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Can we change the long-term impact of the pandemic on young minds?

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Little Lockdowners: born into a pandemic – what are the possible long-term impacts on early years children?

Reading Time: 6 minutes

As the world continues to recover from the pandemic, educators are trying to understand how they need to adapt.

Will some ‘Little Lockdowners’ reap the benefits of additional quality time while others face
the impacts of social isolation and unusually high-stress environments?

While it’s impossible to determine how infants born during the pandemic could be affected in the long term, we know that formative early years experiences shape brain development and decision-making patterns.

In many cases, those children have not had the opportunity to explore, socialise, and develop vital skills in nurseries or playgroups, all of which will have an impact throughout school and the rest of their lives.

To discover more about how the impact of a pandemic may shape the brains and behaviour
of early years children, we have explored the topic with a range of global experts. Read on to
hear their exclusive insights.

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Emotional wellbeing and anxiety 

Much has been written about the mental health toll of the pandemic – it’s estimated that the pandemic and consequent lockdowns triggered a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide. More children in their very earliest years have now spent time with parents who are very tense.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) such as violence, abuse, and growing up in a family with mental health or substance use problems increased during the pandemic. Alcohol consumption increased, and so too did all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence. The impact of ACEs can change brain development, affect how the body responds to stress and is also linked to chronic health problems like heart disease and obesity, mental illness, and substance misuse in adulthood.

Infant development specialist, Dr Suzanne Zeedyk, believes that stress can begin to have an impact even before a baby is born. She says: “They arrive with a brain that is already wired to expect particular voices and knowing whether those voices laugh and sing, or whether they shout and cry. Children are sensitive to that tension and it changes them biologically.”

The knock-on effects of stress in young children can cause developmental delays, concentration issues and more distressed behaviour and self-regulation issues, which in turn puts pressure on early years staff to manage dysregulated behaviour.

Dr Zeedyk explains that understanding this behaviour is key to helping children. “If schools don’t understand where the behaviour is coming from, they sometimes punish children and go into ‘control mode’. And when you try to control children for bad behaviour, all that does is create more conflict.”

The pandemic also saw changes to nursery drop-offs, where parents weren’t allowed inside, which further reduced person-to-person contact – something that Dr Zeedyk believes is hugely problematic. “These children only knew their parents, because they were born during the pandemic – and now they are being dropped off with a stranger, which is scary to them,” she says.

“We’ve made the transition into early years scarier. I hear nurseries saying they think it might be better; that the children aren’t kicking off in the same way that they were. But if they’re frightened, they may be going into freeze mode, which leads human beings to dissociation and overwhelm. I think it’s possible that we have a lot more children who are dissociating.”

Communication and human connection

Stress not only feeds directly into children but can also have an impact on how caregivers communicate with children. When you are a stressed or depressed parent or caregiver, it can be hard to find the time, let alone the energy or interest, to talk to and play with your infant.

Early childhood educator and author of The Importance of Being Little, Erika Christakis, believes we should focus on the basic principles of human development, one of which is how young children learn through relationships.

“The serve and return style of communication is how babies and adults interact – it’s a back and forth, like in a tennis match. When babies feel responded to they start listening more.
There’s an attunement when a caregiver can put their stresses aside and be in the moment with their child, there’s this wonderful feedback loop and that is how language develops and how our brains grow.

If you’ve got people who are stressed and burned out, how does that affect how we communicate? Some of these patterns and stress responses can impede relationships, and that impedes social-emotional development, and I would argue cognitive development too.”

While children also learn through active hands-on experimentation, Erika concedes putting that into practice in an educational setting can be tricky if it requires changing the status quo.

“There are a lot of people who really believe in child development principles, but they feel so trapped and caught on a treadmill of expectations. If you’re an educator or a parent without the support of a community, it’s very hard to get off that treadmill. Improving childhood requires looking at all of the factors affecting young children – not just at the individual family level or at the individual school level.”

Hands-on learning doesn’t always have to take up lots of time and effort. If you’ve ever experienced an infant who’s more interested in playing with a cardboard box than the toy that arrived in it – have you ever wondered why?

“Open-ended play materials generate more creativity, and they actually boost language development,” Erika says. “We need to get away from this idea that children have to make things every day, where if a child doesn’t go home with something tangible to put on the refrigerator that somehow we failed them. There are ways for teachers to reflect on how their own practices are creating stress, not only for the children but for themselves.”

School readiness

Preparing young children with key skills and competence for starting school is a critical element of their development. Some studies have found that babies born during the pandemic score lower in gross motor, fine motor, and social-emotional development than babies born before the pandemic.

Professor of Psychological Intervention and Behaviour Change, David Daley, believes the pandemic has increased the number of children who are not ‘school ready’.

David explains: “There’s reasonably good evidence to suggest that the children are going to be entering the foundation phase with poorer social, emotional, cognitive skills and behaviour.

Key skills like planning, working memory, and inhibitory control, may not be as refined and embedded by the time children get into foundation, which means we could have a cohort of children more likely to act without thinking.

David says: “More children might display symptoms of ADHD, not necessarily because they are at risk of ADHD, but because they are exhibiting some of the underlying profiles of forgetfulness, distractibility, impulsivity, by not being able to inhibit their behaviours.

“I talk about ADHD and all of the negative outcomes from having not been school-ready, but a lot of problems with ADHD come from people having unrealistic expectations of ability based on chronological age rather than on developmental age and ability.

“The way teaching and learning is pitched and activities are presented and expectations around behaviour and self-directed learning are probably going to be different.”

Meeting the needs of children who have far-ranging experiences in their formative years requires educators to adapt. Rethinking teaching practices may be possible for those with a flexible teaching style and manageable workloads, but perhaps less so for newly qualified teachers and those already overburdened and experiencing burnout. Any changes need to be carefully managed to avoid further contributing to massive staff shortages affecting schools.

Can we feel positively about the future of ‘Little Lockdowners’?

There are ripple effects that will likely trickle down and impact those children born into a pandemic, but with the right support, safe environments and structure, positive change is possible. While children are very vulnerable, with the right interventions to address trauma they can be extremely resilient.

David is firmly focused on a bright future. “I think we have to feel positive because children are our future. I believe these children probably will experience global catch up – probably somewhere between the middle of primary school and secondary school.

“With strong collaborative efforts across knowledge experts, caregivers and educators, I think we can iron out a lot of the developmental problems that would result from lockdown.”

To prevent a lost decade for today’s children which will be felt by all of us everywhere, we must rally, unite and grasp the opportunity to respond, recover and reimagine their futures. 

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