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Parents report pandemic-related declines in academic, social-emotional skills of young children

For the youngest children, the pandemic’s academic and emotional toll might not have received as much attention as it has for older kids, but it has still been severe, according to a new report from the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative’s Early Learning Study at Harvard. 

The report, which surveyed more than 1,400 parents and nearly 900 early childhood educators in Massachusetts, found that 58 percent of parents have seen their 3- or 4-year-old’s academic development harmed by the pandemic. Just over half of parents said they have seen a negative impact on their child’s social-emotional development, which can affect a child’s ability to learn, build relationships and manage emotions.

Early childhood educators have noticed similar trends: 53 percent observed behavioral changes during the pandemic, and 77 percent of those educators who observed changes said they’ve been negative, including more temper tantrums, sadness or crying and difficulty separating from parents. More than half of educators said children have expressed sadness about not seeing friends or family during the pandemic.

“It is so clear in our data and it’s been clearer over time…that children’s social and emotional well-being has suffered,” said Stephanie Jones, one of the report’s authors and a professor of early childhood development at the Harvard University School of Education, which published the report. “It has been hard for them.”  

Not all of the news from the report is grim, however. Twenty-three percent of educators surveyed said they have seen positive changes in children, including more eagerness, excitement and independence in classrooms. Families also reported finding “solace and comfort” from being together, Jones added. 

The report, which comes on the heels of related data about the pandemic’s impact on families with young children, arrives at a time when many parents are trying to decide how to help their children move forward at the start of a new school year.

Nationwide, pre-K enrollment dropped precipitously during the pandemic, meaning many young children could be missing foundational skills needed for school. Data released late last year show 40 percent of first grade students and 35 percent of second grade students are “significantly at risk” of needing intensive academic intervention, higher than the previous year.

At the same time, it remains to be seen whether various proposals to support parents with child care and other needs will come to fruition. “The kinds of large-scale policies that offset stress and enable families to have those high-quality supportive relationships…those kinds of policies are really important,” said Jones.

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The Harvard report found some recent benefits for young children as well as struggles. Some educators have reported that smaller class sizes have allowed for more individualized attention for children and a calmer learning environment. Nearly 90 percent of parents surveyed were satisfied with their child’s school’s response to the pandemic, despite challenges with distance learning.

Nationwide, schools, child care centers and community organizations have largely been a reliable source of help for families during the past year. More than 80 percent of parents reported that their family has spent more time together during the pandemic. 

The authors of the report caution that while remedying “potential losses” in foundational academic skills is important, “jumping to closing these gaps without close attention to the social and emotional needs of children will likely only exacerbate any disruption-related behavioral challenges.”

To start, the authors suggest asking children about their well-being and helping them process their experiences from the past year in addition to building or re-building academic skills. 

This story about the Early Learning Study at Harvard was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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More than 80 percent of parents reported that their family has spent more time together during the pandemic.