Updated: Nov 3, 2021
While the COVID-19 pandemic has killed millions and disrupted the mental and physical health of many millions more, people hold on to the hope of an eventual return to a pre-pandemic way of life rather than a ‘new normal.’ However, for an entire generation of children, the pandemic has the potential to permanently interrupt their social, emotional, and cognitive development. These “Toddlers of COVID-19” have become so accustomed to a lack of social interaction that 2-year old Alice McGraw, upon seeing a family walking towards her family on the street, exclaimed, “Uh oh, people.” Another similarly isolated 15- month-old infant, Rhys, began to wave at the babies in a calendar in his room during the course of the pandemic while remaining unable to interact with peers . The lack of peer-to-peer interaction for children in this age range is detrimental to their overall development. As a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many children lack the appropriate pro-social behaviors for their age (e.g. sharing, ‘give and take behaviors,’ verbal and nonverbal cues), and other essential language and cognitive skills. Many of these fundamental developments reinforce each other as the act of sharing in children has even been found to help “build structure and connectivity in the brain” at this age .
While childhood development professionals reassuringly state that the majority of young children will likely still be well-accustomed for their age, this lack of interaction has placed yet another stressor on already-struggling caregivers during the pandemic. Due to a variety of new financial, physical, mental, and childcare-related stressors, many parents lack the patience and care they would have under ordinary circumstances; some have become much more irritable and likely to ‘snap’ at their children while others have simply had little ability to entertain cognitively stimulating interactions with their children . Furthermore, as Dr. Rashmita Mistry states, the socio-emotional and cognitive consequences of lacking these interactions are likely to disproportionately and negatively impact low-income children; while access to early childhood childcare programming has been shown to decrease achievement gaps between high and low-income families, falling behind in this regard due to the pandemic (due to shutdowns in programs or changes in parents’ financial status) puts low-income children at a disadvantage when starting school later. Rather than catching up by attending a school with better resources, these children become stuck in a ‘cascade,’ where being unable to overcome these disadvantages early on in their life makes it much more difficult to compensate for them later on . As such, several specialists argue against the idea that “children will bounce back” after the pandemic, and that greater investment in the mental, socio-emotional, and academic wellbeing of children will offset the negative effects of the pandemic, especially for vulnerable populations . Therefore, the pandemic has disrupted the social, emotional, and cognitive development of young children across the globe, with the potential to permanently affecting this psychosocial development and the overall life chances, especially for already-vulnerable populations such as low-income children, children from single-parent families, children with special educational needs, and more .
Furthermore, the pandemic-caused lack of peer-peer interactions has grim implications for school-aged children who are more influenced by and rely more on such interactions than extremely young children. Several global studies have focused on the development of school-aged children during the pandemic, as they were kept at home for upwards of a year, with multiple findings. A study from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that 14% of surveyed parents reported worsening behavioral health in their children, which often occurred with worsening mental health in parents, loss of regular childcare, change in insurance coverage status, and worsening food security . Furthermore, a study in Germany found that 71% of children and adolescents were burdened by COVID-19 restrictions, 65% found school to be more exhausting than pre-pandemic, 27% reported more arguments and more argument escalation, and 39% of them experienced deteriorating relationships with friends . Several other disheartening statistics, such as decreasing prosocial behaviors and increasing conduct and peer problems, were only replicated in similar national and international studies .
While the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people of all ages has been significant, its impact on both extremely young and school-aged children needs to be continually investigated and requires more investment on a national level in order to offset the developmental delays that have already been seen as a result of the pandemic. Unless properly addressed by policy, education, and mental health initiatives, these issues will continue to exist and magnify, especially in vulnerable populations.
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