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Stories and information in our region on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Connections May Be Key To Helping Young Children Recover From Pandemic Upheaval

Image by klimkin from Pixabay

As there are more signs of the distress that kids have felt amid the upheaval of the pandemic, some early childhood development researchers say strong relationships and supports will be key to rebuilding social-emotional as well as academic skills in young children.

More than half of early educators noticed behavioral changes in the young children in their care, according to a survey by the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education released Tuesday.

While 77% of the behavioral changes observed by educators were considered negative — including aggression, temper tantrums, sadness and anxiety — the others noted the resiliency of young children, with some becoming more independent or eager. One educator told surveyors smaller class sizes during the pandemic have helped some children become more calm and focused.

"It's not a surprise to me," said Stephanie Jones, a professor of early childhood development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-director of the initiative. "It's something we would expect based on what we know from the science about human development that disruption, sources of stress really influence those key social-emotional areas in particular."

"What's important about it, is that it tells us something we really need to pay attention to as children go back to those outside-the-home settings where they learn and play," Jones said, noting that it would likely be harder for kids to learn academically if they don't have support for emotional regulation and social skills.

The survey of over 1,400 parents and nearly 900 early educators in Massachusetts was administered from November 2020 through January 2021, as coronavirus cases were climbing to a second peak. It's the latest in a series of surveys taken throughout the pandemic which have detailed the financial and psychological hit early educators and families have sustained and the uncertainty they've faced, as part of a yearslong study of childhood development and early childhood settings.

As state leaders prepare to spend more than $714 million in expected federal funds, some new research offered a snapshot into the trauma endured over the last 16 months and signaled the work ahead for recovery.

Parents relied on their child's educator or school to support them throughout the pandemic, with 87% reporting satisfaction with the response.

Jones said that children will need quality care, which includes foundational skill-building such as talking about how they are feeling and processing the changes over the pandemic and beyond.

"Talking about all of that, letting it come out and spending time with it is the way to address all of those skills," Jones said. "It's not rocket science and it's not hard, but it does take commitment and explicit investment."