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Supporting Children’s Social and Emotional Development During the Pandemic

With many school districts opting to offer remote-only learning at the start of the school year, parents and teachers may worry that children will miss out on the social and emotional development they usually experience in the classroom and through interactions with friends.

Laura McMullin, PhD, who leads teacher training initiatives for the DMH-UCLA Prevention Center of Excellence, said that while children are indeed missing out on opportunities to develop social and emotional skills due to social distancing from peers, the opportunity exists to develop new capacities.

“As parents, it’s normal to worry about the losses our children may experience during the pandemic. It can be helpful to also consider possibilities for growth,” said McMullin, a former teacher and mother of two school-aged children. “We can always ask ourselves, ‘What are the opportunities we can explore here?’”

Younger children, for example, may be missing out on classroom learning and learning how to interact and share with their peers, but given the uncertainly of the pandemic, being at home with one or more parents may be exactly where they need to be to feel safe. It’s important to note, however, that for some children home may not be a safe place, which can compound the stressors for them at this time, McMullin said.

For middle school and high school adolescents, this is usually the time they learn how to be independent from their parents and make their own decisions, so being cooped up at home may be especially challenging for them.

While hurdles abound, there may be an opportunity for parents to build stronger bonds with their children during the pandemic — a unique opportunity that could have positive long-lasting effects.

“Humans are highly adaptable,” McMullin said. “We’re always developing new skills. This is potentially a time to develop new bonds and make new connections.”

One way parents can support the social and emotional development of children during social distancing is through books. McMullin said characters in stories can be used to spark conversations about a range of topics including managing emotions, dealing with anxiety and overcoming new adversities. From a social perspective, some families are choosing to team up with other families by mutually agreeing to take certain safety precautions and allow children to play with one another.

“It’s this idea of connecting with other families by creating a kind of closed loop,” she said. “But this would take a tremendous amount of trust.”

Taking care of children by taking care of ourselves

McMullin suggests that one of the most important steps in supporting children and adolescents is for teachers and parents to care for themselves and manage stress as best as possible.

“We have to focus on the well-being of teachers and parents,” McMullin said. “For me, that includes practicing self-compassion and accepting my imperfections.

“For example, if I’m a little more impatient than I have been in the past, I remind myself that I’m doing the best that I can — and so is everyone else, including children,” she continued. “When my kids have a meltdown over something that wouldn’t have previously bothered them, I know that they too are doing their best with all the new challenges, limitations and constraints they’re dealing with. Remembering how hard and confusing this time can be for children allows me to have compassion for them while keeping things in perspective.”

McMullin suggests a three-step approach for parents and teachers that can help manage stress:

  1. Replenishing energy. Find moments to engage in whatever activity is rejuvenating. This can be going on a walk, savoring a cup of coffee, talking to a friend or taking three deep breaths before hopping on a Zoom meeting. Whatever fills your cup, replenish often, she said.
  2. Giving ourselves permission to be imperfect. “Many of us are overachievers,” she said. “We want to to be the most polished teacher or perfect parent. But by accepting our imperfections, we can humanize ourselves (and others), which can model for children that it’s OK to make mistakes – we are constantly learning and growing.”
  3. Practicing compassion for self and others. “Parents and teachers are constantly taking care of others,” McMullin said. “This can be depleting if we don’t also take good care of ourselves. One research-based practice that can be especially supportive for teachers and parents is mindful self-compassion, which essentially helps us learn how to treat ourselves the way we so kindly treat others. It also helps situate our own struggles within a sense of shared humanity as part of the human condition. The practice of self-compassion has been found to reduce stress, build resilience and enhance well-being — all of which are essential at this time.”

McMullin added that despite the challenges, children and adolescents will indeed survive and hopefully most will even thrive.

“Kids are resilient,” she said. “Things are different. We’re all adapting and likely developing new strengths, expanded skills, new sensitivities and a new awareness of our interconnectedness as a human community. There will be losses, but there also will be gains.”


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