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How COVID-19 Is Affecting Preschoolers' Development and Mental Health

Woman and child wearing masks outside of a school

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Key Takeaways

  • Children under the age of 6 have been resilient despite showing signs of emotional distress amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • With little life experience to make sense of the pandemic's abrupt changes, preschoolers often mirror the stress and emotions of their parents.
  • Parents must avoid being hard on themselves as they take on the challenge of their child's virtual education.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, school closures came in waves across the nation that forced teachers, students, and parents to navigate a new world of virtual learning. The stress of these circumstances has been shared by all involved, including the youngest of the bunch: preschoolers.

While it's unclear how this period of time will impact younger children in the long term, this age group has shown signs of both emotional distress and incredible resiliency.

Changes to the Classroom

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended social distancing strategies in classrooms, mask-wearing for staff and children over 2, intensified cleaning and disinfection efforts, increased air ventilation, frequent hand-washing, modified drop-off and pick-up procedures, and daily health screenings. In addition, staff and kids should stay home if they exhibit signs of illness.

Devon Mello, a preschool teacher at Brown/Fox Point Early Childhood Education Center in Providence, Rhode Island, says his classroom play areas have largely stayed the same. Still, how children interact with them—and each other—has drastically changed.

Normally, children are encouraged to play together. And at this age, peer play is critical and necessary for development. Now, students must occupy designated areas of the classroom individually.

"This has been an area of growth and adjusting for everyone, as children are prone and eager to want to join one another in an area or activity that looks fun," Mello says. "While these changes have proven to be successful for everyone, I am concerned about the shift in mindsets from 'sharing' to 'individual.'"

Mello's students each have designated seats, separated from each other by plexiglass dividers. And each student has their own basket with art supplies and paper, as opposed to the communal supplies students shared pre-pandemic. Mello's students have used these supplies to draw pictures and write letters for friends and family they haven't been able to see, which indicates they're aware of the prolonged distance.

Devon Mello, preschool teacher

While these changes have proven to be successful for everyone, I am concerned about the shift in mindsets from 'sharing' to 'individual.'

— Devon Mello, preschool teacher

Research has shown the pandemic has led to limitations in time spent outside for children, leading to less physical activity and more sedentary behavior. However, Mello says his school encourages spending as much time outdoors during the school day so students can access the playground and experience nature.

Right now, much of the responsibility of caring for students' physical and mental health rides on the shoulders of teachers, who must also double as sanitation monitors. Teaching and keeping sanitary protocol top of mind is a tough act.

And because students can't interact with each other, they look for more one-on-one time with their teachers. Mello says it's been a struggle to divide his time equitably. To focus on social and emotional growth, Mello and his coworkers developed a curriculum that alternates between traditional topics, like math-based activities and dinosaur discussions, and activities that explore personal and family identity.

"While there has been a shift in materials becoming more individual for safety reasons, we emphasize the importance of our community and its diversity in our reading times and art projects," Mello says

Psychological Effects

For most individuals, the drastic changes that have accompanied the pandemic have caused extreme stress and anxiety levels. And research shows the lockdown can have a great impact on young children's emotional and social development.

Children under the age of 6 are more likely to develop clingy behavior and fears of family members contracting the virus than older children. And children of single or divorced parents may develop more emotional distress if they're separated from a parent due to quarantine. These experiences of distress have manifested as symptoms like sadness, disturbed sleep, poor appetite, agitation, inattention, and separation anxiety.

There are also the positive aspects to this situation, such as more quality time spent with parents. In addition, with their limited life experience, young children can be very flexible and exhibit great strength in difficult times.

"The children have been incredibly resilient every day through it all, and take all curves with stride and understanding," Mello says. "I am constantly amazed and proud of them."

Annie George-Puskar, PhD

The pandemic has really highlighted the inequities in our systems of care, and those with limited access to high quality childcare or preschool options could suffer greater gaps in social, emotional and academic outcomes.

— Annie George-Puskar, PhD

The long-term impact on behavioral and mental health is yet to be seen. But Annie George-Puskar, PhD, an educational psychologist and assistant professor at Fordham University, is most concerned about families from low-income and underprivileged backgrounds.

