The long and painful Covid-19 pandemic has hurt the mental health of most everyone, but Katrina Eirinberg has been focusing on helping local families with young children.

Rare Quad-Cities Child-Care Therapist Helps Kids, Families Cope With Covid

A teacher helps a child write at the Davenport Skip-a-Long Center.

She is the mental health therapist (and a licensed clinical professional counselor) for SAL Family & Community Services, home to Skip-a-Long Child Development Services. Children, without the ability to fully grasp what’s happened over the past year, can only feel that things have changed — and often, those feelings spark anxiety and fear, Eirinberg said Tuesday.

“With the pandemic, we’ve had to create a whole new support system to promote social and emotional skill development,” she said. “Since parents haven’t been able to come into our classrooms, we’ve had to take extra steps to ensure children feel secure.”

“One thing children really need to have is structure and routine to feel safe,” Eirinberg (who’s worked for SAL since 2014) said. “At the start of the pandemic, there were so many changes. They had to stay at home,

Rare Quad-Cities Child-Care Therapist Helps Kids, Families Cope With Covid

Katrina Eirinberg is a mental health therapist for Skip-a-Long child development centers.

had to wear masks, couldn’t play with friends. That really created a lot of anxiety for the children.

“What we know, children can be resilient, and are advanced if they have information,” she said. “With the pandemic, none of us had any information at the beginning. Parents didn’t have information for the children to feel safe and that really made it difficult.

“Another thing we saw was a lot of separation anxiety; Covid increased and intensified the amount of cases we were seeing. When they started to come back, that was another change, and we started to do things differently. They got back into routine, and structure, and they were able to relax.”

“Families went back to work, kids went back to school, and those adjustments were difficult,” Eirinberg said of transitioning for kids back to child care. “Change is really hard for kids, and we’ve learned that it’s so imperative for us to help them through that.”

Especially when they started to bring children back, “there was a lot of crying, when you have to take children from the parents,” she said. “There was a piece of reassuring parents, a lot of times, when the kids got into the classroom, everything was fine. We’d tell parents that if you want to call during the day, call and see how they’re doing.

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“That piece was helpful for parents — there was a level of guilt for parents when they’d have to take children because they have to go to work.”

Rare Quad-Cities Child-Care Therapist Helps Kids, Families Cope With Covid

Marcy Mendenhall is president/CEO of SAL Family and Community Services.

Before coming to Skip-a-Long, Eirinberg worked at Lutheran Social Services, mainly as a Galesburg-based therapist. Skip-a-Long is only one of three child-care centers in Illinois that has a mental-health therapist, and the only one in the Q-C area, she noted.

“I think people really don’t realize how rare it is to have a mental health therapist in a center,” Eirinberg said. “We started the program in June 2014 when I started and we built the program from scratch. What’s so important about this is from a developmental perspective, the brain develops rapidly in the first five years of life — so it’s really critical to teach these children emotional skills in their early years when that brain is developing.

“It enhances the learning process,” she said. “So social/emotional skills, which include emotions and making friends, the research shows that when these skills are implemented, children are more prepared for kindergarten, but really life in general, right? So that’s one of my biggest job requirements, to bring the children social/emotional skills.”

SAL works to ensure that every child can succeed in school and in life, and every adult has access to basic human needs like food, counseling, health services, and housing. In late March 2021, they announced that Skip-a-Long will be home to a new Early Head Start Child Care Partnership program.

Rare Quad-Cities Child-Care Therapist Helps Kids, Families Cope With Covid

Skip-a-Long has child development centers in Moline, Rock Island, Milan and Davenport.

During the pandemic, SAL has worked tirelessly to support children and families, initiating efforts that far exceed mere safety protocols — and developing solutions that keep children feeling safe both physically and emotionally.

“SAL has always been deeply committed to children and families, and it’s taken the hard work and flexibility of our entire organization to ensure that our mission continued throughout the pandemic,” said Marcy Mendenhall, president/CEO of SAL.

SAL has been able to provide uninterrupted care to children and families, albeit with slight adjustments to their methods.

Those extra steps have taken the form of increased activities, closer collaboration with teachers to ensure children are getting what they need, and constant communication with parents.

“We’ve worked closely with our teachers over the past year to develop activities that speak to our changing times,” Eirinberg said. “Many of the activities we’ve developed and implemented are focused on eliciting positive emotions. If children feel positive, they’re able to reason better and more clearly understand what’s happening around them.”

 Challenges working remotely

Since she can’t be in person at the centers (Skip-a-Long is in Moline, Rock Island, Milan and Davenport), to help children adapt to changes over the past 14 months, Eirinberg has made it a point to check-in regularly via Zoom with teachers, parents, and the children. She schedules monthly “story time” readings online, which have proven to be both well-attended and an important part of connecting with kids and

Rare Quad-Cities Child-Care Therapist Helps Kids, Families Cope With Covid

A child “checks” the teacher’s temperature during playtime at the Davenport Skip-a-Long Center.

families.

“Throughout this time, we’ve learned so much as a community about taking care of kids, and especially about their sensitivity to change and need for routine,” Eirinberg said. “I’m so thankful to have the resources at SAL to continue supporting these kids, and implementing skill-building despite the challenges we’re facing.

