Prevent your Preschooler From Experiencing Social-Emotional Delays Due to the Pandemic

By Chelsea Convis

With the havoc COVID-19 has wreaked on our educational system in the last year, families have rightfully been concerned about their preschoolers and kindergarteners lagging academically. But what about their child’s social and holistic development? After all, studies show that it actually doesn’t matter if your child learns their p’s and q’s at four instead of three, but it does matter if they don’t learn the ability to socially interact with their peer group.  

Social-emotional delays at the preschool and kindergarten age have been correlated to academic struggles, suboptimal social interactions, and ongoing behavioral problems.

From ages 3 to 5, your child should be learning cooperative play, sharing, and problem-solving with their peers. They should also be developing more physical and emotional independence and be able to interact comfortably with other adults and children. But with a pandemic still threatening the health or emotional wellbeing of many families, how can parents make sure their pre-K child is developing and succeeding in important social developmental milestones while still staying COVID-safe?

Here are four ideas, ranging from extremely safe COVID precautions (just your child and you) to more relaxed caution (playdates outdoors), to try to help your child meet these social developmental milestones.

Sharing

Establish the concept of “yours” versus “theirs”. If you are using an item and your child tries to grab or asks for it, communicate that you are using this and they can ask politely for a turn. Then have your child wait briefly before sharing it with them. Similarly, honor when your child is using a toy, and don’t try to handle it without asking them.

If you have friends with whom you can schedule playdates, talk to the parents about being on the same page with sharing. Don’t physically force your children to share with each other by giving away their toys. Instead, start conversations around taking turns and why it’s important, such as, “If you want Anastasia to share her tricycle with you, it is kind for you to share your scooter with her.” Offer options: “Anastasia said she wants a turn with the scooter. Would you like to share the scooter now, or in two minutes?” Talk about consequences: “If you don’t want to share your scooter with Anastasia, that is okay! But then she might not want to share her tricycle with you.”

Cooperative Play

Play explicitly cooperative games with your child, like leap-frog, sports, tag, ghost in the graveyard, building blocks, or hide-n-seek. Talk about the different roles you play and why they’re important to the game. When playing with your child, communicate your own preferences around what you’re playing. 

Part of cooperative play is telling your playmate about a desired outcome for the game. If your child wants to take the game in a different direction than you want, state what you would enjoy, and find ways to make both of your interests happen. If your child is not getting access to their peers or they are only interacting on a restricted basis, it is imperative that you teach them social skills they will need when they interact with peers again.

With some access to other children, meet at a park or someone’s backyard and play a sport or cooperative game. Be sure to step away as much as possible to let the children have uninhibited peer interaction! This leads into: 

Problem Solving 

Conflict will inevitably arise when interacting with peers. Teach problem-solving when conflicts arise between you and your child. Help them to name their emotion or frustration, create support to accept and validate tough emotions, and help them brainstorm problem-solving by talking about their desired outcome and what choices you and they can make to get there. When reading books or watching TV shows, talk about conflicts and what choices the different characters are making, and what consequences those choices produce.

When conflict comes up on playdates, allow your child the opportunity to resolve the conflict without adult intervention (as long as everyone is physically safe). If you need to step in, try to ask questions and guide the children toward creating their own resolution.

Physical and Emotional Independence

At its simplest, this is about creating space from your child in a way that feels safe. Encourage unstructured, solo playtimes for your child. Perhaps set up a game with them, and then say, “I need to go get dinner started. I will be back to play with you in ten minutes.” If your child has gotten used to having you around constantly, set boundaries around having alone time for yourself. Set them up with toys while you read by yourself for a few minutes and gradually expand the duration they are alone over time.

Engage your child in conversation about rules and ask them what the consequences for breaking those rules should be. If they hit their sibling, what should an appropriate consequence be? A timeout? Playing by themselves for a few minutes? Apologizing? Give them age-appropriate choices to help them make a decision.

On a playdate, give children unstructured time to play together with supervision but no interference unless necessary. If you need to step in to help resolve a conflict, similar to problem-solving, guide them to figure out for themselves.

The pandemic has affected many areas, but with focusing on these areas, your child can continue to hit their developmental social milestones.