Leading in the time of COVID-19

The role of a child care program director is demanding, complex, and crucial for teachers, children and families to thrive in group care settings. Despite the required physical distancing in many communities right now, this role is no less crucial. In many ways there is an even greater need for child care administrators to show up and be leaders right now. Unprecedented change and uncertainty breed big feelings of fear, sadness, and even anger. As center directors, we don’t have any more answers than do the leaders in our state or medical communities, but we do have strategies we can implement to guide and support our staff and families.

Put feelings first

People are experiencing overwhelming feelings right now related to the fear of the spread of illness, stress over lack of resources, uncertainty about economic stability and job security. And so much more. These overwhelming feelings can have significant physical impacts and can take over our ability to think clearly and self-regulate our behaviors. Therefore, it is necessary that our work as leaders starts here with naming emotions, acknowledging that they are real, and helping our people take time to process them. This is an important practice with children, teachers, and parents alike.

Prioritize the needs of families and staff

There’s no one-size-fits-all for creating a task list right now. In many communities this looks like strategizing to safely provide group care for essential workers, redeploying staff to provide in-home care, coordinating supply distribution to families in under-resourced communities, developing systems for creating remote learning experiences, or applying for funding to sustain through economic impact of program closure. Your role right now is to determine what is needed for your program and your best opportunity for producing results. This might require time spent on an informal needs assessment. Consider: What does our program typically provide for staff and families that it does not right now? What is the biggest threat to my community right now – food scarcity? Limited supplies? Financial insecurity? Accessible childcare? What resources do I have access to that I could use to respond to need?

Communicate with clarity

Not having answers as a leader can lead to feeling incapable and unqualified. People look to leaders to know what’s next, make a plan, and execute it. Uncertainty can cause leaders to speak vaguely, withdraw, make unfounded promises, or pose worst-case scenarios. All of which produce fear, mis-interpretation of information, and can reduce trust in leadership. Instead, organize what you know and what you don’t know and communicate that with clarity. It is ok to simply say, “here’s what I know for certain.” And to acknowledge a question you can’t answer, “I have that question too and once there is a clear answer, I will share it with you.”

Build resilience through relationships

The pandemic in our country is going to produce complex trauma from the loss of loved ones, economic stress from lack of work, depression and anxiety, and potentially abuse and neglect. What we know from research on ACEs is that the impact is real and long-term but also that our best opportunity to repair and build resilience is through relationships. We can’t always take away the trauma, but we can continue to have a safe, supportive, consistent, and responsive presence in the lives of our children, teachers, and families.

Seek outside support

You don’t have to have all the answers or carry the entire burden of solving the complex problems you’re facing. Opportunities for support range from connecting with other professionals in roles similar to yours; collaborating with community resources agencies to supplement food, transportation, supplies, etc. for families and staff; and engaging social services to support staff and families in processing depression, anxiety, stress and death. Be aware and honest about your capacity to provide the support that is needed. Your energy may be best used in coordinating connections.

Anticipate a new normal

While it is tempting to fantasize about life returning to “normal”, consistent predictions from medical experts guide us to prepare for waves of fluctuations in virus outbreaks for the next year, maybe two. Expect physical distancing and economic struggle to fluctuate as well, challenging our familiar sense of relationships and our work. We must invite innovation, constantly make adjustments, and expect that the other side of this looks different.  It’s not just a matter of adjusting our actions, but also our expectations and helping our teachers and families do that too.

Practice self-care

I know, I know, we talk about self-care all the time. You will be absorbing the stress and fear of the people that you lead. It’s like the timeless guidance of applying oxygen masks on airplanes, in order to provide for and support others, you must take care of yourself first. Set boundaries and stick to them. Set goals but be flexible with them. Organize what you can change and what you can’t change. Get fresh air, exercise, and eat well. Or don’t for a day if that’s what you need to feel balanced. Your self-care is going to be unique to you and what helps you reset from exhaustion.

Reflect

There’s no right answer for navigating this uncertain time. The practice of reflecting can help consider what is working and should be continued or what is not working and needs to be adjusted. Take time to celebrate and linger in the successes. You’ll need this feeling of accomplishment to believe you can tackle the next hard thing.

There’s no doubt this experience is hard on all of us. But we don’t have to go through it alone. We are stronger together.

“This is difficult. There are no simple answers. There is pain and fear that would be easy to unload on others – but that would be unfair and out of integrity. We will walk through this in a way that makes us feel proud. It will be hard, but we will do it together.”

(Brene Brown, Dare to Lead, p. 105).

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