Children and the Legacy of COVID Policies

Another day, another report revealing the damage from COVID policies to children and their development.

A BBC study has found a 10 percent increase in the number of 5- and 6-year-olds in England requiring specialist speech and language support in the last year. This is the group whose pre-school experiences were most disrupted by pandemic restrictions on social interaction. The increase is even bigger in Scotland, which had more restrictions for longer.

These pupils join a waiting list of over 65,000 children under 18 referred for specialist help. The same study reports primary (elementary) schools adapting classroom teaching to help a much larger number of children whose lagging development is affecting their learning. They are struggling with basic skills like understanding instructions, taking turns and negotiation.

These findings add to a growing body of evidence about the negative impact of policies that enforced social isolation and promoted face coverings.

Ethically, it is almost impossible to do research on children and social isolation. However, psychologists generally accept, from case reports of children with abusive parents, held under extreme conditions of wartime or detention, or in poorly-resourced orphanages, that a lack of interaction with peers and caretakers is very damaging. This is consistent with experimental findings from studies of other primates, which would now also raise serious ethical objections.

Pandemic isolation weighed most heavily on children who were already deprived by poverty. Small children could be confined to rooms in temporary accommodation with a single parent for long periods. Local governments closed parks and playgrounds where they might interact with other children. Even where parents could work from home, children’s opportunities for language learning and social development were limited.

When small children could go out, they encountered masked faces everywhere. The importance of faces has been clear to psychologists since filmed studies of mother/child interaction in delivery suites during the 1970s. From the first moment a baby is handed to its mother, it focuses on her face and establishes eye contact. Faces are key to learning how to read emotions and then to develop speech. Small children need to see lip shapes and movements to be able to form words and make the correct sounds.

A pandemic does not change the fundamentals of the physical, social and psychological processes of child development. These risks were clearly spelled out from the beginning of the pandemic – and largely ignored. Any national review of the management of the pandemic must ask why.

The question remains: “Can these children recover?” COVID policymakers assumed that children are infinitely resilient. Whatever we do to them, their development will catch up. It is certainly possible to help this process but effective interventions are not cheap. Primary teaching styles must be less directed to individualized tests and make more use of group work, collaborative projects and learning through play. This is likely to require retraining and lower staff/child ratios for primary schools, and early years providers. Children who still need extra help should be able to access specialists without lengthy delays.

But it is not just a question of money. It requires a parallel cultural shift. In England, the Department for Children, Schools and Families was rebranded as the Department for Education to narrow its focus to a traditional curriculum and methods of teaching, directed mainly to employability. Social and personal development have been marginalized. COVID recovery is not extra tutoring for exams but repairing the foundations for lifelong learning, getting on with other people, and generally living a reasonable kind of life. Children need a voice around the table at the highest level of government.

Some children, though, may not recover the losses from pandemic restrictions. The psychological evidence is uncertain because of the ethical constraints on experiments with humans. However, it seems that there may be critical periods in development. If learning does not take place at that time, it may not be possible for it to happen later.

This question, and others, could be investigated by a large-scale study to monitor the children of Covid over the next 20-40 years. The UK has long experience with such studies and a wealth of data from previous generations for comparison. The biomedical lock on previous COVID research funding does not, however, inspire much confidence that such an investment will be made. Today’s children may not even have the consolation that their suffering had yielded some scientific benefit.

A shorter version of this post was published in the Daily Telegraph on 8 November 2022

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Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is a professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University. He also serves as a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

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