Care and Feeding

This Pandemic Is Making My Preschooler an Emotional Wreck

How can I help?

A little kid crying in front of a couch
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My child is an autistic preschooler. With the extended cancellation of school and my child doing more online learning, I’m finding that they have become more emotionally volatile. Normally my child is pretty mellow, but lately they seem to be getting all worked up over nothing at all. Do you have suggestions for how I can get them to cope?

—Seeking Calm

Dear Seeking,

I don’t really believe this is unique to your child as a result of their age or diagnosis. Most people are experiencing what I’m going to call the Stay-at-Home Weirdness—a set of moods that range from depressive to anxious. We’re all feeling a little off. The difference is how we handle it: You—an adult with coping strategies and knowledge of what’s going on—are able to engage in those coping strategies to self-regulate, while your preschooler—a very young child who probably does not understand what’s happening—is not self-regulating well.

Your child can tell that things are off right now—they’re not at school, you’re home all the time. The first thing to do, if you haven’t already, is to talk to your child, in age-appropriate terms, about what’s happening. There are tools to help you! StoryBots does an episode on viruses that explains how they get in you and how your body fights them. And here are two videos about COVID-19 aimed at young children. I’ve talked about social stories before, and here is one I liked about the stay-at-home orders as well. If your child knows what is happening, they will be able to understand why things are different, and that may ease some of that Stay-at-Home Weirdness.

Your preschooler—especially if they struggle with self-regulation normally—needs your help with how to cope with all of this change. One way you can do this is to maintain a predictable schedule. You also should try to help your child regulate their sensory system with some occupational therapy coping strategies. Here are three simple ways to do so.

Dyed rice. We dye our rice with vinegar in the classroom, and then we mix in a few drops of essential oils to make it smell nice. The feeling of the cool, dry rice on your hands and even your arms is very relaxing, and a calming scent like lavender or vanilla can create a very peaceful playtime activity for kids (or for you!). It offers the same calming fun of playing with sand, with much easier cleanup.

Sensory bottles. These require a few more supplies (which you should be able to buy online), but they are fun to make. The idea behind these is that when emotions are running high, your child can shake the sensory bottle, breathe, and watch the glitter settle. These bottles have a similar soothing effect to snow globes or going to the aquarium and watching the jellyfish—hard to describe but distinctly calming!

Deep pressure. I know I feel calmer and more grounded after a massage, and my sensory system is relatively regulated. Depending on how your child feels about touch, massage can have very calming effects on all children, especially sensory seekers. Give them a firm (harder than you’d expect for a small child, but not hard-hard) squeeze starting at their wrist, and move up to their shoulder. Or start at their ankle and move up their leg. If your child likes playful touch, you can even try laying your belly across their body and monitor the amount of weight you’re putting on them very carefully. Another idea: After bath time, take the biggest, fluffiest towel you have and wrap them like a burrito as tightly as you can. This can also be a nice time to teach your child about consent. We’ve taught kids in my class to say “squeeze” or “squish” when they want us to apply pressure. And after each squeeze, we ask them, “More or all done?” (either using words or signs for my nonverbal students).

Sensory strategies aren’t a cure for Stay-at-Home Weirdness. But if you equip your child with some of these, they may be able to cope more easily.

My last suggestion is that, like adults, your autistic preschooler is probably seeking emotional validation. When they are calm, and when they are volatile, talk about their emotions. Just saying “Wow, I see that you’re sad. You are crying” is powerful. So is “It’s OK to be angry, but you cannot bite your sister. You can stomp your feet and say ‘I am angry!’ ” We always want kids to know that their emotions are valid and that there are appropriate and inappropriate outlets for those emotions, but doubly so at a time like this.

—Ms. Sarnell (preschool special education, New York)

I’m a high schooler in a district that has moved to distance learning for the rest of the school year. I generally do very well in school, but I’m struggling with focusing on my schoolwork now. My home environment is pretty distracting—I have three younger siblings, and that’s not helping. Do you have any focus tips for a student trying to succeed in this weird half-school time?

—Trying to Focus

Dear Focus,

First, I want to reassure you that everybody is struggling with focus right now, and I mean everybody. Feeling scatterbrained, depleted, and generally unlike yourself is a totally natural response to going through a lengthy period where your comforting daily routines have been upended, you can’t access your community of friends and mentors, and current events feel tragic and threatening. The students I work with are struggling too. Most of them—even those like you who are hard workers accustomed to success—report feeling unmotivated, overwhelmed, distracted, and stressed. And the same goes for teachers! This is really hard, and everyone is feeling it. So my first tip is to be gentle with yourself. If you’re getting enough rest, staying hydrated and nourished, and keeping a reasonably positive state of mind, you’re already succeeding. Your most important (and, if need be, only) priority is to get through this with your mental health intact.

That said, I do have some ideas for how you can cope with the challenges of distance learning. I don’t want to presume anything about your home environment, so rather than make suggestions for materials or physical space arrangements that may not work for you, I’m going to recommend some work habits and mindsets that, hopefully, will be applicable in any scenario.

To start, I think it’s important to be mindful of your own “default settings.” What I mean by that is for you to think about your natural habits and set yourself up for success by working with them rather than fighting them. What makes you feel energetic, clearheaded, or purposeful? What exacerbates the feelings of distraction? Do you like to settle in to one long, sustained period of concentration, or do you work better in short bursts of productivity with frequent breaks? Does it feel cozy and comforting to work from bed, or do you function better sitting upright at a table or desk? When concentrating feels impossible, what helps to reset? A nap, a phone call, a shower, a walk outside? Be realistic about your own needs and preferences. If you’re a night owl who’s been sleeping until 2 in the afternoon, expecting yourself to be up and working at 8 a.m. will only make you feel more frustrated and defeated. Try to get to know yourself as a thinker and a worker without the structures imposed by school.

