Opinion: when it comes to returning to education settings, young children's needs are much different to those of older children and adults

As we all welcome the gradual easing of restrictions which were introduced to manage and control the spread of Covid-19 virus, there are many challenges ahead in terms of adjusting to our changed world. When considering the reopening of preschools and junior and senior infant classes within primary schools, getting the balance right in terms of ensuring health, safety and hygiene priorities, while also meeting the developmental needs of young children will be of utmost importance.

The risk of causing upset and bewilderment to young children through a hurried reopening of early childhood education settings has been highlighted in a letter to the Irish Times from child psychology and development experts Professor Noirin Hayes, Professor Sheila Greene, Dr Elizabeth Nixon, Professor Eilis Hennessy and this author. As the letter emphasises, it is essential that protocols are in place that are safe and suited to the needs and capacities of young children. They should also ensure that young children will have opportunities to engage and interact with their environment, and those in it, in a positive and child-friendly manner. 

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Young children's needs are unique and different from those of older children and adults. Social distancing is a concept which is in stark contrast to principles of a nurturing and relational educational approach, principles which inform practice to support optimal development and learning for young children within early childhood education settings. As Nóirín Hayes pointed out, "babies need to be held; children need to be held. If a child falls they need a hug … we have to recognise how critically important these experiences are for children, for their social and emotional wellbeing."

Young children rely on reading facial expressions and gestures, as well as on verbal communication, in order to understand and communicate with others. Protocols adopted within schools are likely to include staff members (and, in some cases, children) wearing protective masks and gloves, which may hinder children’s ability to read our facial expressions and may also be frightening and intimidating for young children.

Over the past couple of months, young children have been adjusting to a strange and potentially frightening new world, helped and made feel safe and secure in many cases by the presence of parents and siblings. In the absence of these familiar attachment figures, adjustment for children in these changed environments is likely to be a greater challenge.

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Decisions around the wearing of masks for children should only be considered when appropriate guidance is given and with due regard to the developmental level of the child. Some countries have developed protocols that rely on a limited range of adult and child contacts within crèches and schools and heightened hygiene, but which have not required the wearing of masks. The importance of following health guidelines such as frequent hand-washing, adopting appropriate coughing etiquette and being mindful of social distancing cannot be over-emphasised. However, it is essential that these procedures are introduced in a manner which ensures that early learning environments are calm, stress-free and playful in order to prevent potential discomfort and upset to children.

Key features of meaningful practice in early childhood education are close relationships and interactions, involving both physical and emotional closeness to young children. Children’s wellbeing, learning and development is supported and enhanced in early childhood settings through interactions with a particular emphasis on tuning into children, responsiveness, being emotionally and physically present and being an interesting and playful companion. Attention has been drawn to the critical importance of play and peer interaction among under-sixes. Play-based learning approaches which provide opportunities for children for fun, enjoyment and safe exploration of their environments will be essential. 

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It is likely that strategies will be adopted to ensure optimal practice and protection for young children in education settings. Successful implementation of such a protocol will involve reduced adult-child ratios to ensure adequate numbers of staff to manage these demands and to guarantee the safety and protection of staff members, their families and the families of the children attending these services. The early childhood sector, already dealing with severe sustainability challenges due to Covid-19 closures, is likely to find the requirement to employ additional staff a further challenge to overcome, and one which will inevitably require increased support from the State. 

It remains to be seen how we, as academics, educating and supporting students to work in early childhood settings in the future, will have to adapt our ideas and understandings in order to prepare our students to effectively and meaningfully interact with young children and work within these potentially changed working contexts and environments. These challenges are multi-faceted and will require creative and innovative initiatives in order to be surmounted. As Professor Sam McConkey indicated recently, we will need a re-profiling of labour and the associated roles within professions, in order to be able to adapt to the many changes which Covid-19 has brought about.

Significantly, there is no expert on child development, or child psychology, or early childhood education and care on the NPHET expert group or in any of its subgroups. Given the profound importance of the wellbeing of young children, their families and early childhood education staff in this context, consideration should be given to appointing a child psychologist with particular expertise in early childhood to NPHET as a priority. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