Did the Pandemic Slow My Child's Development? Here's What Experts Say
Some experts say many children are behind in their social and emotional development following virtual school, social distancing and quarantining.
If your child is in kindergarten, first or second grade, they have never experienced a normal school year — one without virtual days, quarantines, cohorting pods, social distancing and other COVID-19 safety protocols. They don’t know a world where going to school in person each day is a given.
As a result, some experts say many children are behind in their social and emotional development. In the first and second grade, kids are struggling with basic skills they’d typically learn in preschool and kindergarten, like taking turns, working in groups, keeping their hands to themselves, sitting quietly for a period of time, standing in line or unpacking their backpack on their own.
“Since the pandemic, I've noticed a lot of regression in kids,” said Amy Arriaga, a pre-K teacher at Fort Worth Independent School District’s Mendoza Elementary. “They have regressed to like they are at 2 or 3 years old and not 4 and 5. I’ve noticed an increase in separation anxiety. Now that we’re starting to go back to normal somewhat and mom and dad say you have to go to school, kids are like, ‘but you’re not going to go with me?’ I’ve also noticed more aggressive behavior and not being able to keep their hands to themselves.”
There’s also been a loss in the mastery of fine motor skills, according to Arriaga. She said most kids used to start pre-K with some basic skills, like how to properly hold a crayon and recognition of some shapes, letters and numbers. That’s not the case this school year.
Teasha-lee Frattarelli, D.O., is a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Cook Children’s Child Study Center. She said what teachers are likely seeing is a lack of typical or normal progression of pre-K students due to fewer opportunities to experience and practice their pre-academic skills, social skills and emotional self-regulation skills with peers and teachers outside of their family.
“I don’t think the children are regressing with their skills,” Dr. Frattarelli said. “It is actually a lack of progression that teachers are reporting which is likely due to the unprecedented experience during the pandemic, particularly when isolated with their family without an opportunity to attend school or daycare in person.”
The early years of education are the ones where kids get hands-on experience with life lessons that shape their social skills. What might look like play and entertainment to the untrained eye, be it in the classroom or on the playground, is actually reinforcing behavioral expectations, healthy relationships and emotional regulation in a way that appeals to kids.
Playing together in centers teaches little ones how to share, work together and relate to each other. A game of Mother May I challenges kids to listen and follow directions. Storytime on the carpet helps busy little ones learn to sit quietly and process what they are hearing.
“Teachers teach those behavioral expectations,” said Kathleen Kyzar, Ph.D., associate professor of early childhood education at Texas Christian University’s College of Education. “What does it look like to stand in line? What does it not look like to stand in line? What does it look like to have to sit in our seat appropriately? What does it not look like? Now we’re going to practice that. We’re going to teach you explicitly what we expect of you when you’re in school.”
Mastering social and emotional skills is as important to a child’s foundation and future as reading, writing and arithmetic. There is research-based evidence that positive social skills promote positive academic skills, according to Kyzar.
But the pandemic disrupted all of that and now teachers and parents are playing catch up to help kids reach their social and emotional milestones.
“I would say the pandemic has definitely taken people off of their typical developmental trajectory,” said Casey Call, Ph.D., LPC, associate director of professional practice and associate director of education at TCU’s Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development. “In intervening with children there are two big areas that we focus on. One is building healthy relationships and the other is practicing regulation. The students who haven’t been in a classroom consistently or had any early childhood education have the potential to really get off of their developmental trajectory in these two skills.”
Regulation is the ability of a child to adjust, manage and cope with their environment and situation. As babies, they solely rely on their parents to regulate their environment for them. Eventually, they’re able to point to a blanket if they’re cold and then rely on someone else to give it to them. That’s called co-regulation. In time, they can self-regulate and get up to get the blanket and cover themselves with it.
It’s the co-regulation and self-regulation pieces that some kids are lacking because those are the pieces that require teaching, mentoring and practice. But young children haven’t had consistent opportunities to practice those things outside of their homes and in situations with others where they must manage big emotions and big behaviors. Those immature relationships and regulation skills are evident in many early childhood and elementary classrooms today.
“Early childhood teachers are setting the stage for understanding one’s emotions and being able to regulate behavior,” Dr. Kyzar said. “So engaging in turn-taking so that we understand that it’s my turn now and then it’s going to be my friend’s turn and I need to wait. Those are skills that are setting them up for academic learning later on and being resilient, listening to each other, and learning to problem-solve.”
For kids, consistency is key. It plays a huge role in their feeling of security. Kids who feel safe and secure are less anxious, better able to focus and have more energy to spend on learning. Consistent classroom routines set the stage for learning. Preschool and kindergarten teachers usually spend the first half of the year just going over classroom routines. Once those routines are in place, learning can begin. But with so many stops and starts to the school year, teachers have had to start again, and again, and again in teaching routines and acceptable behavior just to get kids ready to learn.
That’s why it’s so important to reinforce these activities at home. Practicing, modeling and reinforcing social and emotional skills at home — taking turns, keeping emotions in check during conflict, listening well, following instructions, being patient — can help set kids up for success in school and in life.
The good news is that helping kids get back on their developmental track with these skills doesn’t have to be complicated. Kids engage, speak, process and learn through play. Fun is their universal language. When they’re playing and having fun, they’re also practicing important life skills. For example, a game like Simon Says reinforces regulation while players listen, wait and think about their response. And as you play with your child — or cook with them, take a walk with them or participate in any activity they enjoy — you’re modeling what a safe and nurturing relationship looks like.
“I think the stress that parents have been feeling has been really overwhelming,” Dr. Call said. “With everything they have on their to-do lists sometimes parents can spend all of their time on structure, things like setting and enforcing rules, correcting behavior, and making sure school work is complete, while the nurture, or the joy and play, gets pushed down to the bottom of their list. When stress is high, we need to make it a priority to balance nurture and structure.”
Parents, teachers and kids will inevitably play catch up on meeting these social and emotional milestones in the months and years ahead, and time will tell the depth and breadth of developmental and learning loss due to the pandemic. If your child is struggling with social skills and regulating their emotions, set aside a little time for some fun. If you feel they are particularly behind or struggling to cope, talk to their teacher or pediatrician for guidance and help.
Playing Is Learning
Investing in playtime with your kid can be just as important to their developmental success as reading with them every night. What kids learn and do in play, they can put into practice in real life. Here are a few ideas to help you sneak in a few life lessons while having a little fun with your little one. They’ll think they are playing, but you’ll know they are learning.
Board games: Teaches taking turns, delayed gratification, following instructions and sportsmanship.
Charades: Models teamwork, recognizing social cues and reading body language.
Connect Four/Checkers/Chess: Reinforces flexible thinking, problem-solving and managing frustration.
Timed games, e.g. Perfection: Practices staying calm under pressure and managing anticipation and stress.
Nature Walks: Makes one observant to reinforce situational awareness.
Staring contest: Practice eye contact and focus.
Gardening: Builds nurturing skills.
Team or recreational sports: Teaches sportsmanship and teamwork
Pretend Play/Roleplaying (pretending to be bakers while cooking with your child, pretending to be a doctor, etc.): Builds relationship skills and independence, and teaches kids how to care for others and themselves.
Drawing (Make it extra fun by drawing your self-portraits on a mirror, or drawing happy, sad, mad, surprised faces.): Helps kids to recognize and name their emotions.