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25 February 2022

Understanding the long-term effects of the pandemic on young children

Parents and teachers have noticed increased anxiety and delays in development in children under five, but the extent of the problem is still revealing itself.

By Rebecca White

In March 2020, when the UK went into its first Covid-19 lockdown, my two-year-old son became obsessed with flags and maps. When he felt anxious he would draw flag patterns on his tummy, and he was reluctant to play any games that weren’t flag-related. 

As schools, nurseries and colleges around the UK were closed to all but vulnerable children and the children of key workers, my partner and I set about home-schooling our six-year-old while working from home ourselves. At first, my toddler seemed OK. It was only after a few weeks that I began to notice his fixation was becoming obsessive. On a Zoom call with his nursery teacher he responded only with country names.

“Have you been playing with your brother today?”

“Belize! Chile! Bhutan!”

I was worried.

After speaking with his nursery, I understood this was his way of asserting control and dealing with the anxiety he was experiencing over lockdown.

His reaction was not unusual. Sarah Botting, an early years practitioner, told me that she noticed some of the toddlers she worked with were less independent and more clingy and withdrawn, particularly those born at the time of the first lockdown. “Their whole life experience has been in a pandemic. For the first three months of their life, they probably weren’t even touched by someone who wasn’t their primary caregiver.”

Rosie Storr, a teacher at Chelwood Nursery School in south-east London, described how the children she taught had invented a new version of tag called “Captain Covid”, in which one child is picked to be the virus and the others try not to get caught. 

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The effects of the pandemic, and lockdown in particular, on school-aged children are well documented. The government has invested billions to make up for this “learning loss” in the form of the National Tutoring Programme. But what about those who were not yet at school? Experts, teachers and parents have noticed significant effects in under-fives: hyper-vigilance, increased separation anxiety, relapses in toilet training, delays in physical development (such as balance and spatial awareness) and executive function (such as self-control and problem solving).

Einat’s daughter Leah was two when the first lockdown started. She said that Leah’s separation anxiety quickly became extreme. “My husband and I were anxious, constantly looking at the news, the numbers,” she said. “The more space I needed, the needier she became.”

Jas is still seeing the effects on her son, who is now five, two years on. “Sam is very volcanic with us. He shouts and is physical when he gets angry far more than his big brother ever did,” she said. Jas can’t say how much is down to nature or nurture, but she still feels guilty about how stressful she found working from home, and how that affected her son.

Government data shows that in 2020-2021, fewer children aged between two and two and a half were meeting or exceeding expected levels of development than in the same period in 2019-2020. As Paul Ramchandani, Lego professor of play in education, development and learning at Cambridge University, told me, these younger children have missed out on important opportunities to develop social relationships with peers, to play and interact. These interactions underpin a lot of learning at this age.” 

It is widely recognised that the early years are the most crucial stage of child development. In June 2021 the government pledged to invest £153 million over three years in training for early years staff to help the youngest children “recover from the effects of the pandemic”. An extra £10 million is going towards supporting the most disadvantaged children with language and literacy in England.  

This is welcome, but according to the Early Years Alliance, at just 3 per cent of total education recovery spending, it’s not enough. Many childcare providers are at risk of closure due to financial hardship. In May 2021, the Early Years Alliance highlighted that the total number of childcare providers in England fell by almost 2,000 from December 2020 to March 2021. Nursery attendance has still not recovered to pre-pandemic levels, especially in more disadvantaged areas.

Some experts are calling for a review of early years care as a whole, which the Nuffield Foundation, the social policy think tank, has described as “a dysfunctional market failing those that need it most”. Affordability is a critical issue: at present government funding does not meet the true cost of nursery provision for funded places, the foundation says, with nurseries often having to pass the extra cost onto parents.

There is also concern that the government’s interventions are too narrowly focused on academic targets. Kathy Sylva, professor of educational psychology at the University of Oxford, believes that attention should be paid to emotional and social development as opposed to solely a cognitive catch-up”. 

In adopting a recovery curriculum, Chelwood Nursery School is doing just that. Amanda Furtado, the acting head teacher, said it was having a positive effect. “The children have amazed us with their strength and resilience. But they have still experienced significant trauma and I think we ignore that at our peril.” 

Prioritising early years means focusing on a child’s environment more widely, from conception onwards, in the home and outside. That’s why the government should invest in “building the evidence on how to provide holistic support to children and families that takes account of their full developmental needs”, said Tom McBride, director of evidence at the Early Intervention Foundation, a charity. “In our view, this should include providing support to first-time parents, high-quality and intensive home visiting support between birth and age two, and supporting children’s early language development.” 

It seems the government is beginning to accept this. In March 2021 the government published a review by Andrea Leadsom covering the first “1,001 critical days from conception to age 2”, which recommended key areas for improvement. A £500 million package for families announced in October’s spending review includes about £80 million for 75 new “family hubs” in England — effectively rebranded Sure Start children’s centres. However, according to the Women’s Budget Group, which analyses government spending, this “won’t fill the void left by the closure of more than 1,000 children’s centres between 2009 and 2018/19”. 

A spokesperson from the Department for Education told the New Statesman: “We recognise that the early years of a child’s life are the most crucial, which is why we’re investing millions in early years recovery over the next three years, including programmes focused on improving children’s speech, language and communication skills in Reception year, alongside better training and support for staff working with pre-school children.” 

Whichever approach the government takes, children must be at the heart of the Covid recovery, and therefore so must early years care and education. No one knows exactly what long-term impact the pandemic is likely to have on children’s development. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds will undoubtedly bear the brunt, as they always do: inequalities in early years have existed for a long time. Can we afford to miss this opportunity to address them while we plan our Covid recovery? 

When I asked Sylva about my son, now aged four, she said that he would “almost certainly cope”, given the resources we have as a family and the quality of local nursery provision. I told my son I was writing this article. After telling me he wanted “the virus to go away” he asked, “Mummy, what is Covid?” Despite the fact he can’t remember life before the pandemic, he still views it as an abstract threat. 

I couldn’t be more grateful for my son’s nursery. The high-quality care and education he’s received has helped him — and his parents — to navigate his early childhood in the strangest and most challenging of times. Surely every child should have the same support.

Some names have been changed.

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