Child care providers know that if there's one thing about military family life that's predictable, it's that it is unpredictable! Change happens. A lot. These changes usually affect children from military families in very significant ways that they neither control nor fully understand. Whether it's a parent going far away or the return of parent, or a move to whole new place – the impact is enormous. Coping with such significant change is a monumental task for very young children. Simply having the comfort of a familiar child care setting helps tremendously, but there are additional intentional, very practical ways that child care providers can support children as they adjust to new circumstances.
When you find out about a significant change in a military family’s situation, whatever it might be, go the extra mile to keep things at child care predictable and familiar. Now is not the time to rearrange the play areas or change up the schedule. If you are in a program with age-based classes, don't move the child up to the next class, even if he's eligible. At least during the initial adjustment period, give him the extra advantage of having a place where everything is familiar and manageable. Take time to reinforce his feeling of confidence and control by mentioning out loud when you see him making choices for himself and taking responsibility. Think of it as making “deposits” in the emotional reservoir that is being tapped by his family situation.
As a child care provider, now is also not the time to challenge the child to learn a new skill or make a major behavior change, such as learning to use the toilet, weaning from a pacifier, or learning to tie his shoes. In fact, it’s likely that you’ll see some regression – the temporary loss of relatively new skills. For example, a newly potty-trained toddler might begin having accidents. This is a normal response to stress and reflects the body and mind’s attempt to meet the immediate emotional challenges of a situation by making everything else as easy as possible. Reverting to earlier, less challenging skill levels is a common result and should be met with compassion and patience rather than scolding, shame, or demands.
When you know a child’s family has had a major disruption, use your knowledge of that child’s favorite things to help her cope. Or if she’s new to your child care program, ask her parents for input. Then make sure you have favorite activities available for big chunks of her days. Within the limits of the schedule and your typical routines, allow her to choose her own activities and to spend as much time as she needs with them. Be sensitive to her need to be alone or to have you near. Make sure she has plenty of time to be with playmates that she enjoys and gets along well with.
Comfort can come in very tangible forms, too. Include some of her favorite foods in your meal and snack plans. Play her favorite music when settling down for a nap. Pull out her favorite dress-up outfits and props. While this level of individual attention probably isn’t wise long term, during a stressful period having lots of sources of comfort and joy to draw on in the child care environment can help build the emotional resources that she needs to cope with adjusting to the changes at home.
You may also notice more battles of the will, both with you and with other children. Some children deal with feelings of a lack of control in one situation by increasing their control in others. Face it – we do the same thing as adults. When we feel stressed about a situation, what do we do? Clean the bathroom or office! We exert control where we can. Children feel the same need, only it more often ends up in fighting with us or their friends about getting their way. Address a child's need to feel in control of something before she loses control by giving her small things to be in charge of and choices to make throughout the day. You may not avoid all battles, but hopefully it will reduce the number!
When you know a child is experiencing the absence of a deployed parent or is missing grandparents or other important adults, turn up the volume on your own relationship with him and on the connectedness among the group. Be consistent and mindful in expressing to him your affection and enjoyment of him. Don’t be surprised if he gets a little clingy – it’s a temporary but necessary need for the security of your presence. Remind him that you’re there and be reassuring, even if he’s not verbally expressing his needs. As a child care provider, your familiar, loving presence will bring him much needed comfort.
Think about ways that you can spend more "connecting time" with him throughout the course of the day. Find a children's book that reflects something about his situation. Read it to him alone for some one-on-one snuggle time, or read it to your group of children and start a conversation about the fact that their friend is experiencing something similar. Children are capable of amazing levels of empathy and kindness when we give them a clear opportunity to care for each other.
Another good time to connect with what a child is thinking and feeling is during pretend play. Very often young children will portray the real challenges in their lives in their pretend scenarios. By gently joining in a child's play, you have the opportunity to hear more of what's going on inside him and to provide comfort, guidance, or reassurance when it seems needed.
A third way to connect is to encourage the child to tell you a story and/or draw a picture related to the change that's happening. Often child care providers think that they are protecting young children from "adult" burdens by not talking about difficult events or circumstances with young children. But the fact is that even very young children know when something big is going on simply by the change in the adults' behavior and emotional state. So regardless of the "facts" that a child has been told, he will have plenty of thoughts and feelings about what's happening. Gently encouraging him to draw a picture or tell you about what's happening will help him feel heard and acknowledged. It will also give you an opportunity to hear what his misconceptions might be and what he's afraid of – important information for providing further support and comfort.
It’s important to end with the acknowledgment that every child is different. Some children are more adaptable by nature; others have an inborn temperament that makes change very difficult and slow to adapt to. These suggestions and observations should be combined with your knowledge of each child in your care and the unique knowledge that their parents have of their child. The only universal principle that applies to all military children and families is that your role as the children's caregiver is tremendously important to their ability to adapt to the changes in their life. Never underestimate the influence that your understanding, compassion, and care can have. Not only will the child benefit, but you will be supporting the parents by taking extra care of their child while they are themselves coping with the changes.
To learn more about providing child care for young children from military families, check out the following eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care articles.
You can also read more in our Child Care and Military Families blog.