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Students play with mud on Tuesday, June 29, 2021, during Clayton Early Learning’s first celebration of International Mud Day in almost five years. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Five-year-old Mirror sat in a giant tub of mud on Tuesday morning, legs buried, arms and hands coated in the same clay-like sludge that dotted her cheeks, nose and forehead.

A classmate stood right beside her, ankle deep in the mire at Clayton Early Learning, as their teacher painted her face to match Mirror’s. 

It was a messy morning for the preschoolers — though not nearly as messy as the entire past year has been for them. The pandemic has kept them socially distant from their peers. They’ve had to adapt to new classroom routines and traded hugs and high-fives for elbow bumps. They’ve had to adjust to life with masks — and without their teachers’ smiles visible.

And while they mastered mask wearing and hand washing, some of their families endured illness, job loss, economic insecurity and hunger. But on Tuesday, the preschool classes at Clayton could finally let loose and set the soap and hand sanitizer aside.

The observance of International Mud Day was about more than getting messy. Teachers said it also exposed the kids, most of whom live in the city, to natural environments while giving them a mental health boost.

“It’s a very sensory experience and what we know is that the more senses we can engage children in utilizing, more of their brain lights up,” said Jenny Smith, director of comprehensive services at Clayton Early Learning, which educates kids from low-income households.

Mirror, 5, covers herself in mud on Tuesday, June 29, 2021, during Clayton Early Learning’s first celebration of International Mud Day in almost five years. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

The mucky morning helped their little bodies release feel-good hormones such as serotonin, Smith said. This natural “joy juice” has been hard to come by since last year. But early childhood educators are focused on bringing it back into the classroom as they’ve prioritized the mental health and social-emotional well-being of their pint-sized learners. 

The mental health of infants and toddlers doesn’t often get the same attention as that of school-age children. But over the past 20 years, thinking about the mental health of preschoolers has shifted and educators have recognized the importance of paying attention to students’ emotional wellness no matter how young they are, said Geoff Nagle, chief of external impact at Clayton Early Learning.

This has gained urgency during the pandemic.

“We know that children’s cognitive development hinges on their ability to interact in productive ways with others, and disruptions in a child’s social-emotional development or their caregiver’s mental well-being interferes with the ability to learn in relationship with others,” said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. “And that is why it is so critical that we support strong emotional well-being and relationships in the early years, because that’s how learning and development happens.” 

Just how much behavioral problems among young children have escalated during the pandemic was revealed by a report recently released by the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan and the Urban Institute. In a nationally representative survey of parents of preschoolers conducted late last year, “parents reported levels of hyperactivity, conduct problems, and peer problems that were roughly 33% to 50% larger than in previous years,” the report said.

“When they’re concerned,” Jaeger said, “we should be concerned.”

Stressors that impact parents also take a toll on young kids

Long before the pandemic, educators knew how much students suffer when their family is living in poverty, creating stress that has “spillover impacts on children’s development,” Jaeger said. The added stress of disruptions to their school learning environments has only contributed to their sense of instability, he said. Questions about how that instability translates to learning often follow, but Jaeger is equally concerned about how that instability will impact a child’s emotional health and mental development.

The report echoes his concerns, highlighting how much changes to classroom operations with new health and safety protocols likely jeopardized opportunities for children to learn. For instance, teachers had to devote more time to cleaning and handwashing, which cut into their time to interact with students. Many also emphasized more individual activities, robbing kids of opportunities to learn how to share and make friends as they remained socially distanced and couldn’t use the same crayons, markers and toys.  

Jennifer Stedron, executive director of Early Milestones Colorado, also sounds an alarm when it comes to the emotional well-being of Colorado’s youngest residents as the state starts to recover from the pandemic. Data collected by Early Milestones Colorado, a nonprofit that works to ensure supports and services are equitable for young children and families, shows that of Colorado early childhood education providers that were working with mental health consultants before COVID-19, 38% noted they had been working with consultants more after the start of the pandemic. Much of that increase has been driven by parents identifying new mental health concerns in their kids as well as new behavioral concerns, Stedron said.

Additionally, 51% of families who have children under the age of 5 reported they are somewhat or very concerned about their child’s social-emotional well-being, Stedron said, citing a survey the organization conducted between March and May focused on impacts of COVID-19.

