Lockdowns lasted so long, especially here in San Francisco. It’s been years without normal school routines or regular family outings.
And as everyone digs out from the pandemic experience, parents are beginning to wonder how to get development and education back on track — ASAP.
If you’re concerned as a parent about the long-term impact, that’s justified. Although research is just beginning, we’re already seeing evidence of the impact of these pandemic years on child development. A recent study by McKinsey and Company found that children in K-5 were an average of 5 months behind in academics.
We’re seeing a big push to “catch kids up“ on their education. But as a parent, you need to think beyond just academics.
The truth is, catching kids up means backing up even further to include essential developmental skills that need to be addressed alongside academics.
Development builds on itself. So it’s wrong to assume kids can move forward academically if foundational developmental skills aren’t fully established.
Early development is based on interactions, experiences, and play. Lockdowns during the pandemic meant two things. First, families didn’t have the same access to activities and experiences. Second, all the juggling of work, school, and family life meant parents had less one-on-one time for interactions and play.
As developmental specialists, we know kids missed the practice and experiences that are key for development across the board. We need to make sure we’re adjusting expectations to account for this.
Otherwise, parents, teachers, and students will all grow frustrated when academics continue to be a challenge. Especially for kids who already struggle and feel farther behind peers developmentally during the pandemic.
So today we’re going to share with you some basics of how the pandemic impacted the cognitive, speech, physical, and social-emotional development of kids.
The good news is — kids are wired to learn! By understanding their development, you’ll be better prepared to guide your child through this time of readjustment.
Cognitive Skills That Support Thinking and Learning
From birth through the teenage years, the brain is busy building connections. These connections happen as a result of experiences, interactions, and practice. As connections grow, so does the ability for more complex thinking, language, and problem-solving.
We’re already seeing that children born during the pandemic show delays in verbal and non-verbal cognitive skills. This is attributed to the emotional and situational environment during the early years. Babies just didn’t get the typical variety in experiences for interactions.
And the impact on cognitive skills is seen in older kids too. They have had fewer play opportunities, fewer social interactions, increased stress, disrupted routines, and educational losses due to the pandemic.
This translated to potential difficulty with:
As kids return to school, time needs to be spent introducing or re-introducing routine, organization, following directions and building up attention. Keeping in mind, a variety of fun, engaging activities promote brain development and key connections.
Language Acquisition and Development
Decreased social interactions and mask wear impacted language and communication development in young children.
Speech and language development is important during the early years. This includes understanding words, making sounds (articulation), and expanding the number of words a child is able to use when communicating.
Kids develop essential language skills through interactions with others. The more the better. A consequence of lockdowns is that babies and children missed language-rich experiences with teachers, extended family, and peers.
Additionally, mask wear impacted language development because covering the mouth made it more difficult to hear, read lips, or read facial expressions. While these cues are important for all children, the impact of mask-wear was especially challenging for children with hearing loss, articulation challenges, and auditory processing challenges.
Parents, educators, and healthcare professionals need to be more diligent in screening for speech delays and providing activities that encourage speech development. When in doubt, seek out a speech and language therapist for an in-depth evaluation.
Developing the Strength and Coordination for Learning
It’s easy to forget about the importance of coordination and strength for learning and schoolwork.
Here’s what you need to consider. During the pandemic, kids spent more time in front of screens and less time in full-body play. However play — whether that’s outside, inside, or during PE — is an essential part of development for babies and school-age children.
What does PE and playing outside have to do with learning? Motor skill development impacts a variety of other skills your child needs to learn:
Kids missed the time on the playground to build hand strength by swinging from the monkey bars. And preschool schoolwork was done on a computer instead of holding a crayon.
So now you can’t hand your child a pencil and expect them to write. And you can’t send them to school and expect them to sit at a desk all day. So if your child is struggling with school work, consider how you might incorporate more physical play into their day whether that’s a park or coming up with activities at home.
Social & Emotional Essentials
Out of all the skills, the pandemic especially impacted the social and emotional skill development of children.
In one study looking at parent concerns during the pandemic, parents reported they saw increased tantrums, anxiety, clinginess, boredom, and under-stimulation in their children. With the return to more group activities, therapists and teachers are now seeing the same social and emotional challenges as kids.
Which makes sense.
Social and emotional skills are honed during interactions with others. While parents play a key role in this, peer play is essential for giving kids practice in terms of interacting with others, responding to disappointment, and the give-and-take of relationships.
During the pandemic, children mostly interacted with direct family members. Even attentive parents were faced with extra stress, responsibilities, and scheduling demands. Playdates were suspended and children talked through computer screens. This led to more difficulty using relationships to co-regulate.
Additionally, our brain, through a process called neuroception, takes in cues from the environment to determine if we are safe or if we are in danger. If the brain determines the cues indicate danger, old survival circuits in the brain are activated to ensure quite simply that we survive through fight, flight, freeze, and even feigning death. Have you felt in survival mode for a better part of the last two years?
Since March of 202o our brains have been flooded with cues of danger, which has led to chronic activation of our oldest survival systems. This explains the pervasive self regulation challenges we are seeing in adults and children alike. For some this feels like mobilization where our system is activated into fight and flight responses. This can lead to inattentiveness, irritability, rigidity, difficulty with transitions, and meltdowns. For others, this can lead to shut down responses. This can look like decreased energy, and motivation, disconnection from one's body, a feeling of being slowed down or a feeling of numbness.
As kids return to normal activities, teaching self-regulation and social skills should be a priority. Especially since self-regulation has been identified as a key component of educational success.
Parents can help children with this by providing guided activities to practice self-regulation. Additionally, for those where the old survival circuits seem to be chronically activated, there is a profoundly impactful therapeutic program available, The Safe and Sound Protocol, created by Stephen Porges, MD. This program works directly on supporting emotional regulation, grounding the body for safety, while also decreasing auditory sensitivity. Results from two clinical trials in children with Autism have demonstrated statistically significant improvements in emotional control, behavioral organization, hearing sensitivity and listening.
You can also start resuming playdates and guide your child through steps of self-regulation or what it means to be a good friend. Social interactions can serve the purpose of providing opportunities for co-regulation, and restoring a sense of safety, community and belonging.
These are not skills that happen overnight but take practice for kids to learn. Especially kids who already struggle emotionally or socially.
Making Up for Lost Experiences
We can’t expect kids to just go on as if nothing happened. We’ve got to help them catch up on these foundational skills but without adding unneeded stress or expectations.
While it’s impossible to make up for what’s been missed, the great thing about kids is how much potential they have for learning and growth.
We just need to be aware that they might need extra time to practice to regain skills that might have been put on hold.
And if you’re concerned about your child’s development, get them seen and evaluated earlier rather than later.
Our team of occupational and speech therapists is committed to providing a variety of services to help your child.
We are also providers of the Safe and Sound Protocol.
Christina Gallo, MS, OTR/L
Pediatric Occupational Therapist, Infant Mental Health Specialist