Speaking of structure, I’ve heard from my students that the mental whiplash of the transition from the highly ordered nature of the school day to the endless unstructured time we’re now coping with has been one of the hardest things to figure out. Many of them have not yet learned how to independently manage their time and necessary tasks without the routine of bell schedules and imposed work periods like study hall. So I would also experiment with different systems for keeping track of your assignments (or, if your school is offering them, time-bound meetings such as virtual office hours). Some people like digital planning, preferring options like Google Calendar, which allows you to set appointments, make to-do lists, color-code your entries, and set reminder notifications. Others prefer creating to-do lists on paper. I have one student who writes all her assignments on individual sticky notes and brings only one sticky note at a time to the space where she works; this strategy helps her stay focused and avoid getting overwhelmed. Also, I know that some schools (or some teachers) are distributing materials weekly rather than daily. If that’s the case for any of your classes, I would practice reviewing the assignment as soon as you have it and breaking it down into manageable chunks of work that you can complete at a reasonable pace, rather than attempting to complete a week’s worth of work the day before it’s due.

Finally, if you can, be vocal about your needs and ask for support. Staying focused on your work is no easy feat with three little siblings hovering in your orbit. Can you coordinate with the adults who take care of you to finagle some quiet time? Or can you communicate the challenges of your learning environment to your teachers and ask for some accommodation? Most of the teachers I know have been thrown off-kilter too and are struggling to get the hang of assigning a workload that feels feasible and appropriate—especially if they aren’t getting any feedback from students. If you haven’t connected with your teachers individually too much, try reaching out and seeing what they can do for you. They are there for you.

You’re doing great, Focus. Keep trying, but understand that you might not be able to hit your normal high standards, and that’s expected and OK. Hang in there!

—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school teacher, New York)

While we are under a stay-at-home order, our sweet, smart first grader is being home-schooled right now by two parents with no teaching backgrounds who are also teleworking two full-time jobs. She’s doing really well, all things considered, and we are moving through her teacher’s suggested curriculum. She’s doing great with most of her subjects, but she does not like expressing herself in writing (she is an above-average reader and is capable of writing). We are trying to give her interesting topics to write about—do you like pandas or butterflies more, and why? But she writes one sentence and considers her project done. Is there a way to encourage her to put in more detail? Her teacher has also said this is something she should work on at home because she struggles to get her to fully complete writing tasks at school too. Also, her spelling is—as would be expected for a 7-year-old—not great. We do a phonics/spelling unit with her separately, but should I also be helping her correct her spelling when she’s writing about a topic? Or should we ignore that and work on the written expression part? We would love some guidance on how to better help her learn.

—Trying to Raise a Writer

Dear TtRaW,

I love this question. As a teacher for two decades and the author of several novels and a book of nonfiction, I am incredibly passionate about teaching writing and, more importantly, fostering a love for writing in children. Here are a few simple strategies to help your daughter fall in love with writing:

All writers—young and old, professional or amateur—need four things to be successful: time, audience, choice, and purpose.

Time: Set aside a quiet time in your home for her to write. Start small with 5–10 minutes per day, and each week slowly increase the amount of time spent writing. Human beings aren’t born with writing stamina. It must be developed over time.

Audience: Find people willing to listen to your daughter’s work. Start with yourself. Drop everything in an instant if she wants to read something to you. Give her the chance to read to her teacher or relatives via videoconferencing. Gather some of her classmates on Zoom for a weekly share session. Find out whom she wants to share her work with, and find a way to connect the two.

Choice: Give her permission to write whatever she wants. If she wants to write about the intricacies of her toenails or complex Minecraft strategies or why she thinks you’re the meanest mommy in the world, let her. There’s nothing more stifling for any writer than forcing them to write about something they don’t care about.

Purpose: Help her find a sense of purpose for her writing. Writing for writing’s sake is a lovely thing, and there are some people in the world who find joy in the process. But for most people, writing becomes more pleasurable and desired when it is attached to a passion in the real world. If she loves movies, she could start reviewing films. If she loves food, allow her to write reviews of your meals. Does she love nature? Maybe she’d like to write a poem about it.

A few additional recommendations:

Don’t look at the words that your child has written on the page. Spelling, punctuation, and handwriting are the things that parents often focus upon because they are simple to diagnose and easy to correct, but even mentioning these topics is an excellent way to spoil the joy of writing for any writer. These are mechanical issues that can be eventually be addressed. The goal now should be to get your daughter to love expressing herself. Rather than critiquing the appearance of the words on the page, insist that she read her work aloud to you first before looking at the page, and if you must look at the writing itself, don’t make spelling, grammar, or handwriting any part of your commentary.

Observe a ratio of three compliments for every comment that you make about your daughter’s work. Remember this: When we write, we offer a bit of ourselves on the page. For some, we bleed on the page. This is different than solving an addition problem or knowing the difference between democracy and communism. When we write, we place our thoughts into the world for all to see, so when those thoughts are criticized or rejected, the writer in many ways is rejected. So we must be kind to young writers—all writers, really, but especially young writers. Writing is an act of faith and daring, so writers should be treated with kindness at all times.

Finally, since you’re looking for ways to help: Just as we model reading for our kids, try modeling writing for her, too. When she’s working on her writing, sit down and write alongside her. Allow her to see you as a writer, too. If her stories are one sentence long, write stories that are a dozen lines long. Raise the bar, but not so high that it’s unattainable.

No matter what, keep the joy of writing in the forefront of your mind. Your goal should be to foster a love of writing in your daughter—especially at this time—while leaving the mechanics for her teachers.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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