As the parent of a preschooler, and a researcher aiming to identify effective strategies to support the emotional well-being of early childhood professionals, I feel sadness, grief and confusion during this pandemic. But I also feel hope and admiration.
I feel sad as I think about the last day my daughter attended her preschool this year, before everything changed. Her teacher, Miss Miki, gave the children big hugs as tears welled up in her eyes. She told each child that although they would be physically separated, they would remain connected with their heart strings. When she misses them, she said, she will tug her heart string, and they can do the same.
I hugged her and began to cry myself. Miss Miki is more than a teacher. She and everyone at my daughter’s early learning center are part of our family.
A few weeks later, when we learned that the preschool would be closed indefinitely, I felt sadness for the teachers who had just one day to say goodbye to the children they deeply care about and love. I felt sad for my daughter, who will not get to graduate from preschool with her friends, and for early childhood providers, educators and other staff who continue to provide care to essential workers, such as medical professionals and first responders, without adequate support or clear directions during a time of great uncertainty.
Navigating a new reality
Kristi Monsour, a mental health specialist at Reach-Up Head Start in Minnesota, and an early childhood professional whom I have worked with on mindfulness and well-being, describes the climate of her early childhood center as “turbulent, yet hopeful” during the COVID-19 closures, with “lots of new and unknowns and a daily trial-and-error.”
One of the staff at Reach-Up shared that, initially, “you could feel the tension as you walked in the door. Nobody felt safe. Everyone was doing the best they could. Staff are wondering about paychecks stopping.”
Yet in spite of these very real concerns and fears, Kristi says she is amazed by how well the staff has come together and united as one team through the disruption. “The plans change multiple times a day, and I see them handle [it] with grace and understanding. They are beautifully human and have feelings around the constant change, but they turn to one another for support and camaraderie amidst the chaos.”
It was helpful that Linda Earl, the executive director for Reach-Up, was open, direct and willing to share information. Staff explained that her leadership gave them “a sense of comfort and balance when attempting to find a new normal.”
Linda’s colleague, Mary Mackendanz, an education and professional development coordinator, describes how, “we in early childhood often want to ‘do it right,’ and when we don’t have as much control it’s so hard to plan and simply scary.”
Mary is one of many early childhood educators who quickly had to figure out new ways to do her job, including preparing training opportunities for her support staff. “Never in my dreams did I think I would be coming to them from my basement,” she says of her new reality of working from home.
In hearing Kristi and Mary share their experiences navigating the coronavirus pandemic, I’m struck with feelings of encouragement and awe. While there are many issues to address in supporting the work of early childhood providers and teachers during COVID-19—such as physical safety, the availability of sufficient resources and acknowledgment of their critically important role—efforts should also be made to support their social-emotional well-being and that of the children in their care.
Turning to mindfulness
The approach Kristi, Mary and other early childhood programs are using—and what has helped Kristi and Mary face this pandemic with grace and optimism—is the practice of mindfulness and compassion to support the mental health of early childhood professionals and young children’s social-emotional well-being.
Mindfulness is defined as the awareness that arises from paying attention in a particular way—in the present moment, on purpose, non-judgmentally, to support self-understanding and wisdom. Practicing mindfulness also involves being curious about and accepting of the present moment.
Though research examining the potential benefits of mindfulness and compassion among early childhood professionals is in its infancy, studies point to promising results when implementing mindfulness-based interventions with K-12 teachers, including improvements in health, emotion regulation, relationship and work satisfaction, as well as reduced stress and improved care for children.
Some child care programs that are closed during the COVID-19 outbreak are using this as an opportunity to engage with online offerings such as a six-week Self-Compassion for Educators course with Mindful Schools, or developing virtual mindfulness communities of practice, such as a small group using the Zero to Three “Getting Started with Mindfulness” toolkit.
With the leadership and support of Linda, the Reach-Up executive director, Kristi and Mary are planning to implement virtual offerings of the University of Nebraska Extension’s Cultivating Healthy Intentional Mindful Educators (CHIME) program, which I co-developed in 2017 with Learning Child Extension educators.
The CHIME program consists of a two-hour introduction to mindfulness, reflection and compassion training, followed by seven weekly sessions led by a trained teacher. Each session focuses on a specific topic and consists of journaling, group discussion, guided meditations and ideas for practicing mindfulness and compassion in early-care settings.
