The future of preschool-aged children’s social and emotional development is unclear as coronavirus rages on

By Lizzy Tarallo
Photo Credit: Jerry Wang via Unsplash

Stacia George was at a loss. As COVID-19 was wreaking havoc on the United States, her 4-and-a-half-year-old son was not himself. 

George and her family had been temporarily living in Amherst, Massachusetts, when the pandemic first hit back in March. Her son’s whole world changed within the matter of a day when he abruptly was unable to go back to school.

“Basically we left on Friday, and all of a sudden never went back,” George said.

Young children’s most formative years are in their preschool years. Now, as the pandemic alters the state of early-childhood education, parents, education professionals and psychologists wonder what lasting impacts this will have on children’s social and emotional development.

At first, George said her son seemed to be fine. He would play outside or ride bikes with other children in the neighborhood while keeping a safe distance. However, as time went on, his attitude began to change. 

“He’s a very exuberant kid, he loves being outside, he loves people and he’s super social,” George said in a phone interview. “After a couple weeks, his temperament started changing. He started just not even wanting to go outside anymore, just wanted to watch videos and zone out.” 

George said she spoke with a friend who is a therapist and was able to determine that her son was expressing symptoms of depression. Finally, about three months into the pandemic, the family went to George’s parents’ house, and she said her son became “more joyful.”

However, his joy did not last. George and her family moved back to Washington, and her husband started a new job. As they settled back into the District, George said her son fell back into his unusual behavior. He was often angry and threw tantrums.  

“He would just scream over and over and over and over again,” George said.

Even though George is considered someone who is at a high-risk for complications if she were to contract the coronavirus, she and her husband decided to send their son to an in-person preschool in Washington. From then on, she said it was like “night and day.”

“I just did not even recognize him as a kid. It was so upsetting,” George said. “I literally was like, ‘Okay, I know this is high-risk for me. But at this point it’s worth it because his mental health is just not in a good place, and there’s nothing we can do at this point to help it.’” 

Rhian Allvin, the chief executive officer of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a national professional membership organization for people in the early-childhood education field, said in a Zoom interview that anything that can be seen so far in regards to the pandemic’s impact on children’s learning and well-being is based on speculation. There is not enough data available yet. 

However, there is evidence that mental health challenges have become more common due to the pandemic. According to Centers of Disease Control and Prevention data from June, 40 percent of adults reported that they were struggling with their mental health.

Jess Hasson is both a licensed clinical psychologist from Montgomery County, Maryland, and a mother to a 4-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son. She said in a Zoom interview that the demand for mental health services has increased dramatically since the start of the pandemic. The practice she works at, Quince Orchard Psychotherapy, has seen a significant increase in referrals. She has even been seeing patients from out of state through telehealth appointments. 

“We’ve always had a waitlist, but our waitlist has ballooned out of control at this point,” Hasson said.

Hasson said that she has seen many new patients being referred for symptoms of depression, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, also known as ADHD. She has also had an increase in requests to test children for autism, since many schools are not currently doing this due to the pandemic. Hasson said she has also seen an increase in patients who have been engaging in self-harming behavior. Hasson is expecting to be dealing with the pandemic’s mental health impacts for a long time.

“My field is preparing for a mental health epidemic,” Hasson said, adding later, “Once COVID’s taken care of, we have to focus on the mental health aspect as well.”

As for her children, Hasson said that her 4-year-old does not understand the current situation as much as her older child. However, Hasson did notice some changes in both her children’s temperaments.

“What we noticed is the longer they were isolated from their friends, the more stressed out they were becoming,” Hasson said. “So, although my preschooler didn’t necessarily regress at all, she was more emotional, looking for more assurance.”

Hasson and her husband sent their daughter back to day care as soon as it reopened, and she said it was like the “light came back to her” once she was able to interact with other children again. Meanwhile, Hasson’s son has been learning virtually this year.

As coronavirus cases continue to rise, there is speculation of whether or not the United States will have a second major shutdown. Other countries, such as France and Germany, have already done this due to rising cases.

Katie Velliky, a mother to a 4-year-old son and a 16-month-old daughter, hopes this is not the case. Velliky and her family lived in Washington and moved to Silver Spring, Maryland, over the summer.

Velliky’s son has delays in his development; he did not walk and talk until after most children usually do. When he was 3 years old, her son transferred to a Washington public school for preschool. Then, the pandemic hit, which forced the preschool to move to an online teaching model. 

