right environment and experiences in all areas of development. They learn rapidly from others, engage in activities that interest them, enjoy exploring and trying new experiences. With plenty of opportunities to repeat new learning and experiences to boost confidence within a communication rich environment, children will feel the benefits of social interactions with their peers and start forming new friendships.

New guidance for EYFS

Using the Personal, Social and Emotional Development section of the recently published Birth to 5 Matters Non-Statutory Guidance (pages 55-65) there are clear examples how adults can support children at each stage or within a ‘range’ of developments. In addition, this document, which has been written by a coalition of early years organisations, suggests what practitioners can do to enhance their environment to support children’s learning.

The Department for Education (DfE) have released updated guidance on the Early Years Foundation Stage (2020) Development Matters - non-statutory curriculum guidance for EYFS where examples of how to support children’s skills at different stages of development are also listed.

Summary

Now more than ever the early years practitioner will be key to supporting children to develop their social skills, following a year of a global pandemic. Boosting child and parent confidence, supporting the home learning environment and responding to each unique child will go a long way towards increased confidence for families as they venture back into the world of childcare or experience it for the first time. Practitioners can access a wealth of guidance and support to build their own confidence in how to support children’s development. As children ‘emerge’ from their homes into childcare, it will be essential that a solid understanding of child development and the role of the adult in early years provision will be necessary to assess where children are in their development, to understand each child as unique and to ensure they feel safe and happy in their new social environment.

Further information