Early childhood educators in Lincoln, Neb., journal as part of a lesson on mindfulness during the CHIME program. (Courtesy of Holly Hatton-Bowers)
In 2019, CHIME was delivered to 119 early childhood professionals who collectively serve more than 900 children. After completing the program, early childhood professionals reported positive outcomes, including significant decreases in workplace emotional exhaustion, reduced emotion dysregulation in the clinical concerning range and improved sleep. There were also statistically significant positive changes in self-reported mindfulness and mental well-being.
Kristi and Mary, who taught the eight-week program in 2019, found it beneficial to have office staff participate, too, noting that a receptionist was able to lean on the mindfulness practices she had learned when interacting with an upset parent. Others benefited from the program by perceiving decreased stress, having more open and non-judgmental perspectives, and being more gentle and kind to themselves and others. One of the staff who participated in CHIME recently reflected on her experience amid the current coronavirus pandemic, and noted that mindfulness and compassion “makes for a better environment anywhere you are.”
Early childhood professionals currently participating in the CHIME program also perceive benefits to their well-being by learning strategies to support acceptance and coping. Participants from an early childhood program in Oregon shared that the online CHIME program is helping them cope with COVID-19, be present with the current reality, and share their challenges with a community of other early childhood professionals during this especially stressful time.
“When I can feel myself derailing, I am called back to mindfulness,” Kristi says. “I can see how my colleagues … are practicing it—in their emails, in their face-to-face interactions, now Zoom calls. There is this awareness that we have a choice in our reactions, that we can’t fix the problems of the world, but we can be here now, be present, to focus.”
Mary also shares that she is more aware of the different ways people respond and process complex or stressful situations. Recently, she convened her colleagues and facilitated a nine-minute meditation focused on relieving stress and anxiety. “It wasn’t until then did I feel my own tension,” Mary said. “Now I’m aware and attempting to do my own ‘body scan’ and give myself grace to remove myself from my office and go for a quick walk or move my body.” It’s about “being aware and being supportive.”
What you can do now
Mindfulness and compassion are not going to support the well-being of all early childhood professionals, but for some it may be a promising approach that fosters personal and interpersonal well-being. During this time of extreme uncertainty and change, there are various ways to engage in these practices. Some may want to participate in a virtual mindfulness group, which can address the stressors caused by practicing physical distancing and foster a sense of belonging to a community and acceptance about the current situation. But there are other opportunities as well, including:
- Decreasing multi-tasking and giving full attention and awareness to one task.
- Practicing guided meditations, such as the one offered by Dr. Rick Hanson on “Feeling As Safe As You Reasonably Can.”
- Trying the meditation practice of RAIN (recognize, allow, investigate, and nurture) to work through your worries and fears.
- Taking time to practice mindfulness with children and family. Find moments to come together, slow down and be present. Mindfulness can be practiced during mealtimes when everyone shares one thing they are grateful for, or with mindful body movements, such as yoga. Mindfulness can also happen when going for a walk in nature and observing the sights and sounds around you.
- Practicing mindful breathing, such as the STOP practice (stop, take a conscious breath, observe and proceed with intention) or the five-finger breathing offered by Dr. Jud Brewer. These breathing practices in particular are helpful for calming down, being in the moment and re-energizing. With children you can also practice mindful belly breathing by placing a stuffed animal on your belly and watching it rise and fall as you focus your attention on the breath.
- Taking time to practice mindfulness during activities you typically do each day for five minutes. This can happen while drinking a cup of tea or coffee, washing the dishes or eating a meal.
- Practice box breathing, or intentionally focusing on your inhalation and exhalation of your breath. For example, breathing in for a count of five and then breathing out for a count of five for a few minutes at a time.
- Practicing self-compassion and learning practices for supporting personal and interpersonal well-being with kindness during this challenging time. Researchers Chris Germer and Kristin Neff recommend practicing a “self-compassionate break” when someone feels very overwhelmed or discouraged.
- Practicing compassion for family, friends and colleagues. Remind yourself that we experience events in different ways. In response to COVID-19, some may feel grief, sadness, fear or something else, and the ways we experience these feelings manifests in different ways. Try to practice patience and understanding.
- Creating spaces and time to practice community-engaged mindfulness within the early childhood workforce to improve personal, interpersonal and systemic awareness of our community resources and capacity to work together.
At this time, there may be a great deal of suffering among early childhood professionals. But there is also a great deal of resilience. As one alumna of the CHIME program eloquently put it, “We have this great opportunity to look at how this pandemic is stretching our creativity [and] reevaluate how we do things.”
“This is a time to not become consumed by the extreme uncertainty,” shared another early childhood educator. “This is a time to be kind to ourselves and to others.” It just takes a bit of mindfulness and compassion.