Social distancing, quarantine, and the health and economic concerns that have plagued Israeli families for more than a month, lead many to find themselves in a continual state of stress. Stressful situations can impair the proper development of children, especially during early childhood, potentially harming the future human capital of the so-called “corona children.”
Although no socioeconomic strata is immune from this harm, socioeconomic status does affect families’ ability to cope with changes and crises, due to the difference in the tools – and even in the physical space – at their disposal. These differences can intensify inequality among children, particularly during early childhood.
As the initial steps of Israel’s “exit strategy” from the crisis are being implemented, there has been awareness about the need to design tailored solutions for different age-groups and employment sectors. Given this awareness, it stands out that educational frameworks and children are treated as one collective, regardless of the distinct needs of children from different socioeconomic backgrounds, which could present a serious challenge when returning to the normal routine.
Many studies show that being enrolled in educational institutions in early childhood can reduce inequality in academic achievements between children. While the State regulates kindergartens for children ages 3 and older, in terms of teacher training and curriculum, this is not happening during the time when students are learning at home. According to the academic literature, students from strong socioeconomic backgrounds receive more enriching content at home than students from weaker socioeconomic backgrounds, so this extended period of time at home is likely to deepen inequality.
The difficulty of being stuck at home goes beyond the health concern, and encompasses parents’ financial stress due to being laid off, put on unpaid leave, or balancing between working from home and caring for their children. Families from middle and strong socioeconomic backgrounds are also exposed to these pressures but some of them, at least, have the means to cope with the situation. In contrast, low-income families have suffered a severe blow, from which it will be hard to recover, and their children are likely to suffer from many more hardships than usual.
Persistent stress can disrupt cognitive and emotional development, impair memory processing and learning capabilities, and even have long-term effects on brain structure. On top of this, parents are likely to have even fewer resources than usual to help them and their children return to normal.
Exposure to screens has also increased during this time, and affects many aspects of development – from obesity, sleeping disorders, and attention disorders to impaired academic achievement. Furthermore, the exposure of children from low socioeconomic backgrounds to screens is greater than that of children from more well-off families, and therefore the harm to them is expected to be greater.
Exposure to screens also leads to a decrease in physical activity, which is already limited during quarantine. Movement being restricted to the home could also widen the gap between children whose homes are larger and those whose homes are smaller. Another aspect likely to contribute to increasing gaps is nutrition. Low-income families often have less awareness and financial ability to purchase healthy food, whereas in regulated educational frameworks, the food provided is also regulated which reduces gaps in access to healthy food.
These are just some of the areas in which the quarantine period is likely to increase developmental, physical, and cognitive disparities between children from different socioeconomic backgrounds. These gaps will not close on their own as educational frameworks reopen. In the discussions weighing complex solutions about how to return to normal there is an opportunity to consider how these social gaps can be reduced.
Kindergarten teachers should be encouraged to contact parents, assess their situation, pay special attention to disadvantaged families, and offer them tailored activities for the new normal. Municipalities’ education and welfare departments could also be involved.
Furthermore, as educational frameworks reopen, providing more resources to children from low-income families should be considered. For example, if children attend kindergartens in smaller groups, it would be advisable for children from disadvantaged families, who are likely to be the most affected, to attend kindergarten more times a week.
It is only by understanding the gaps that have widened during this crisis and formulating an appropriate solution for the return to normalcy that we will ensure long-term social resilience in Israel.