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Delores, a 2-year-old, arrives at her classroom with her mom, excited to see her classmates and teachers. Bethany, a substitute teacher, greets the pair at the door and tells them both teachers are out sick. Delores cries and refuses to go in the classroom.  


Why is it so hard for Delores to join the classroom?  

Delores is familiar with both teachers. The classmates she was looking forward to seeing are there. The toys and furniture are the same. Yet her reaction completely changed when she learned her teachers were gone. 


Changes to routine can be difficult for all of us, but young children are still mentally organizing the world according to patterns they notice. In child development, these patterns are often called schema. Understanding how the process of schema works can help us empathize with how difficult even small changes can be.  

The Stress of a Detour 

Think of driving to work or another familiar place (without GPS). This path is always the same, so driving it takes little active thought. If there is a detour one day, you will probably feel a bit stressed. You may have to turn off the radio to follow the detour. If you have experience with other roads that get you to the same place, the stress may be milder. If the area is less familiar — perhaps you have only worked at this location a few weeks — you will experience more stress. If halfway through the detour you recognize a familiar landmark, you may start to picture this new route in your head. 

In this example, the route you usually take is your schema. When the schema is disrupted, the image in your head does not match the reality. This cognitive dissonance also results in emotional distress.

You have to assimilate this new information to create a new mental image and then proceed. If you have GPS and can visualize this new route, you will also feel more in control. The degree of emotional distress depends on how much control you feel. The more familiar you are with other roads or other ways of achieving the goal, the more in control you can feel. 

The same is true for young children. Each part of their life is organized into schema, allowing them to picture what to expect. This gives them a sense of control. When there is a change, they lose that sense of control. Because of their age, they have less experience, so their schema is narrow. They also have fewer tools to regulate their emotions. This brings less sense of control and more emotional distress.  

We can help children through change in two ways. We can comfort their emotional distress and expand their schema by connecting what they already know to what they are learning.

How can we help? 

While it can be difficult as a parent to see your child upset, the good news is these experiences help children develop. Having a supportive adult during these times helps children become more resilient, learn ways to express emotions, expand their schema, and increase their ability to be flexible. Supporting children with small changes prepares them for facing big changes. 

We can help children through change in two ways. We can comfort their emotional distress and expand their schema by connecting what they already know to what they are learning.  

Here are ways to emotionally comfort a child: 

  • Offer hugs and reassurance. 
  • Validate their emotions. (“It can be a little scary when it’s a different teacher. But they will keep you safe, and I will pick you up at the same time.”) 
    • You don’t have to understand the emotion yourself. If your child is experiencing an emotion, it needs to be validated. 
    • With tweens and teenagers, you can validate their emotions with stories of your own experiences, but do not talk about how you solved the problem. Stick with the emotion the child is expressing. 
  • Use a transition item (e.g., a stuffed animal, family photo, or a personal item like your gloves).


Here are ways to help them understand what is happening. It is easier to do some of these strategies if you know about a change in advance: 

  • Tell children if there is a change before they encounter it. 
  • Use pictures or photos to show what to expect, such as photos of the substitutes. “Do you remember playing with Bethany last week?” 
  • If the change is long-term, show pictures after the first encounter with the new situation. For example, take pictures of your visit to a new school. “Do you remember what toys they have at the new school? Let’s look at the pictures.”  
  • Talk through what happened. 
  • Acknowledge the emotions the child had at the time, both positive and negative. “You were sad when I dropped you off at your new classroom. Later you had fun using the big blocks with Richard.” 
  • Visit a new place with them before they have to go alone (e.g., visit a new school together before the first day). 
  • Talk about what will change and what will be the same. 
    • “Your new school has toys just like your old school. I wonder what toys will be the same and what toys will be new?”
    • “When you started at that school, you didn’t know the other children, but then Carol and Murray became your friends. I wonder who you will meet at this new school.”
  • Help your child practice what they will do if the change becomes stressful.  
    • “When you’re worried, who can you ask for help?”  
    • “Can we bring a favorite toy to the party?” 

The stronger the schema, the easier it is for a child to assimilate new information. This is because the child is more confident and can better picture the situation. In the case of Delores, she relies so much on the teachers to keep her experience predictable. As she gets practice, it will be easier for her to accept that she still has a snack, for example, even if the substitute passed out drinks first instead of food.

There are some proactive steps you can take to foster the various schema your child is developing:

  • Because repetition strengthens schema (literally strengthens neural pathways), promote repetition. For example: 
    • Follow a daily routine. 
    • Allow children to repeat activities if they express interest. 
  • Focus on the sequence of events, rather than exact timing. For example, if you get an urgent phone call right before your child’s nap time, don’t skip reading a book so they still lie down at 12:30. Instead, read a short book, and then have them lie down. 
  • Help your child with their emotional expression, regardless of whether the problem seems big or small to you. The more practice they have regulating their emotions, the easier it will be for them to handle their emotions when change occurs. 
Comforting children and guiding them through these small changes prepares them for facing bigger changes....

Here are some of the changes most young children encounter: 

  • A change in schedule. 
  • A change in teachers or classrooms. 
  • A change in snacks or meals. 
  • A parent arriving home late or going out of town for work. 

Many of the changes young children experience can seem fairly small to adults. Comforting children and guiding them through these small changes prepares them for facing bigger changes (e.g., moving, death of a loved one, divorce, homelessness, etc.).   

Of course, bigger changes can happen any time. It can still help to understand schema and how children make sense of the world, but bigger changes can be more complex. And often, these changes also effect the adult’s emotional capacity. We will discuss this more in a future post. 



Read more blog posts by Mike Huber, Early Childhood Education Curriculum Specialist:

Adventurous Play

Scheduled Activities

Ana McRae, MSW LICSW brings over 10 years of experience in the field of children’s mental health and is passionate about working with children with developmental differences, supporting families, and collaborating with other professionals. Ana is currently Director of Inclusion, Curriculum and Quality for St. David’s Center’s Early Childhood Education Program, as well as a school-linked mental health consultant in Osseo School District’s Early Childhood programs.

Mike Huber, MAEd is the Curriculum Specialist for Early Childhood Education at St. David’s Center. He is the author of Inclusion Includes Us: Building Bridges and Removing Barriers in Early Childhood(Redleaf Press 2022) and Embracing Rough and Tumble Play: Teaching with the Body in Mind (Redleaf Press, 2016), as well as six picture books including The Amazing Erik (Redleaf Lane, 2014). He is the co-host of the podcast, Teaching with the Body in Mind, and a frequent guest on That Early Childhood Nerd.

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