"The pandemic has really highlighted the inequities in our systems of care, and those with limited access to high-quality child care or preschool options could suffer greater gaps in social, emotional, and academic outcomes," George-Puskar says. "The added impact on families who are experiencing financial stress and food insecurities add to the environmental impact of child well-being that could impact them later on."

Additional Challenges for Kids With Disabilities

Children with disabilities are also at greater risk of negative consequences. For these students, school psychologist Camille Henderson, SPsyS, says the experience of online learning has been extremely varied. While some students are thriving without social distractions, others struggle without the hand-over-hand support their teachers had provided.

And for the parents and caregivers of these children, responsibilities include overseeing therapeutic programs, as well. This can be extremely challenging without the in-person support of healthcare professionals.

"Big changes cause big messes," Henderson says. "You're hands-on now in a way you never were before. And the reality is some kids are home in situations we can't control."

A recent study assessed the impact of COVID-19 on families of young children with intellectual and developmental disabilities from various ethnic, linguistic, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Parents reported their greatest challenge was caring for their children at home after losing essential services. While these parents found a silver lining in the fact that the family could spend time together at home, many worried about the long-term effects of this period on their children's development.

Since the pandemic hit, Henderson has been coaching parents through the challenges of virtual learning. So often, parents feel like "bad teachers," when in reality, placing the responsibility of a child's educational development on a parent's shoulders during this time isn't reasonable. Instead, Henderson urges them to keep in mind the expertise involved in building and carrying out their child's educational plan under normal circumstances.

"Parents are missing the secret sauce and beat themselves up," she says. "So many parents are dealing with guilt."

Strategies for Parents

For parents whose children attend school virtually, there are strategies to help keep your child on track while being gentle with yourself. First, Henderson recommends creating a visual schedule to help your child know what to expect during the day.

"Kids need their own agency," Henderson says. "Kids need their own structure and consistency, and they need to know what your expectations are."

Timers are also helpful and can be used for both schoolwork and play—play is a necessary part of your child's day. Choose an activity both you and your child will enjoy and set a timer. Learning happens through play, and this time can serve as a welcome break for you, too. In addition, taking part in playtime with your child can relieve the stress you're experiencing on your own.

Camille Henderson, SPsyS

Be a human in front of your kids and speak to them as it's developmentally appropriate to do so.

— Camille Henderson, SPsyS

Emotional awareness is important here. Children are perceptive and will mirror the stress of their parents. With tough times both behind and ahead of us, it's important to maintain a level of transparency with your children about the unique challenges of this time.

"Pretending that it’s not hard does a disservice to your child because they will experience hard things, and if their recollection is that it wasn’t hard for their parents, that sets up a superhuman expectation," Henderson says. "Be a human in front of your kids and speak to them as it's developmentally appropriate to do so."

Navigating this pandemic is confusing for all of us, and your children will have questions, too. While patience might be a scarce resource, you can positively impact your child's development by indulging their curiosity and helping them to make sense of their surroundings.

"Preschool-age children are asking questions to understand the world around them," George-Puskar says. "While some of the questions may be difficult to answer, it is important to allow them the safe space to ask them."

What This Means For You

Young children are resilient but will mirror their parents' stress and emotions. Go easy on yourself while navigating your child's virtual education and allow time to enjoy playing together.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Guidance for operating child care programs during COVID-19. Updated June 10, 2021.

  2. Moore SA, Faulkner G, Rhodes RE et al. Impact of the COVID-19 virus outbreak on movement and play behaviours of Canadian children and youth: a national surveyInt J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2020;17(1):85. doi:10.1186/s12966-020-00987-8

  3. Singh S, Roy D, Sinha K, Parveen S, Sharma G, Joshi G. Impact of COVID-19 and lockdown on mental health of children and adolescents: A narrative review with recommendationsPsychiatry Res. 2020;293:113429. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2020.113429

  4. Neece C, McIntyre LL, Fenning R. Examining the impact of COVID‐19 in ethnically diverse families with young children with intellectual and developmental disabilitiesJ Intellect Disabil Res. 2020:jir.12769. doi:10.1111/jir.12769