24 Ways to Comfort Kids Without Physical Contact: Strategies for Teachers and “Pod” Parents During COVID-19

Kids need help calming down sometimes. But if you’re a teacher or daycare provider during the coronavirus pandemic, or a parent looking after kids as part of an at-home learning cohort, COVID-19 social distancing rules have taken away one powerful calming method: appropriate physical contact.

Until hugs are back on the table, developmental pediatrician Robert D. Keder, MD, shares ways to soothe and reassure kids – without physical contact.

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 Pause and take a deep breath.

  1. Take care of yourself. As a teacher or caregiver, you have one of the most important jobs right now: Helping kids during these unusual times. Make sure you are able to sleep, eat and exercise as well as you can.
  2. Role model how to communicate and remain calm. Kids are always watching, and they learn more from what we do than what we say. Show them how you use the following strategies with your actions.
  3. Take notes. Each child is a little different. What might work for one child might not work as easily for another. Each child has their own set of strengths. Find a way to play to them!
  4. Remember that you’ve got this! Whether in the classroom, daycare or home, you have been using these skills with kids all along. Since times are more stressful during social distancing, reviewing these tips will help you continue to do what you have already done to support kids during less stressful times.

> Related: How Is Your Child Coping With COVID-19? Here’s What to Look For

 Make it a safe space to communicate.

  1. Give permission to share feelings. Let kids know it’s okay to communicate their feelings. The COVID-19 pandemic, and all of the changes that have come with it, is tough for everyone. Here’s a guide especially for kids on the autism spectrum.
  2. Use a system to communicate. Feeling sad or anxious is an internal feeling, and some kids don’t show signs until they are ready to emotionally fall apart. So give them a silent method for communicating how they’re feeling that does not disrupt the flow of class. There are many approaches: You can use a thermometer, a color-based system, or a smiley/emoji system.
  3. Check in regularly. You’ll get a feel for how often to do this. In the beginning of the school year, it might be a couple times a day. Later on, once everyone’s more comfortable with the classroom, distance learning, or day care routine, that will hopefully fade to less.

> Related: Is Your Child Anxious or Depressed? What to Look for, Ask and Do

Teacher provides help to young student. Both teacher and student are wearing face masks

 Use words of affirmation.

  1. “You are not alone.” Remind kids that you’re right there with them. You can even urge them to say a version of this out loud as a mantra: “Let’s say it together: I am not alone. I am not alone. I am not alone.”
  2. Validate feelings. Ask, “Can you tell me what’s wrong?” Repeat their words back to them, or help them label what’s going on (for example, “You seem a little sad”). This helps kids accept how they’re feeling – which helps them move past it.
  3. “It’s okay to feel this way.” It’s important for kids to know that sadness, anger and other big emotions might feel really uncomfortable – but they’re also normal. It’s healthy for them to experience these feelings.

> Related: How to Talk to Younger Kids About Changes at School During COVID-19

 Meet kids where they are and redirect their attention.

  1. Find something to praise. This can be as simple as, “I’m proud of you for sharing your feelings right now” or “You’re doing a great job taking deep breaths.”
  2. Ask, “What would make you feel better?” and offer a choice between two appropriate options: “Do you want to sit here quietly for a few minutes by yourself, or do you want to join the class in art time?”
  3. Sing a comforting song together. Try a few refrains of “You Are My Sunshine,” or another song with feel-good, affectionate lyrics.
  4. Find the good. Try saying, “I know you’re feeling sad / frustrated / mad, and that’s okay. But can you also help me name three happy thoughts right now?”
  5. Use what you know already works. Take a break. If you know a child likes humor, acknowledge how they are feeling, and offer up something distracting by being silly or showing them a cute animal video clip to help them find an emotional perk-up.

> Related: 4 Steps to Help Kids Practice Self-Care and Manage Stress

 Use gestures and mirroring.

  1. Show kids how to hug themselves. Come up with a silly name for it, like a “gorilla hug” or “panda bear hug” or something else that makes them smile. When a child is sad, announce that it’s time for a “gorilla hug.” Wrap your arms around yourself, have kids wrap their arms tightly around themselves, and together, count to 20. By mirroring kids, you create a sense of connection.
  2. Put your hands on your hearts. If a child is upset, put a hand on your own heart, and have them mirror you. Can they feel the warmth of their hand on their chest? If they pay very close attention, can they feel their heartbeat? This gesture of support will also connect them to their senses, which has a calming effect.
  3. Teach kids how to give themselves a hand massage. Demonstrate how to press one thumb into the wrist, palm and back of the other hand, gently rubbing between the bones to release any tightness.
  4. Sit with them. For younger kids, suggest that you both sit on the floor while you talk about what’s going on. Even while social distancing, being on the same level creates a sense of companionship.

> Related: When Your Child Is Anxious, Try a Coping Toolbox!

 Teach breathing and mindfulness exercises.

  1. Lead 3-2-1 breathing. Breathe in for a count of three. Hold for a count of two. Breathe out for a count of one. Repeat. Each time, go a little more slowly.
  2. Ask where in their body they feel upset. This takes some practice. But once a child can label a feeling as belonging to part of their body – for example, a knot in their stomach – it can help make the sensation a little less overwhelming. Direct them to take deep breaths and “send” breath toward that spot to relax.
  3. Guide the child through a soothing visualization. Here’s one example: Ask their favorite color, or guess a color that will make them feel relaxed. Then do it with them: “Let’s take a deep breath in, and imagine calm, cool blue going down our throat and into our belly. Breathe out, and feel that calm, cool blue travel all the way to our fingertips.” Repeat.
  4. Counting is a calming activity. If a child is upset, let them know that you wish you could give them a hug – or even two or 20 or 100 hugs. Use it to coax kids into counting: “How high can you count? Let’s try it” or “Let’s count backwards from 10 together.”
  5. Teach kids these 12 calming exercises. For exercises that incorporate movement, exaggerate the movements to make kids laugh.

> Related: Resilience Is Mindfulness: 12 Calming Exercises for Kids

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