Last fall, the organization interviewed families and found a variety of stressors were fueling caregivers’ concerns about their children, including isolation; stress felt by parents and picked up by their kids; and uncertainty and inconsistency in family dynamics like work, finances and child care.

“If you know children well and notice changes, it’s just important to just be looking at those and trying to make some connections as to what the cause is,” Stedron said, “and especially if you’re seeing some persistent changes, to really be thinking about whether those are just situational or whether they are signs of something more.”

Relationships define kids’ early years 

The environments where young kids spend their time day to day and the experiences they have in the earliest chapter of their lives are powerful forces in shaping how they learn to adapt to the world, said Nagle, of Clayton Early Learning.

As students develop physically, mentally, emotionally and cognitively, experiences that are nurturing, positive and stimulating help them build their potential and support healthy brain development. A child who feels comforted, supported and protected will learn “safety, security, hope and trust,” Nagle said. On the other end of the spectrum, kids who endure negative, frightening and traumatic experiences in their formative years will suffer harmful consequences.

“Your brain is going to adapt accordingly,” Nagle said.

Students play with mud on Tuesday, June 29, 2021, during Clayton Early Learning’s first celebration of International Mud Day in almost five years. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

“The reality is even though you don’t have a cognitive memory, you do have internal memories and even physiological memories, because your body adapts based on those experiences,” he added.

Nagle highlighted how people are wired with a built-in response system to perceived stress and danger, an instantaneous hormonal process around fight or flight that aims to help a person fend off and survive danger. A child who comes from an environment in which they’re constantly on alert for threats will develop in a way that keeps them on high alert. That could play out with a child being overactive or overreactive, lashing out at a peer when they’re not willing to share. They could be hard to calm down, Nagle said, because they haven’t had a lot of experience in which the world is a safe place that allows them to easily relax.

Nagle knows the pandemic significantly shaped young students’ mental health over the past year, but children were affected in dramatically different ways depending on their family circumstances. Some families found a silver lining in a gift of more time together. Others were burdened by a lot of extra stress, including many low-income families in which parents still had to go to work and risk contracting the virus.

A key question that Nagle poses: “How did the pandemic affect the relationships between the children and their primary caregiver?”

Teachers at Clayton Early Learning, which directly serves 500 kids from birth to age 5 on campus, through home visits and at community partners’ sites, have spent much of the past year helping kids steer through a lot of unknowns as they’ve returned to classrooms with new procedures. They’ve also been a support for their young students who often pick up the stress of the adults around them. 

Olivia Butler, a lead toddler teacher whose classroom is full of kids from 18 months to 3 years old, has seen that stress play out in students through changes in behavior, including with struggles to get through daily routines like sitting down to eat a meal. She’s tried to reinforce routines and consistency for her students, noting that predictability helps children day to day.

Strong relationships with her students have also played a major role in her classroom time with them.

“Children cannot learn unless they feel safe and loved,” Butler said. “And that comes through relationships.”

Students scoop up mud on Tuesday, June 29, 2021, during Clayton Early Learning’s first celebration of International Mud Day in almost five years. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

On Wednesday morning, Butler led a small group of 2- and 3-year-olds in circle time outside, sitting with them on a blanket to learn about their emotions with the help of “feeling buddies,” plush dolls representing emotions like anger, fear, sadness and happiness. The exercise helps children recognize different emotions and put both a name and an action to an emotion, Butler said. 

Butler asked her students to show the kinds of facial expressions they make when they’re feeling different emotions, with smiles and raised eyebrows during times of happiness and furrowed eyebrows and pouting lips in moments of sadness.

“How can we help friends feel better?” Butler asked her students when talking about sadness.

“Wish them well,” one of her students responded.

The sooner that teachers can start helping kids identify what and how they feel, the more it will benefit them in the long term, said Smith, also of Clayton Early Learning. When teachers can help preschoolers recognize those difficult emotions, they can help them use coping strategies, rather than hitting, kicking or pushing when they’re angry, she said.

That lesson has been particularly relevant during the pandemic, as children have faced emotions they don’t always have words for.

Helping kids understand their feelings, Smith said, “is one of the biggest gifts or tools that we can give these children to deal with life adversities.”

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...