Dealing With Behavioral Changes After Reopening During COVID-19

So now that you’ve opened your doors and have all systems in place, the children are in your care, and it is a hot mess of emotion. Some are excited to be here but forget the rules. Some are having severe separation anxiety and cry off and on all day, and some just don’t seem to know what is going on half the time. And you are in the corner in the fetal position dreaming of Netflix and fuzzy socks. I’m reminded of the scene in Kindergarten Cop when Arnold Schwarzenegger is left alone for the first time with 20 five-year-olds.

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Okay, it won’t be that bad, but you WILL experience behavior changes for sure, there is no doubt about that.  There are some ways you can be proactive in helping bridge the gap between where their behavior was prior to COVID-19 and where we are now.

Treat the first week back like the first day of school.

Do not try to pick up where you left off in your dinosaur unit back in March. Each activity and lesson should be based on “getting to know you” activities as if it were September. You may know their names, but pretend that you are just meeting these children for the very first time. This will help with your realistic expectations and allow you to review rules, routines, and expectations with them.

Maybe in March you didn’t need a reward system anymore because students had grown out of it and have matured into not needing extrinsic rewards. Well, dust off that marble jar, teacher friend. At this point, you may need to do whatever works to reiterate good behavior.

Some will need “detox” from screen time.

Chances are that many of the children in your care have had an abundance of screen time while at home these last few months. This isn’t a judgement against parents; it’s a reality that screen time allows parents to have some time to themselves to get work done without having to facilitate. There are so many studies that show what screen time does to a child’s demeanor and temper. They get more mood swings and behavior issues when there is too much freedom to be on tablets.

Prepare for a “detox” of sorts since you will not be having screen time at your center. Plan for lots of sensory play, story time, outdoor, gross motor play, imaginative play, etc.  This will engage their brains more and help them get back into a routine of interaction, rather than being enthralled by a screen.

Assessments can help you know where to start.

Do an assessment on each child a few weeks in to see where he/she is developmentally since last meeting together. You can do this with an “Ages and Stages Questionnaire” (ASQ), which includes the parents in completing. This will help you gauge where the child is and what areas to focus on developmentally- socially, emotionally, physically, cognitively, etc.

Lower your expectations.

Parents have done the best they can during this time of the ultimate juggling act. It typically takes 3 days to break a habit, so stay consistent, but show lots of grace. Once you go over the rules and routines in the first few days, try to be stern yet loving. Consistency is key, so if there is a consequence to a behavior, stick to that consequence. All kids have different behavior expectations at home, so be sure to be very clear with what you want to see in your classroom, and stick to it, even if you get puppy dog eyes! After 3 days of habit breaking, patterns can form, so remember that consistency is KEY. It’s hard to put September practices into play in June when you are usually seeing the best behavior yet. Just stay patient and hopeful; that day is coming.

Extra love is needed.

Tantrums and misbehavior are frequently signs of a child needing some extra love. Often when we see a child acting out, it is due to trauma or something bothering them that makes it hard for them to put into words. So, they roll on the floor or they hit or they throw something.

As the teacher, take a deep breath and model for the students what you do when you’re upset or angry. There are many parts of the child that we focus on in early childhood education. Sometimes the social/emotional (the affective domain as we call it in ECE) can be put to the side since the Cognitive domain can be seen as “more important.” But it is crucial that educators spend a big chunk of time focusing on meeting the needs of each child socially and emotionally. Acknowledge that being back at school is different and a little hard.

Show them ways to release their emotions in a healthy way. There are yoga breaths, calming bottles, a cozy corner with poster about feelings, etc. Expect more tantrums in the beginning since this is a lot for a little person to handle (if we are honest, it’s a lot for us grownups to handle as well!).

Teach them to name their feelings out loud and explain that each emotion is necessary and healthy. Labeling the emotion and then helping them discuss if they like that emotion, dislike that emotion, etc. is a great way to help the children see that it is perfectly okay to feel these things. 

Remember to stay calm as the teacher, and practice the breathing exercises as well. This is all new and we all can relate to the kicking and screaming happening on the floor. 


Just remember that it is going to be okay. Try to not put so much pressure on yourself since you have so many new procedures to do. Play silly music, have a dance party, eat popsicles outside “just because,” and find ways to laugh with your little ones. Laughter is great medicine and can really help tear down walls of frustration and built-up anger for these tiny humans. So, in a nutshell – stay consistent and laugh a lot.   

Missy Knechel

MIssy is a professor in the early childhood department at Eastern University and director of Victory Early Learning Academy, a childcare center that she started ten years ago. Prior to that, she taught Kindergarten and second grade for a total of 10 years. She has been married to her best friend, Jason, for 15 years, and together they have four beautiful children ages 5, 7, 9 and 11 in the suburbs of Philadelphia, PA. In her spare time, Missy loves to bake, read historical fiction, sing karaoke and travel to Central America on short term missions.

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