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How to Stay Physically, but Not Emotionally, Distant with Kindergarten and Pre-K Students

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Close up of little girl holding protective face mask outside after the end of quarantine. Pandemic COVID-19 is over concept. (lithiumcloud/iStock)

If this were a normal summer, Katy Phinney and her colleagues would be organizing their Pre-K classrooms for the new school year, choosing classroom themes and wall décor. Instead, Phinney is worried about what Pre-K will look like if and when students return to classrooms. “My biggest concern is teachers needing to balance the importance of safety procedures with creating a welcoming and loving environment for our students,” says Phinney, the Pre-K program director in Richardson Independent School District in Texas.

Early childhood classrooms are going to look different this year, even if school buildings are open – no desk clusters with kids sharing materials, no cozy circles on the rug, no holding hands on the way to the bathroom. CDC guidelines recommend social distancing, keeping students in one classroom throughout the day, and masks for adults. (In many schools, young children will be encouraged but not required to wear masks.)

These measures are necessary to protect everyone’s physical health, but what will be the effects on young children’s social and emotional health? Pre-K and kindergarten are pivotal points in a child’s education, in part because they set the tone for long-term feelings about school. “How are we going to not make this a traumatic experience for our littlest learners?” Phinney wonders.

Physically but not emotionally distant

Trusting, nurturing relationships are the foundation of a smooth transition to school, and they are more important now than ever. “You want to encourage children to be physically distant but not emotionally distant,” says Angela Searcy, a child development instructor at the Erikson Institute and owner of Simple Solutions Educational Services, which provides consultation to early childhood educators.

That will take some creative thinking. For example, circle time and morning meeting will be challenging. Teachers can encourage distancing by asking kids to picture themselves in a giant bubble that will help them monitor whether they’re staying 6 feet apart.


Facial expressions are an important way of communicating and building relationships, so some early childhood educators plan to wear face shields or masks with clear windows around the mouth, “so the kids can see our smiles!,” says Phinney. Searcy suggests teachers take pictures of themselves and students making different facial expressions and then put the photos on keyrings or lanyards so everyone can point to the picture that expresses the emotions they’re feeling.

She also recommends “intensifying the use of visuals,” like sign language to complement speech and visual checklists for routines, which many teachers already use. Teachers can draw from the principles of universal design, incorporating strategies developed for students with disabilities to make learning more accessible to everyone.

Megan McClelland, director of the Hallie E. Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families at Oregon State University, highlights the importance of building children’s self-regulation skills to help them navigate this time. She has researched how educators can use brief, fun games to build skills like impulse control, emotion regulation, and cognitive flexibility. The games are adaptable for different situations and contexts, and the researchers find that teachers are accustomed to making those modifications based on the space and time they have. McClelland says that simply “adding a little bit of intentionality to the strategies teachers are already doing to support self-regulation can be really helpful.”

The absence of touch

Still, the absence of touch will be a loss for young children and their teachers, some experts say. Melissa Ali-Bell, an administrator at Baldwin Hills Elementary School in Los Angeles says, “I think it’s going to be extremely difficult for the little ones to not touch. That’s how they show their love for you and each other.” Positive touch can be reassuring for children who are stressed or who have experienced trauma, according to Tunette Powell, interim director of the UCLA Parent Empowerment Project.

Powell urges schools to think about other ways to establish emotional safety for students, such as applying the principles of trauma-informed teaching, and to be wary of focusing only on physical safety. “You can give everybody masks and testing, and you can go through a whole school year where no one has COVID, but if you didn’t think about safety in terms of love and restoration and care, that wasn’t safe,” she says.

Part of creating an emotionally safe environment is supporting rather than punishing children when they struggle to follow the health guidelines. “It’s important to keep the adult response focused on empathy and teaching,” says Allyson Apsey, principal of Quincy Elementary in Zeeland, Michigan. That includes focusing on “do’s” rather than “don’ts” and using images like emulating superheroes by wearing masks. Teachers and administrators should avoid using behavior charts and other tactics that shame children.

Ali-Bell is concerned that some teachers will send children out of classrooms or even suspend them if they have trouble following the distancing guidelines. This could have lasting negative impacts on children, especially Black children, who are suspended and expelled from preschool at disproportionate rates, feeding the school-to-prison pipeline at a shockingly early age. Powell, who went into education after speaking out about her sons’ repeated preschool suspensions, cautions that “we’re going to have schools that look a bit more like prison than ever before,” with strict guidelines such as how children walk through the hallways. Educators must do everything they can to make young children feel like school is a positive and loving place, she says.

Adults set the tone

Following the health guidelines may not be as hard for children as adults fear, say some educators.

“A lot of people have said this is going to be so hard on the kids, but it’s actually harder on the adults. The kids are happy and healthy,” says Janna Baasch, a program director at Play Palz 101 in Kankakee, Illinois, which stayed open as an emergency childcare center for essential workers and has recently expanded its capacity. Children at her center do not have trouble sitting several feet apart and have responded well to new curriculum elements about hygiene, she says, adding, “They really get it.”

Young children take their cues from adults, reminds teachers and child development specialists. “Children are mirrors of our own emotions,” principal Apsey says. If teachers and parents are calm, children will be, too. That’s not necessarily easy at a time when all of us are stressed and anxious – and when we are stressed, we are more likely to be on the alert for perceived threats and to lose our temper or lash out. To minimize the chance of such counterproductive reactions, Powell advises that “we’re going to have to invest in early childhood educators – not only in paying them more but in superb training and access to mental health services.” That might include opportunities for teachers to talk about their fears and practice calming strategies like mindfulness.

Educators can also help parents set a calm, reassuring tone with children. Baasch talks frequently with parents on the phone because they aren’t allowed in the center right now. She updates them, listens to their fears, and reassures them about safety protocols. Even though many of the families are new to her center in recent months, she says they and their children already feel strong bonds with the staff.

Julie Fatt, who has taught kindergarten through second grade at P.S. 121 in Brooklyn, NY for over 30 years, is also beefing up her family outreach. She says her school has always placed a high priority on family relationships but “we went above and beyond” when schools closed last spring, having regular one-on-one video calls with families to check in and offer support. Fatt and her colleagues are planning an event to help families prepare their children for the hybrid learning model New York City public schools are currently planning to implement.

It remains to be seen when classrooms in New York and around the country will actually open, and what they will look like when they do. Fortunately, teachers of young children are used to being creative and adjusting on the fly. Fatt’s motto right now is “be patient, go with the flow, and we’ll figure it out as we go.” That philosophy surely feels normal to many early childhood educators, even at a time when so little else does.

Suzanne Bouffard is the author of "The Most Important Year: Pre-Kindergarten and the Future of our Children." You can follow her at @SuzanneBouffard.


This story is part of a MindShift series that explores solutions for returning to school during the COVID19 pandemic, supported in part by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. MindShift retains sole editorial control over all content. 

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