“In any environment, if we can create structure and routine for kids, they are able to anticipate what’s coming next and feel a sense of safety. That, of course, reduces anxiety and any behavioral problems that may come along with it.”

“Pre-Covid, I was actually able to go into the classrooms, developed weekly social/emotional activities, and presented that with the children, while building relationships,” she said. “Since Covid, we’re not allowed

Rare Quad-Cities Child-Care Therapist Helps Kids, Families Cope With Covid

A teacher feeds an infant at the Davenport Skip-a-Long Center

into the classrooms, and I had to become pretty creative in how to continue to deliver those lessons.

“I do a lot of pre-planning activities, getting supplies, deliver them to the classrooms, and teachers have to implement the activities,” Eirinberg said. “At this age, self-regulation is key. One thing we develop is breathing activities, to help self-regulate, I always say, I have the best job ever.”

And before Covid, it was also a lot easier when parents could come into the centers and drop their kids off, she said.

“Now with Covid, parents aren’t allowed into the building. You just have to be really creative — communication is key, you ask yourself how to do that,” Eirinberg said. “The important thing is we have to find way to keep communication open with parents.”

Though she works in the Moline center at 4800 60th St. (which is licensed for 200 children), the therapist – like other non-teaching staff – isn’t allowed in the classroom to limit potential Covid exposure.

“I’m going through heavy withdrawals; the children become part of my soul,” Eirinberg said. “It’s been really difficult for me, why I really tried to keep that relationship up through Zoom. Early on, I helped run children to their classrooms, still able to see them, interact with them. I still try to find ways to safely maintain that relationship.”

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She sometimes will meet teachers outside the classroom and most staff have been vaccinated against Covid.

Rare Quad-Cities Child-Care Therapist Helps Kids, Families Cope With Covid

A teacher and child build with blocks at the Davenport Skip-a-Long Center

“I think the greatest challenge is, we had to try to maintain normalcy in an abnormal world, most people hadn’t experienced before,” Eirinberg said. “Children need that structure and routine to feel safe, so what can happen next?

“I know when children receive information they need, develop strong connections with staff in the room, they maintain that connection, validating how they’re feeling,” she said. “That strong connection with problem-solving really acts as a catalyst to be successful. They can continue to learn in that environment.

“I really believe we’ve achieved this at Skip-a-Long during the pandemic,” Eirinberg said. “We can see the children are adapting and learning and being successful.”

Like many adults, getting used to wearing face masks also was hard for some kids (required by SAL for those age 2 and up; they serve newborns through 5-year-olds), she noted.

“It can be scary to them, they can’t see a person’s face, they can’t see emotions,” Eirinberg said. “I was pretty pleasantly surprised that it didn’t take long — it became normal, now we just have to do this. Most children didn’t fight it.

“Some initially didn’t want to do it at first, but day after day, not just when they came to day care, but at grocery stores, it was like a piece of clothing to them,” she said. “It becomes part of their new routine. We did a lot of activities on germs, what those are like. We practiced putting on masks, taking off masks. Those things helped — we have to wash our hands, wear our mask so we won’t get sick.”

Focusing on social/emotional learning for all

Though the country — and the Quad-Cities region — may be seeing a light at the end of the tunnel of this pandemic, Eirinberg, Mendenhall, and the rest of the SAL team is remaining vigilant — monitoring children’s behavior, emotions, social interactions, and consistently adapting

Rare Quad-Cities Child-Care Therapist Helps Kids, Families Cope With Covid

A teacher reads to a child at the Moline Skip-a-Long Center.

to new ways of supporting them.

This will help others along their own journey in supporting the children.

“At SAL, we’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘What do we need to deliver to families and teachers in order to most effectively care for the children?’” said Eirinberg. “This is truly important work, and my only hope for the future is that mental health therapists become more prominent in early childhood care facilities, because that’s being overlooked.

“If we can address social, emotional, and behavioral skills with children early on, they are going to be more successful in school and in life,” she said. “There’s more focus going into the infant

Rare Quad-Cities Child-Care Therapist Helps Kids, Families Cope With Covid

Staff play with kids at the Davenport Skip-a-Long Center.

and early child-care background, and we’re just starting to see this bubble up. Covid has probably helped with that, and mental health is important to help with it.

“The sooner we help, the better,” Eirinberg said, noting it’s standard for K-12 schools to have counselors on staff, but not pre-K schools and centers.

“It was this idea how social and emotional skills have to be developed. When developed at an early age, research will show they’re able to communicate those skills we all need into the school age and to develop as adults.”

“It’s based on safety, connection and problem-solving to help kids develop skills,” she said. “We help build those skills; they’re not born with them.”

“The key point is that birth to age 5 is when that development starts, that’s when they learn,” Eirinberg said. “They say with foreign language, teach them when they’re young, because they grab hold of that information faster. The longer we wait, the harder it becomes to overcome that obstacle.”

That’s equally true for social and emotional learning, to prepare kids to be ready to learn in kindergarten, she said.

“Once they have those social and emotional skills, they’re able to do academic learning,” Eirinberg said. “If they can’t self-regulate, if they can’t sit long enough, pay attention, that affects their learning when we talk about education. These skills are really imperative.”

For more information on Skip-a-Long Child Development Services, visit http://www.skip-a-long.org/.

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Rare Quad-Cities Child-Care Therapist Helps Kids, Families Cope With Covid
Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.