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Nurturing schools can help to offset the pandemic’s impact on small children

By Dr Bev Evangelides, Head of the Early Learning School at Reddam House Waterfall

Dr Bev Evangelides, Head of the Early Learning School at Reddam House Waterfall
Dr Bev Evangelides, Head of the Early Learning School at Reddam House Waterfall

Cognitive development in small children was negatively impacted by the Covid pandemic, according to results of tests on children from three months to three years conducted by Brown University, Rhode Island, USA. The observational study found that children born during the pandemic have significantly reduced verbal, motor and overall cognitive performance compared with children born before the pandemic.


The study’s lead author, Professor Sean Deoni, Associate Professor of Paediatrics at Brown, notes that with less stimulation at home and reduced interaction and engagement with the outside world, young children scored surprisingly low on the cognitive development tests. 672 children from Rhode Island state, which is a relatively affluent area, were selected for the study.


For the decade before the pandemic, the mean IQ score on standardised tests for children aged three months to three years was around 100. However, even though the analysis has not yet been peer-reviewed, the study shows that the number dropped to 78 for children born during the pandemic.


It’s known that the first few years of a child’s life are crucial for cognitive development, but with the disruptive impact of COVID-19 confining people to homes and closing businesses, day-care facilities, schools and parks, life experience for under-3s has been severely curtailed while care-givers tried to balance work and child care, often within a stressful home-work environment.


The study raised concerns that less parental stimulation and a lack of engagement with other children are partly to blame, and that decreased interaction could inhibit the growth of neural connections that drive child development. Professor Deoni believes the impact is alarming and profound, and says, “You don’t typically see things like that, outside of major cognitive disorders.”


Whether these lower cognitive scores will have a long-term impact is unclear, but researchers are hopeful that the cognitive decline could be reversible if the stimulation increases. Professor Deoni notes that the ability to ‘course-correct’ becomes smaller, the older that child gets.


In September 2020, UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) released Strategic Guidelines to Prioritize Early Childhood Development in the COVID-19 Response which highlighted the looming challenges in child care, stating, “The current situation poses new challenges for providing care, protection, and learning opportunities for young children. In the long term, this can lead to intergenerational economic and social losses as society misses out on the benefits of early childhood development.


“All children have the right to develop to their full potential, and the early childhood years are critical for enabling this right. The first years of life are a critical window of opportunity for brain development since at this stage, neural connections form at a rate that will never occur again. These connections depend on the environment where children grow and develop; in other words, brain development mostly depends on the quality of children’s experiences and their interactions with adults. This process is essential as it lays the foundation for learning and influences children’s physical and emotional wellbeing,” according to the UNICEF Guidelines.


It stands to reason that early learning schools and centres are in a position to impact this harsh reality, by recognising the need and embracing teaching and engagement approaches that provide the stimulation, learning opportunities, and personal care that might be lacking in the small children’s home environments.


A specific concept that has delivered positive results in early childhood development is the Reggio Emilia inspired approach, which was initiated by an Italian teacher, Loris Malaguzzi, in the city of Reggio Emilia in northern Italy after WW2. In 1947 he had witnessed the evolving of self-managed education in the local countryside run by the Italian Women’s Union, where the widespread participation and solidarity of the community, and the great attention given to childhood had a profound effect on his thinking and his future choices.


The Reggio Emilia approach, which is now widely used in international networks in about 30 countries around the world, is a child-centred and self-guided curriculum that uses self-directed and experiential learning in relationship-driven environments, through a programme based on principles of respect, responsibility, and community, with exploration, discovery and play. At the heart of this concept is the understanding that children develop their own personality during the early years of development, and that they have ‘a hundred languages’ through which they can express their ideas and learn to use these languages in everyday life.


This type of approach has been found to offset some of the challenges brought about by the pandemic, which added significant stress on working care-givers and parents trying to provide full-time and attentive child care.


Experience in schools such as Reddford House and Reddam House early learning schools, where the Reggio Emilia inspired approach is practiced, has shown that support of each child’s uniqueness has a positive impact on small children, both during the pandemic when ELS children attended school and in normal circumstances when they attend school for the first time.


Ensuring that the school environment and teachers are nurturing, warm, and empathetic, and that each child’s individuality is valued and celebrated, will provide a rock-solid foundation on which to grow their skills.


When the world is disruptive and unpredictable, and considering these alarming findings in the Brown University research, ensuring that young children have a sanctuary during their early learning stages, where their enquiring minds are stimulated to become creative and critical thinkers, and where they learn to grow independently, will impact their optimal development in later life.


Research conducted closer to home in South Africa, headed by Professor Mark Tomlinson from the Institute of Life Course Health Research in the Department of Global Health at the University of Stellenbosch, found that children have been hardest hit by the pandemic.


The researchers point out that during the lockdown, children were especially vulnerable to Covid-related fear, anxiety, depression, altered family and social relationships and even post-traumatic stress. A Parent24 article on the research adds that the findings highlight that children depend on parents for health care, food, protection from harm, opportunities to learn, and love and affection, which comprise nurturing care.


“The ability of families to provide nurturing care depends on ‘facilitating environments’ made up of many factors– the availability of work, adequate housing, health care, social security and supportive laws. As children develop, sources of nurturing care extend to include the wider family network, child care workers, teachers, community members and, very importantly, friends and peers. Children develop resilience through contact with supportive adults beyond the household, such as mentors, extended family and their teachers. However, lockdowns, isolation, the closure of schools and separation from friends interrupt the usual balance of adverse and protective experiences that enable children to cope,” states the article.


The need for schools and child care facilities to provide fully nurturing and supportive environments where small children can thrive and develop in a holistic way is clearly crucial for their future – and for the healthy future of society as a whole.


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