Shawnee Mission Faces: Georgia Hopwood, early childhood educator and empty nester

For Georgia Hopwood, director of the Roeland Park Early Childhood Development Center, learning looks different now. But even during a global pandemic, the same life lessons and soft skills still apply: Cleanliness, respecting each other’s spaces, and caring for others.

A children’s and family therapist and early childhood instructor all her life, Hopwood earned her master’s in clinical psychology from Washburn University. Right now, she and three other staff members oversee the early learning of 19 children ages 3-5 in Roeland Park. 

In her spare time, the empty nester enjoys hiking and being in nature as well as cleaning and organizing. Her family has been to nearly every park in the Johnson County Park and Recreation District. 

She has two grown children, Ethan and Ellory Oleen. She lives with her husband, Duncan Hopwood, in Overland Park, and their two dogs, Dasher and Hope.

Literally, the kids know all about COVID. So I’ll say, OK how many feet do I have to step back? Six feet! (laughs)

Then we’ll practice with the masks you can see through a little bit so you can see the formation of the sounds. The th- sound, where does your tongue go?

The other thing is we work on social greetings, the appropriateness of a social greeting or starting conversations. And that obviously changed with COVID. We can do air high fives, we can do air hugs, we can blow a kiss. So it’s all of the different ways to say hi or to welcome somebody with being socially safe.

In the past, we always talked about the kids’ bubble. Everybody has personal space. Now it’s supposed to be bigger when we go different places.

We shut down at the end of March through the end of May. It was actually heartbreaking for the kids going to kindergarten ‘cause those kids didn’t get to finish anything. They didn’t have a proper graduation. It was a very quick cutoff.

I tried to Zoom with them just to let them see my face or talk to them. But we noticed that they were so starved for the affection and the comfort of being at school and having that connection with teachers and with their peers. It was really hard.

We had to figure out the new routine, new spacing for kids, how many kids could be at a table to do activities, when do we need to clean after that. Each kid now has their very own art box. We don’t share art supplies anymore.

It was definitely overwhelming. You felt like you not only had to think in the moment, but then also adjust as you saw things throughout the day, things that were working, were not working. It was continuous growth, continuous movement toward even healthier or even safer or even having the ultimate of oh my gosh that worked really, really well, so we need to redo that curriculum or that activity to make sure that it’s like this. It was constant assessment.

They’re so lovey. They so love the physical, whether it’s holding hands, to take me somewhere to show me something. Girls that would normally hold hands at recess, kids that would greet each other with hugs or say goodbye with hugs. It was really hard initially to try and explain that that love, the affirmation, the warm feelings, are still there, but we just have to express them in a different way.

I am so proud of them because here as adults, we are all struggling. Some are mad, some are angry, some are frustrated, some are bucking the system, some are very compliant, some are not so much, and it’s maybe an internal struggle for them. But these kids, I have been so impressed and so proud of them for adapting so very well.

They’ve been slammed in it, they came back to school with things being so very different and having bigger bubbles, and only two or three at a table instead of the cute six that they used to have, smaller groups that they could rotate with.

Today, we did an activity, and they were very much, OK go get your art box, and they all know. And one little girl very sweetly said today, Ms. Georgia, so-and-so couldn’t find her black crayon so I gave her my black crayon to borrow. Do I need to wash it? (laughs)

They don’t actually have to wear masks in our program. Once they get to elementary school at 5, they do. At the beginning, I’ll be honest, we probably had half of our kids wearing masks. But there are certain kids that always wear them.

Again, today, one little girl who is so sweet and little, at 3 years old, giggled because she said oops, forgot to put my mask away, when she was getting ready to have her snack. Again, it’s just that second nature, she knows to be clean and to keep things sanitary and safe. She knows what to do with her mask. Do my college kids adjust that well?

I would say that it is a very hopeful trait that will be with them to help them be adaptive in other conflicts, other challenges that arise in life. Because they have really had to change, this age range.

They have learned to use antibacterial gel, things that I don’t think any other generation has really had to learn. It really has been inspiring to watch these kids rise to a whole new group of challenges and handle them with such grace and not even be aware of what modifications they’ve had to make.

Hopefully we’ll get to decrease a little bit on mask wearing because that’s the part that seems to impact the kids the most. We miss seeing each other’s smiles. We all now wink! The kids have learned to wink, because sometimes they can’t see our smiles. A big phrase is, you see I’m smiling with my eyes? And so that way we want them to feel that warmth. This is where we’re starting their feeling about the educational system, and we want it to be warm and loving and supportive and creative and nurturing.

Agewise, they’re supposed to be very self-centered and me me me, but these kids do such a great job of looking outside themselves. We talk so much about the safety of others and being a school family and a community and keeping everybody safe and healthy. And I think it’s been a nice focus on we all work as a family, we all work as a team to keep each other safe. Kids are always saying bless you or do you need a tissue or praising each other when ooh you did good hand washing, they’re just all very encouraging. They really support each other. They look out for one another.