Building coping skills

Published on Tuesday, 23 November 2021
Last updated on Monday, 22 November 2021

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As an early educator during this global pandemic, both you and the children in your care have had to cope with a great deal of stress, uncertainty, anxiety and upheaval on a day-to-day basis.

Educators have an important role in supporting the children in their care (and in many instances their families as well)  to deal with their stresses and anxieties, which is of course is an added pressure. 

So, how will you know when a child that you care for needs your help managing any stress they feel about these often upsetting changes in their world? And how can you help them to build the coping skills that they need, while also managing your own?

Recognise the signs

With the children who are returning to your care after a period of lockdown, or those who have remained in your care even through the recent restrictions, it may be easier for you to recognise any signs of distress they may be displaying.

Because you are already familiar with their personality and behaviour, you will be able to tell if they are exhibiting any of the following indicators:

  • behaving younger than expected (e.g. regression in toilet training)
  • increased irritability and anger
  • withdrawal
  • increased sense of danger and watchfulness

Other signs, which you can also see even in children that are new to your service and therefore not familiar to you yet, include:

  • clinginess and difficulty separating 
  • disturbed sleep
  • sadness
  • difficulty concentrating and paying attention 

In his article on Supporting Anxious Children at Childcare Centres, David Witty shared some more possible signs; “Warning signals of anxiety could include “freezing”, refusing to eat, use the toilet, or taking a coat or hat off. Selective mutism, shadowing an adult, tearfulness and tummy aches could also indicate that something is amiss.”

The steps that you need to take to help a child exhibiting such signs of distress will of course depend on the child, their behaviour and the underlying causes of their emotional state. If you notice these signs, your first step should be to talk to the child and try to find out why they are upset.

A child who is already feeling distressed will likely feel calmer and less threatened by someone who sits down beside them, talking to them rather than at them, and genuinely listens to what they have to say. Put yourself in their shoes, using empathy to try and understand how they are feeling and why. Then let them know that you understand and that you want to help. 

A helpful initial approach can be to first engage in whatever activity the child is doing; playing, reading or walking alongside them, for example, to capture their attention in a friendly, non-threatening way. Talk to them about what they’re doing and how they feel in the moment, before delving into a discussion about the behaviours you have noticed and what may have caused their distress.

Start with you 

Once you have discovered the cause of a child’s distress, you can start helping them find ways to deal with it. However, before you can teach coping skills, you need to be able to practice them yourself. Get into the habit of visibly relaxing yourself periodically throughout the work day and explain to the children what you are doing and why. 

Stopping what we’re doing, staying still and taking several deep breaths when we are upset helps us to calm ourselves down. Taking a step back from a stressful situation, and giving ourselves time to deal with that stress by doing something we enjoy, such as listening to music or reading a book, can help us get our emotions under control and think more clearly.

Show don’t tell

If you know what skills and actions work best to calm you down and help you cope with stress, it can be good to discuss these openly with the children. While they won’t be able to enjoy a glass of wine anytime soon, you can play your favourite song for them and have a dance together, or maybe practise some yoga poses that you find helpful in restoring your balance.

Whatever approach you choose to share, children learn best from role models. If they see you calming yourself down in a particular way they are more likely to act in a similar manner than if you merely tell them what to do.

Get on their level

It’s ideal to practice and model coping skills regularly when everyone is happy and calm, to help build good habits on the developing minds of children. However, when these skills are actually needed because a child is upset or anxious it can be very difficult for them to remember how to calm themselves. In these circumstances, you can help by literally and figuratively getting down on their level and trying to see eye to eye with them. 

Use empathy to put yourself in the child’s shoes and think about how you would feel in their position, as well as what would help you to deal with it. Think about the child as an individual, taking their personality into account and treating them with the respect you would afford an adult in a similar situation. While more simple language will obviously need to be used with children, they will respond more readily to someone who treats them as an equal.

Understand the emotions

“Be aware that stress and anxiety can be expressed in different ways by children,” say the Australian authors of University of Queensland’s publication Managing Anxiety in Early Childhood Education Settings During Covid-19.

“They may ... have trouble regulating their emotions and appear to test limits and act out. They’re not doing it on purpose, they’re just responding to their changing world. Acknowledging what may be going on for them can help you be patient and choose calm ways of helping them manage their feelings and get back on track.”

It’s important to remember that you can’t control or necessarily eradicate a child’s anxiety, even if you do understand it. The best thing that you can do, aside from offer comfort, is to help them to recognise their own emotional state, then remind them of what their coping skills are and of how to put them into practise. 

“Naming and validating the child’s emotions is better than ignoring them,” says Witty in his article. “Give calm reassurance and have some soothing, sensory-rich activities at hand to help them get their emotions under control. Use some of the child’s calmer moments to teach them about emotions and coping skills.”

He also suggests that being able to talk about or communicate how they are feeling will go a long way toward helping a child deal with their own anxiety. “Encourage the development of language and communication skills, as this is a key to the child being able to explain and understand what is happening with them,” Witty says.

Teach emotional self-regulation

In a Penn State article titled Promoting Coping Skills, the author states that “Research shows that being able to emotionally self-regulate is associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression later in life and children who demonstrate appropriate coping skills in preschool are more often viewed as kindergarten-ready and are more likely to succeed academically. Finally, demonstrating appropriate coping skills can also help young children exhibit appropriate pro-social behaviours and form friendships with their peers.”

According to psychotherapist and author Amy Morin, in her article listing coping strategies for kids “researchers found that children who were able to regulate their emotions at five years old were more likely to go to [university] and have steady jobs as adults. These kids also were less likely to use substances, be engaged in criminal activity, and have mental health issues.

The skills kids need

Emotion-based coping skills help children to recognise and navigate their emotional state, so they lessen the stress they feel in a distressing situation that they can’t change. These skills not only help children to self-regulate, they also teach valuable lessons about perseverance. It is your job as an educator to teach children how to:

  • Label their feelings
  • Breathe deeply to regulate their body’s stress response
  • Participate in exercise - social exercise such as active games are doubly beneficial
  • Create artwork
  • Read a book
  • Play a game
  • Do yoga
  • Listen to music
  • Learn positive self-talk

Help the children to find activities that they enjoy, which calm them down, enable them to deal with difficult emotions without acting out, and strengthen their mental resilience to help with future hardship.

Be honest

Comfort is one thing, but well-meaning lies are generally not helpful in stressful situations. If a child in your care asks you questions about the state of the world, even if you feel like the truth is not the answer they want, it is important to be honest with them in a way they will understand. They will handle an uncomfortable truth much better than they will cope with finding out a person they trust has lied to them. 

If you don’t know the answer to their question, get them to help you look it up using reliable sources. Knowledge is power, and teaching children how to access that knowledge for themselves will support their ability to cope with the stress of uncertainty through knowledge.

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