Benefits of early childhood educational frameworks partially disappeared during COVID-10 lockdowns, says Jerusalem social policy research institute
A cornucopia of academic research has proven that experiences during early childhood are critical to the development of the brain and to personality and that situations causing chronic stress can have a negative and particularly strong effect on toddlers.
Building on the scientific literature about the importance of this period, the researchers at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Jerusalem looked at the connection between socioeconomic status during this time and Israeli children’s achievements later in life. They found that poverty during the first two years of a child’s life appears to have an especially strong and harmful effect on later academic achievements.
The researchers also found that high-quality educational frameworks during this critical time matter, as does the time they spend in such surroundings. Another study conducted by the Taub Center Initiative on Early Childhood Development and Inequality shows that, for Israeli children ages two and older, the longer they attend early childhood education frameworks, the higher their educational achievements later in life, especially among children whose mothers lack an academic education.
During the last 1.5 years of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of these factors that have a beneficial impact on early-childhood development took a turn for the worse. For example, the crisis led to economic shutdowns that closed nursery schools and kindergartens in addition to all the schools. Thus, the benefit children gain from spending more time in early-childhood educational settings was interrupted by the crisis. At the same time, the pandemic and all of its implications led to more stress among parents, whether that anxiety stemmed from direct contact with the virus, financial difficulties or navigating the new reality of their children being at home all day instead of in school.
As the virus spread and educational institutions closed, parents suddenly became their children’s sole caregivers, while being expected at the same time to continue working or while simultaneously dealing with losing their jobs and experiencing financial difficulties. This extremely tall order has impacted the parents and the children.
For children in the earliest years of their life, specifically, all of this happened at a particularly critical stage of development. Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, researchers in the were studying the period of early childhood (birth to age six) and its importance for development and implications for children’s future scholastic achievements and consequently on future inequality.
“While we have yet to see the long-term impact of the crisis on these children, the short-term impact is already visible,” the Taub Center team wrote. A study they conducted as part of the Initiative examined the frequency of screen use among families with young children during Israel’s first COVID-19 economic shutdown and found that the children of parents who experienced more stress were exposed to more extensive screen time. In addition, the researchers found that parental stress was more common among families from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and in the Israeli Arab population.
This is important, they continued, because there is a general consensus among researchers and professionals in the field that unsupervised screen time has generally negative effects on the cognitive and emotional development of young children. Therefore, they recommend avoiding all TV, tablet, computer and smartphone use by babies and toddlers until the age of two and to limit their screen time to one hour per day between the ages of two and five – and not to use them as “electronic babysitters.”
These findings indicate that not only did the COVID crisis harm young children’s development by removing them from the positive influence of educational frameworks and exposing them to the negative influence of chronic stress, but it also had the added impact of exposing them more to the harmful implications of extensive screen exposure.
The children most harmed are those from families of lower socioeconomic backgrounds for whom educational frameworks are disproportionately important and whose parents were more likely to suffer financial distress from the crisis and utilized screen time more extensively during the shutdowns. So it appears that the COVID-19 crisis will increase the socioeconomic gaps in Israel stemming from inequality in early childhood – gaps that were already large before the pandemic.
It is impossible to recover the “time lost” for young children during the pandemic, they continued, but in both the short and long term, “several steps can be taken to reduce the damage done by the COVID crisis. For example, support and assistance can be provided to parents, including providing financial aid to those affected by the economic crisis, expanding affordable and accessible psychological support to parents such as stress-reducing techniques training, disseminating information on proper and supervised use of screens, encouraging parents to spend time with their children in ways that contribute to their cognitive development and encouraging teachers to contact and guide parents.
On a more institutional level, hours can be added to early childhood education in the years to come, the quality of early childhood education frameworks can be improved – which is much needed in any case – and primary schools can be prepared to offset the developmental lags of the COVID cohorts when they reach school age.
It is hoped, the Taub expert concluded, that the crisis has called attention to the issues in early childhood that needed addressing years before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived on the scene. These existing issues, the new ones that emerged during the COVID crisis and approaches for how to relate to early childhood as we exit the crisis will all be discussed in greater depth at the Taub Center’s upcoming conference on July 15th, entitled “Early childhood education in Israel: To Corona and Back.”
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