COVID-19 Impact

The Impact of COVID on Early Childhood Mental Health

The social, emotional, and mental health well-being of children is a critical aspect of human development. It sets the foundation for lifelong health and well-being.

Historically, there is scarce data about the impact of epidemics such as the COVID-19 pandemic on children’s growth and development. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was reported that approximately 20% of children under the age of 18 had a mental health diagnosis.

While research on the pandemic’s effects on early childhood mental health is still in the early stages, current evidence shows a surge in anxiety and depression. In comparison to data from 2019, insurance claims for mental health related visits for children aged 5-11 increased by 24% between March and August of 2020. In addition, almost half of all parents report experiencing higher levels of stress during COVID-19, which enhances their child’s risk for exposure to family adversity including child abuse, neglect, domestic violence, exposure to familial substance abuse and/or mental health problems, as well as stressors stemming from financial and/or food insecurities.

In the past, science has shown is that genetic predispositions are modified by environmental influences (Nature/Nurture), which in turn affect learning capacities, adaptive behaviors, lifelong physical and mental health, and adult productivity. It is understandable that pandemics, such as COVID-19, would therefore produce risks to child development due to the risk of illness, protective confinement, social isolation, and the increased stress level of parents and caregivers. These risk factors support beliefs that the COVID-19 pandemic is a universal adverse childhood experience (ACEs) for children in the United States and across the globe. The more adverse experiences, the greater the risk of developmental delays and health problems in adulthood, such as cognitive impairment, substance abuse, depression, heart disease and diabetes. Exposure to these risks, over an extended period of time can generate toxic stress, which has also been show to result in negative effects on brain development, individual and collective health, as well as long-term impairment on cognition, mental and physical health, and working capacity for future adults.

The criterion for ACEs that the COVID-19 pandemic meets:

  • Restrictive social and economic reconfigurations.
  • The fear of contagion, illness caused by COVID-19.
  • Isolated family life
  • School closures
  • Lack of support networks for both children and adults
  • Loss of loved ones
  • Difficulty combining the demands of working from home with full-time childcare
  • Financial challenges
  • Increased exposure to pre-existing vulnerabilities (such as domestic violence, drug use, and mental illness in family members)

Unfortunately, the much-needed tools and responses, such as school restrictions and social isolation, used to mitigate the threat of the pandemic can also endanger child growth and development. These tools contribute to parental stress which in turn contributes to child stress. Parental stressors typically begin with concerns about their child potentially becoming ill, and then expand to include the potential mental and emotional consequences of pandemics on their child. 

Fortunately, under the appropriate care and support of adults who provide children with constant feelings of security and affection, the child’s body can reorganize itself biochemically and quickly returns to levels of physiological functioning without further damage. That is, with appropriate, supportive and nurturing guidance, children can recover from the pandemic’s effects.

Because most children spend most of their waking hours in school, under the guidance and care of teachers, the educational environment is one that is best suited to foster resiliency and recovery. There are three ways in which early childhood educational providers can respond to the developmental needs of children who have been negatively impacted by the pandemic:

Establish Emotionally Healthy Learning Environments:

Preschool classrooms that follow the World Association for Infant Mental Health (WAIMH) endorsement guidelines have been shown to improve children’s social skills and emotional functioning; promote healthy relationships; reduce challenging behaviors; reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions; improve classroom quality; and reduce provider stress, burnout and turnover. Emotionally Healthy Learning Environments should address the following content areas:

  • The development of infants/children and families
  • Psychopathology of infancy and early childhood
  • Interventions, both preventive and therapeutic
  • Parent and caregiver education
  • Cultural influences
  • Biological influences

Teach Empathy and Social-Emotional Learning:

Research shows that early trauma impacts empathy development, with the latest neuroscience indicating that emotion and cognition are deeply intertwined. However, emotional competencies can be learned and should be integral component of any preschool programs. SEL best practice standards developed by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) identified five interrelated sets of cognitive, affective, and behavioral competencies. The CASEL 5 include: Self-awareness, Self-management, Social awareness, Relationship skills, and Responsible decision-making. Preschool programs that embed these core competencies throughout the academic day will essentially help to foster resiliency in the littlest of learners.

Foster Creativity and Collaboration Through Play:

A preschool classroom that is a fertile environment for creativity is one that embraces imagination, creation, and play. Play is a child’s natural language and way through which they can make sense of their experiences. Educators can use play to enter the child’s world and communicate with the child at their level.  Play is an extremely effective tool educators can use to help children process and work through stress and trauma. Play does not on language which is important to note as typically with trauma the verbal part of the brain shuts down; the experience is stored at a sensory level and words become inaccessible. Play is experiential and allows these memories to be expressed and explored non-verbally so that they can eventually be integrated into a more verbal narrative.  Through the appropriate combination of acceptance, attunement and structure, the child-teacher relationship creates a much-needed sense of safety.

Some challenges to appropriately addressing the post-pandemic mental health needs of young children:

  • Current approaches to children’s mental health overlook children under the age of 6 and tend to focus on behavioral response versus the development of strategies that promote mental wellness and prevent mental illness across the lifespan.
  • There is a serious shortage of children’s mental health providers.
  • Communities most impacted by poverty and those that are geographically isolated have even less access to high-quality mental health supports.
  • Systemic discrimination and structural barriers make it difficult for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer and/or questioning (LGBTQ) children and youth to have equal access to high-quality services.