Reading, new friends, a new school. The transition to elementary school is a year of seismic shifts in the best of times. All this change makes it all the more crucial that kindergartners feel the world around them is stable and predictable.

“All children, especially young ones, thrive on routine and consistency, and to have that disrupted can be really jarring,” says Rebecca Branstetter, school psychologist, author, and child development expert. This sudden change from a highly structured, familiar environment to one where the schedule and rules are being written on the fly is stress-provoking for kids, even if they can’t articulate it.

Unfortunately, we’re not living in predictable times. So what’s a parent to do?

What happened to, “I can do it myself!”?

Your kindergartner was so proud of all the things they could do independently! After social distancing, though, you may have noticed your child acting reluctant or unable to do things they used to do with ease. Branstetter says she’s been hearing about a lot of regressive behaviors in young kids while confined to home. For example, a child who used to happily get their own breakfast, she says, may now wail that they need you to pour their cereal. Or it could be that a school activity calls for a skill you know your child has mastered, but when confronted with the task, your child insists they can’t do it.

“When kids are stressed they may show performance deficits,” Branstetter says. “They still have the skills, they just may not be able to perform them like they used to.”

How to help your kindergartner cope

Be patient and know that this, too, shall pass. Branstetter, who is the co-creator of a social-emotional learning course for parents, says, “When the brain is stressed, all of a child’s resources are being devoted to dealing with the stress. Little ones can’t say, ‘Mom, I’m really sad and stressed and I’m missing my friends right now.’ It’s going to show up in their behavior. That’s how they communicate.” The best thing you can do, she says, is hold space for wherever your child is right now. “That means leaning in with empathy and understanding. ‘You’re having a tough time getting your cereal right now.'”

Little creatures of habit

The stress kids experience from missing familiar routines and people can also manifest as a lower tolerance for frustration. You may be seeing tantrums and meltdowns, triggered by anything from sibling fights to distance-learning tasks. “When your child is resisting homework or assignments, it could be a way that they’re communicating stress, worries, sadness, or grief,” Branstetter says.

How to help your kindergartner cope

Keep calm and don’t try to solve the problem. “As parents we want to engage in a process called co-regulation — bringing the calm instead of adding to the chaos,” Branstetter says. Emotions are contagious; if you remain calm, it will calm your child. “Your brain is primed to match whatever emotion you’re seeing in someone around you. So practice mindfulness. Stop, take a breath before responding. Name it: ‘I see you feel frustrated.'”

And remember, she says, trying to fix the problem too quickly backfires on two levels. For one thing, there are a lot of things we just can’t fix right now. And when your child is mid-meltdown, Branstetter says, they’re not ready for solutions. “Bringing your calm to them helps them self-regulate. Then, when they’re calm, that’s the time to do problem solving.”

Big highs, big lows

Playdates, scooter rides, birthday parties, and most other festivities are on hold indefinitely, which can feel crushing for 5- to 7-year-olds. “When you’re little, birthday parties are the world — cancelling your birthday is huge,” says Branstetter.

How to help your kindergartner cope

Do a “control audit,” Branstetter suggests. “Ask, what’s in my control and what isn’t? I can’t let my kids have regular playdates, but I can acknowledge their disappointment and say, ‘That’s tough. What can we do that’s fun?’” If it’s any comfort, she adds, it’s often parents who struggle the most with disappointment. This might be a good time to get silly and play, and enjoy your child’s remarkable ability to be truly in the present moment. Kids aren’t thinking about the future, Branstetter says: “Kids are thinking about this afternoon.”

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Updated: May 20, 2020