• Natalia Stalchenko and Zoi Vasileiou

Hidden Risks of the COVID-19 Crisis for Early Childhood Education

The COVID-19 pandemic affected millions of children worldwide, disturbing their physical, cognitive, and socio-emotional development. This blog post discusses the outcomes that have emerged so far in the educational field and presents suggestions to parents, educators, and policymakers. Now, more than ever, we need to respond to the situation and reorganize the education system to minimize the consequences of the crisis.

 

Millions of children worldwide have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic disturbing many aspects of their physical, cognitive, and socio-emotional development. History has shown that large-scale socio-historical events negatively influence all facets of children's lives and cause a significant risk to their health and well-being. In this blog we are mindful that there can always be exceptions and that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t always serve everyone’s needs; for instance, as Hilppö and colleagues noted in their 2020 article, there have been reports that the lockdown due to closure of public services, including schools, has resulted in some children thriving at home and developing stronfamilies. Nevertheless, Benner and Mistry argue in their 2020 article that the pandemic's consequences will have a long-lasting adverse effect on young children's psychological and academic skills, health, and well-being. Now, more than ever, we need to respond to the situation, rethink and reorganize the education system to minimize the consequences of the crisis.


Numerous studies, including a report from UNESCO, assert that access to high-quality Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) has been associated with multiple benefits for children's holistic development with a stronger emphasis on children from disadvantaged backgrounds. As the global COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, considering the importance of ECEC, we should aim to promote holistic learning and help children reach their full potential. Although it is too early to make clear conclusions about the scale of the current pandemic's disturbance on young children's lives, this blog post discusses all the visible outcomes that have emerged so far in the educational field and presents some possible suggestions to parents, educators, and policymakers.


The lockdown and children's physical well-being

Perhaps one of the most noticeable and straightforward effects of COVID-19 concerns people's physical health and well-being. In addition to the risk of becoming infected with the COVID-19, the pandemic targets various aspects of adults and children's physical health. Due to lockdown, many families were forced to stay at home to protect their own health and the lives of the people around them. As a result, children stopped attending schools, daycares, hobbies, and entertainment centers, in many countries. Such disruption in the routine can affect children's physical activity, nutrition, and sleep.


The most recent worldwide national regulations stress the importance of physical activity for young children. However, meeting these standards has become even more difficult during the times of the lockdown. Besides being restricted from attending sport centers or any other hobbies, many children have limited access to outdoor activities, especially those living in urban areas. Thus, the lockdown creates a risk of decreased physical activity level, which negatively influences children's development and overall health, according to the regulations and recent research, such as the study by Gupta and Jawanda from 2020. Moreover, the decrease of outdoor play could reduce exposure to the sunlight and potentially cause vitamin D deficiency. According to Gupta and Jawanda's article, it can lead to an increased vulnerability to respiratory tract infections. Furthermore, the authors suggest that schools and early childhood education centers' closure disturbed routines, affecting regular meals and sleep.


The lack of social interaction and its outcomes

As the norms and the daily life for many families change due to school closures, social distancing measures, and lockdown practices, the levels of depression, and anxiety in young children have increased, according to a 2020 study by Benner and Mistry. Another 2020 study by Ghosh and colleagues claims that the lack of social interaction and isolation is likely to change children's lifestyles and promote impatience, distress, monotony, and aggressive behavioral changes. Loneliness, isolation, and physical distancing can be challenging for any human being, especially for children. According to Gupta and Jawanda, children feel those consequences to a larger scale as they are bound to miss interacting and playing with their peers, which might lead to drastic behavioral changes.


School closures led to the transition to online learning. Educators worldwide had to react and respond to the new circumstances and needs and were asked to utilize all the resources available to them. This transition is likely affecting children negatively, especially those attending ECEC, since learning in the early years is mostly based on hands-on activities and face to face interactions. Online teaching in ECEC can be rather challenging, taking into consideration characteristics of the children's developmental stages, their attention span, and their need to socialize and bond with their peers. Additionally, maintaining motivation during these unpredictable times is difficult for all of us, especially for young learners. It is one of the main challenges that educators, parents, and caregivers around the world have experienced during the past year.


Irreversible changes in society

As education transferred to an online environment, the use of technology became even more significant in the lives of students of all ages than it already was before the pandemic. Access to education became dependent on digital devices and quality of network connection, which can often be taken for granted by people with a stable income. Unfortunately, low-income families might lack the resources to acquire the necessary technologies and other pedagogical materials to provide quality education for their children. New research articles, for instance by Spitery and Gupta and Jawanda, warn about the increasing differences in academic achievement between students and further widening the gap between different socioeconomic groups. Gupta and Jawada express their concern that this effect will likely be most detrimental to children who need special support in learning. Benner and Mistry agree that the COVID-19 crisis affects those already marginalized, distancing us from reaching equity in education.


COVID-19 as a driver for change in education

On the upside, the global crisis of COVID-19 has been a driver for change, emphasizing the need to reform ECEC and its curricula. Considering the drastic effects on emotional well-being and the exceptional experiences of our young learners during the COVID-19 lockdown, it is crucial for all students worldwide to feel supported. In one of UNESCO's 2020 reports, the author argues the need to put ECEC teacher training programs in place to facilitate educators with the best tools and educational practices to tackle children's needs after their return to schools. There is a great demand to develop innovative solutions to trigger children's curiosity and engagement in multiple ways. In times of global crisis, there is a necessity to research how teacher preparation can best facilitate learning to ensure that teacher training programs always address the educational issues and prepare educators to meet the children's needs.


