The COVID-19 crisis was difficult for everyone in different ways, but one group particularly affected, about which there has been much discussion both in Israel and around the world, is young children and their parents. As the virus spread and educational institutions closed, parents suddenly became their children’s sole caregivers, while being expected at the same time to continue working or while simultaneously dealing with losing their jobs and experiencing financial difficulties. This extremely tall order has implications for both the parents and the children.
For children in the earliest years of their life, specifically, all of this happened at a particularly critical stage of development. Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, researchers in the Taub Center Initiative on Early Childhood Development and Inequality* were studying the period of early childhood (birth to age 6) and its importance for development and implications for children’s future scholastic achievements, and consequently on future inequality.
The academic literature on early childhood shows that the first years of life are critical to brain development and that situations of chronic stress can have a negative and particularly strong effect on children during early childhood. Building on the academic literature about the importance of this period, the researchers in the Taub Center Initiative looked at the connection between socioeconomic status during this time and Israeli children’s achievements later in life. They found that poverty during the first two years of a child’s life appears to have an especially strong and negative effect on later academic achievements. The researchers also found that quality educational frameworks during this critical time matter, as does the time they spend in such frameworks. Another study conducted by the team shows that, for Israeli children ages two and older, the longer they attend early childhood education frameworks the higher their educational achievements later in life, especially among children whose mothers do not have an academic education.
With the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, many of these factors that have an impact on early childhood development took a turn for the worse. For example, the crisis led to economic shutdowns that closed educational frameworks, including those for early childhood. Thus, the benefit children gain from spending more time in early childhood education settings was interrupted by the crisis. At the same time, the pandemic and all of its implications led to more stress for parents, whether that stress stemmed from direct contact with the virus, financial difficulties, or navigating the new reality of their children being at home all day instead of in school.
While we have yet to see the long-term impact of the crisis on these children, the short-term impact is already visible. A recent Taub Center study conducted as part of the Initiative examined the frequency of screen use among families with young children during Israel’s first COVID-19 economic shutdown and found that the children of parents who experienced more stress were exposed to more extensive screen time. Furthermore, the researchers found that parental stress was more common among families from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and among the Arab population.
This is important because there is a general consensus among researchers and professionals in the field that unsupervised screen time has generally negative effects on the cognitive and emotional development of young children, and so it is advised to avoid all screen use by children until the age of two, and to limit their screen time to one hour per day between the ages of two and five.
These findings indicate that not only did the COVID crisis harm young children’s development by removing them from the positive influence of educational frameworks and exposing them to the negative influence of chronic stress, but it also had the added impact of exposing them more to the harmful implications of extensive screen exposure. Furthermore, the children most harmed are those from families of lower socioeconomic backgrounds for whom educational frameworks are disproportionately important, and whose parents were more likely to suffer financial distress from the crisis and utilized screen time more extensively during the shutdowns. Thus, it appears that the COVID-19 crisis will increase the socioeconomic gaps in Israel stemming from inequality in early childhood, gaps that were already large before the pandemic.
It is impossible to recover the “time lost” for young children during the pandemic. However, in both the short and long term, several steps can be taken to reduce the damage done by the COVID crisis. For instance, support and assistance can be provided to parents, including providing financial aid to those affected by the economic crisis, expanding affordable and accessible psychological support to parents such as stress-reducing techniques training, disseminating information on proper and supervised use of screens, encouraging parents to spend time with their children in ways that contribute to their cognitive development, and encouraging teachers to contact and guide parents.
On a more institutional level, hours can be added to early childhood education in the years to come, the quality of early childhood education frameworks can be improved – which is much needed in any case – and primary schools can be prepared to offset the developmental lags of the COVID cohorts when they reach school age.
Hopefully, the crisis has called attention to the issues in early childhood that needed addressing years before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived on the scene. These existing issues, the new ones that emerged during the COVID crisis, and approaches for how to relate to early childhood as we exit the crisis will all be discussed in greater depth at the Taub Center’s upcoming conference on July 15th, entitled “Early childhood education in Israel: To Corona and Back,” which you can register for using this link. We look forward to continuing this important discussion there!
*The Taub Center Initiative on Early Childhood Development and Inequality and the upcoming conference are generously supported by the Beracha Foundation, the Bernard van Leer Foundation, and Yad Hanadiv.