“Distance learning is not very effective for the vast majority of 3-year-olds,” Velliky said in a Zoom interview, adding later, “They just get very distracted by looking at themselves and it’s hard to stay still.” 

Velliky’s son currently has an IEP, which stands for individualized education program. Velliky said that her son’s IEP is centered around “building foundations to be able to learn in a classroom successfully” by helping him with his socialization skills and his ability to manage transitions.

“All of that’s really difficult to learn at home, and almost impossible to learn on Zoom,” Velliky said. 

Velliky was able to sign her son up for an in-person private preschool in Montgomery County. She said that the teachers have been helpful. Her son is still waiting to receive supplemental services at the new school, such as speech therapy. However, all of these supplemental services are set to take place on Zoom.

Velliky said that if another mass shutdown occurs, she does not think child-care centers and preschools should be impacted. She said that she thinks “we’ve completely come at this whole issue in the wrong way in this country.”

“Anyone who’s made an official recommendation has said we should be prioritizing schools opening, and we’re not,” Velliky said. “We’re prioritizing various other things.” 

Velliky also said that people were too quick to conclude that schools would become “superspreader” environments. However, new data shows otherwise. Researchers from Yale University published a study in the American Academy of Pediatrics journal. It is the first large-scale study showing transmission rates of the coronavirus in child-care centers, and the numbers were low. The study focused on the transmission of the virus from children to adults in child-care centers, not the transmission between children or from adults to children. The researchers emphasized that it is important for child-care centers to keep up with their safety measures, but the data showed no evidence that child-care centers are incubators for the coronavirus.

Graphic by Lizzy Tarallo

While George, Velliky and Hasson have all had opportunities to provide their children with in-person school and play experiences throughout the pandemic, other children who do not have these opportunities are disadvantaged.

Allvin of NAEYC said there is no way to replicate the social interactions that young children would normally get in a classroom through online learning.

“For those children that do have some version of school or preschool online, you know, early-childhood educators are doing extraordinary work,” Allvin said. “But you just can’t replicate those interactions the same way you can on a rug in a classroom, or with a set of blocks.”

Hasson acknowledged the deep inequities that come with online learning, especially when parents cannot stay home to help their children during a virtual school day. 

“So online learning requires a lot of reading. There’s a chat box, there’s a lot of reading, there’s a lot of navigation. Kindergarteners, a lot of them can’t read. So that requires a parent being with them, which means the parent has to make the choice between, in many cases, between working and educating their child,” Hasson said. 

Audio clip from interview with Jess Hasson

Hasson also said that while some parents are fortunate and can take time off from work or hire a someone to watch their child during the day, many parents cannot afford to do so. 

“It’s just unfortunate that parents are having to make that decision, and it’s frankly unfair,” Hasson said, adding later, “It’s furthering that sort of divide between the top 10 percent and the bottom 20 percent.”

Allvin echoed these sentiments and said that Black and Brown families and children from low-income backgrounds have been the ones most impacted by the pandemic. 

“The disadvantages that children of color and children in low-income communities faced pre-pandemic are exacerbated during the pandemic,” Allvin said.

According to Kathy Hollowell-Makle, the executive director of the District of Columbia Association for the Education of Young Children, the Washington affiliate of NAEYC, only 309 of Washington’s 470 child-care centers are open as of Nov. 17. Allvin said without additional federal funding, 50 percent of child-care centers nationwide will be forced to close permanently by next month. If less child-care centers are open in the future, this raises more questions about whether or not young children will have access to preschool and child care so that they can have social learning opportunities. 

In a phone interview, Hollowell-Makle said she has worries about children not being as confident and self-assured since they will not have had the chance to normally learn about how to share and negotiate with other children. 

However, Hollowell-Makle said there are ways that parents can mitigate the social and emotional impacts that the pandemic may have on young children. She suggested that parents should maintain connections with friends, family and neighbors so that children have social interactions. She also said there are opportunities for children to learn around the house. 

“There’s opportunities in the home, especially when children have siblings, to work on some of those social emotional skills and learning how to share, learning how to be independent, having a sense of responsibility and self-assuredness with chores and duties and responsibilities around the house,” Hollowell-Makle said.

George said she encourages parents to look for warning signs that could indicate their child is struggling with their mental health. In her son’s case, she noticed that he was angry, resisting, tired, numb, frustrated and bored, which are six symptoms she learned from Illinois-based psychologist Erin Leyba. She also said there should be more education about children’s mental health.

“It’s both helping parents to identify it, then how to have conversations with their kids to be able to figure out how to help them through it,” George said.

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