What can I do as a parent or a teacher?

It is important to note that despite its adverse effects, the lockdown is a necessary safety measure. To protect oneself and others from spreading the disease it is recommended to follow the health regulations of one's country, such as avoiding public places and meetings in person. Below, we provide tips and suggestions to minimize the pandemic's impact on a child's health and development.


As we mentioned before, physical activity is essential for children’s development and health. For example, Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare of 2016 and National Health Service of 2019 recommend children under the school age to engage in a total of three hours of physical activity per day, and at least one hour of which should be moderate or vigorous activity, such as running, swimming, climbing, or jumping. Achieving this requirement at home may be challenging but not impossible! We recommend engaging children in active play and creating a safe space for moving and jumping, and even running, if the space allows it. Be creative and encourage children to climb up and down sofas and chairs, roll on the bed, throw the pillows, and crawl on the floor. These activities develop children’s motor skills and help them to stay active. Additionally, you can invite your children to exercise together, as a part of your daily or weekly routine, modifying the exercises to a child-appropriate level. In fact, according to recommendations by United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), maintaining a daily routine, including eating and sleeping regularly, is crucial for both physical and psychological well-being of children and adults.


As an adult, it is important to recognize the effects of the COVID-19 on one’s own health and stress levels, too. Lockdown, isolation and working from home can be stressful and especially challenging when combined with taking care of a small child. UNICEF advises us to remember to take care of yourself as a parent or a teacher by dedicating time to rest and relax and by reaching out to friends and family for support. Both positive and negative emotions can easily transfer from one person to another, thus staying healthy and calm will also help the children to cope with the unusual circumstances. Moreover, Benner and Mistry point out that parents’ concerns and stress can have further impact on children’s health by affecting post-pandemic recovery, emphasising the need of an adult’s presence and support.


Considering the risks that resulted from the pandemic on children’s psychological well-being, as described earlier in this blog, and the tips provided by UNICEF, we argue that the key aspects of support are sensitivity and open communication. As trusted adults, parents and teachers should be available to discuss the topic of COVID-19 openly with children, listen carefully to their worries or concerns, and be sensitive towards their feelings. If a child shows signs of distress or anxiety, UNICEF strongly advises to comfort the child and reassure that many professionals are working hard to keep us safe. Talking openly also means being honest and critical, avoiding the spread of misinformation by looking up the answers from reliable sources rather than guessing, and encouraging a child to wonder and learn together about an unknown topic.


The challenges caused by the pandemic stress the importance of establishing and maintaining open communication between parents and teachers. We encourage the teachers and parents to work together in supporting children, teaching them good hygiene habits and safety measures, and creating a safe space for learning and development. It is their right to be in a safe environment where they can freely express their feelings, thoughts, worries, and wishes for the days to come. We should never forget the golden rule that a school should always be a happy place for our children and that children do well when they feel loved and secure.

 

References

Benner, A. D., & Mistry, R. S. (2020). Child Development During the COVID‐19 Pandemic Through a Life Course Theory Lens. Child Development Perspectives, 14(4), 236–243.


Early childhood care and education. (n.d.). Retrieved February 8, 2021, from https://en.unesco.org/themes/early-childhood-care-and-education


Ghosh, R., Dubey, M. J., Chatterjee, S., & Dubey, S. (2020). Impact of COVID -19 on children: Special focus on the psychosocial aspect. Minerva Pediatrica, 72(3), 226–235. https://doi.org/10.23736/S0026-4946.20.05887-9


Gupta, S., & Jawanda, M. K. (2020). The impacts of COVID‐19 on children. Acta Paediatrica, 109(11), 2181–2183. https://doi.org/10.1111/apa.15484


Hilppö, J., Rainio, A., Rajala, A., & Lipponen, L. (2020). Children and the COVID-19 Lockdown: From Child Perspectives to Children's Perspectives. Cultural Praxis, 2020(26.4.2020). http://culturalpraxis.net/wordpress1/2020/04/26/children-and-the-covid-19-lockdown-from-child-perspectives-to-childrens-perspectives/


Physical activity guidelines for children (under five years). (2018, April 30). Nhs. Uk. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/physical-activity-guidelines-children-under-five-years

Recommendations and guidelines—THL. (n.d.). Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), Finland. Retrieved February 8, 2021, from https://thl.fi/en/web/thlfi-en/research-and-expertwork/projects-and-programmes/promoting-healthy-weight-in-children-promokids-ending-childhood-obesity-in-the-nordic-countries/prevention-of-childhood-obesity-in-the-nordic-countries/recommendations-and-guidelines


Spiteri, J. (2021). Quality early childhood education for all and the Covid-19 crisis: A viewpoint. Prospects, 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11125-020-09528-4


UNESCO. (2020, April 23). UNESCO COVID-19 Education issue notes. UNESCO. https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse/issuenotes


UNICEF. (2020, August 25). How to talk to your child about coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). https://www.unicef.org/coronavirus/how-talk-your-child-about-coronavirus-covid-19

 

About the authors

Natalia Stalchenko is a master's student of the Changing Education programme and a research assistant at the Faculty of Educational Sciences at the University of Helsinki. She specializes in early childhood education and has experience working in the field in Finland. Her main goal is to promote children’s well-being and healthy development through education and contribute to implementing research-based theory into practice.


Having a background in early childhood education and more than ten years of working experience in the field, Zoi Vasileiou is currently a master's student in the programme Changing Education. Her aim has always been to provide children with the essential tools for personal, emotional, and social development and for reaching their full potential. She believes that the best way to dream about the future is to be involved in making it.