Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organization behind Sesame Street, has long understood the early years as a critical window for building a foundation for lifelong success. While COVID-19 has been less common in children, the United Nations warned its broader impacts on children “risk being catastrophic and amongst the most lasting consequences for societies as a whole.”
Research has shown that the effects of adversity in a child’s early years can inhibit brain development, threatening future learning, health, and well-being. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented disruption into the lives of children, compounding the risks for those who have already experienced the effects of conflict and displacement.
We know that failure to support them now will cast a long shadow. But we also have a solution: the best way to mitigate the effects of early adversity is through promoting engagement between children and the adults who care for them – and it’s especially important during the current crisis, as families stay home and try to navigate their “for-now normal.”
Co-engagement and children’s well-being
Research shows that responsive care – the process of observing and responding sensitively to a child’s cues – is crucial to enriching learning and promoting children’s well-being. Responsive caregiver relationships support the development of a myriad of skills, but top of mind for many at this moment is how we can respond to children’s stress and promote their social-emotional well-being.
Beyond the disruption of their own routines, children sense and respond to the stress of the adults around them and pick up on our coping mechanisms. It’s tempting to present mindfulness or other coping strategies for children as a silver bullet, but the reality is we simply cannot expect children to practice healthy emotion management without the support of their caregivers. Fully independent regulation doesn’t typically happen until around primary school-age, and that estimate assumes that children have experienced no prior trauma.
What we can do is present models of healthy co-regulation between children and caregivers that supports the parasympathetic calming response – in other words, the relaxation response. This is simpler than it sounds – a few slow deep breaths in unison, a soothing touch, or a moment of attunement from a caregiver can go a long way in supporting children’s healthy social-emotional development and sense of well-being.