Impact of the pandemic on childhood development
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in enormous changes to education throughout the world. As a result of massive and large scale precautions and policies put in place to quell the spread of the disease, 1.5 billion learners in 165 countries, nearly 90% of the world’s student population have had their learning experiences disrupted.
According to a UNICEF research brief, 40 million children missed out on early education in their critical pre-school year due to Covid-19, which by no means is a small number and has potential implications for the future. Jaime Saavdera, the Global Director for Education at World Bank has described it as the “largest simultaneous shock to all education systems in our lifetimes.”
Specifically in terms of early childhood education, this health crisis has precipitated considerable unprecedented changes in the lives of young children. The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed the early childhood system to the verge of collapse by disrupting the lives of children, their families but also childcare services and early childhood teacher education and training.
Strictly speaking, scientific evidence suggests that Covid-19 is not a children’s disease and by and large children are spared the brunt of the disease, with mortality rates being very low, but if we are to consider all aspects of childhood development, the ripple effects taken to mitigate the pandemic are now being felt on children. This pandemic has resulted in suspending normal childhood activities like interacting with extended families and grandparents, attending school, meeting and playing outdoor with friends as well as the constant and repeated messages of social distancing, hand washing, and the sanitization of usable surfaces.
Inequality and the misdistribution of wealth and resources has also exposed a profound socio-emotional dimension of the disease which makes young children the most vulnerable group among the population, especially those who are living in poverty, have chronic illnesses, disabilities, food insecurity and those living in remote areas.
Hence, it wont be wrong to assume that both the immediate as well as long term negative impacts of the virus on children’s developmental, emotional and psychological health are more likely to disproportionately affect families who are at the lower rung of the socio-economic ladder. These include communities with higher concentrations of poverty and malnutrition, and families with lack of access to quality healthcare as well as those with limited family support.
Children from poorer households, where there is a lack of access to developmentally appropriate learning materials like books and toys and digital learning tools are ending up with low levels of mental stimulation for a prolonged period of time.
The disruptions to everyday life means that many young children are at home unable to attend their schools and are now entirely reliant on their parents and caregivers to meet all their developmental needs, i.e. physical, emotional, social and cognitive.
This is putting pressure on parents who have to juggle between childcare as well as their work-from-home responsibilities. Living rooms across the world have been converted to offices and home schools, with designated spaces around the dinning table for the office as well as the online school, creating in most cases a stressful and sometimes toxic home environment fraught with anxieties.
During childhood, optimal brain development requires an enriching and stimulating learning environment along with social interactions, proper and adequate nutrition and attentive caregivers. As a result of the pandemic, access to all of the above is severely restricted resulting in an impairment of the healthy developmental trajectory for children around the world.
A prolonged lack of educational opportunities coupled with a lack of social interactions during the early years could potentially lead to irreversible outcomes on a child’s developmental milestones.
According to UNICEF’s Executive Director: “Childcare and early childhood education build a foundation upon which every aspect of children’s development relies. The pandemic is putting that foundation under serious threat.”
Mitigating the negative impacts of Covid-19 on young children requires a strategic, multi-sectoral approach as well as synergistic interventions in health, nutrition, security, protection, and early education.
Policy makers will have to devise plans for future scenarios and an evidence based approach needs to be adopted in order to meet the challenges of early year education and development, which seems to be lacking at the moment where the government is not prioritizing the developmental indicators of children while formulating policies to mitigate the spread of the infection.
Special attention is required to highlight inequities and vulnerabilities that are responsible for undermining children from reaching their full developmental potentials.
“Families need support from their governments and their employers to weather this storm and safeguard their children’s learning and development.”
- Dr. Mehreen Mujtaba is a freelance consultant working in the areas of environment and health.