Children who remained at childcare in COVID thrived study says
The Sector > COVID-19 > Benefits for those children who remained in care during the pandemic: study

Benefits for those children who remained in care during the pandemic: study

by Freya Lucas

December 04, 2023

The more time children spent in early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the more their vocabulary grew, a new study led by the University of Leeds has found. 


Academics investigating the ongoing impact of COVID-related closures found that for each day of the week spent in ECEC, toddlers could produce an average of 29 more new words over the first year of the pandemic and understand an average of 16 more new words than peers who did not attend formal care.   


To understand children’s “school readiness,” academics discovered that the more time youngsters had spent in ECEC, the better their vocabulary and personal-social skills. 


For children from disadvantaged backgrounds, the more time spent in those settings, the better their communication and problem-solving skills. 


While lockdowns are widely believed to have negatively affected young children’s language skills, the results suggest that ECEC had sustained learning benefits for children growing up during the pandemic with specific benefits for those from less affluent homes.  


“Our findings demonstrate the importance of early years education for children born without social advantage helping to narrow the gap in early development and level socioeconomic inequalities,” said Dr Catherine Davies, a Professor of Language Development at the University of Leeds. 


“It’s essential that we facilitate access for the families who will benefit most from this support, at this crucial stage in youngsters’ lives.”  


High-quality, centre-based early education during the first three years of life is known to benefit children’s cognitive, language, and social development at school entry and beyond. The aim of this project, carried out in collaboration with researchers at Oxford Brookes University, University of Oxford, Leeds Beckett University and University of Warwick, was to discover to what extent the benefits of ECEC were maintained during the disruption to education caused by quarantine restrictions.  


Lockdowns’ negative impact   


Three years on from the first UK lockdown as pandemic-era pre-schoolers have now entered formal schooling families, practitioners, and policymakers are concerned by mounting evidence that lockdowns led to delays in key developmental skills, especially in children from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds.   


“Increasing the reach of ECEC is a smart way of providing post-pandemic opportunities for socialisation, emotional wellbeing, physical development, and foundational academic skills, rather than compensating for ‘missing skills’. Supporting these opportunities and nurturing children via responsive support should address concerns about school readiness and help to mitigate socioeconomic attainment gap,” Professor Davies said.   


The Social Distancing and Development Study (SDDS), funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), followed over 600 children and their families, aged between eight months and 36 months, living in England, Scotland and Wales. 


Data was gathered in Spring 2020, Winter 2020 and Spring 2021, using online questionnaires because of COVID restrictions in place at the time.  


Parents completed surveys about their daily lives and children’s abilities, including the number of words that their child said or understood, and their child’s early thinking skills, or executive functions – the control of attention, behaviour and emotion. They followed up at regular intervals throughout 2020 and 2021, reporting again on their child’s language ability and thinking skills.  


They were asked to record their child’s understanding and use of words across categories such as vehicles, adventures and animals. They were also asked how often their child exhibited different behaviours, then played games designed to elicit skills such as waiting, finding, and sorting. For problem solving, caregivers commented on whether, for example, their child could retrieve a sweet from a bottle by turning it upside down.  


Researchers then explored links between families’ socioeconomic background, children’s growth in language and thinking skills, and time spent in non-parental childcare before the Spring 2020 lockdown, during all three lockdowns (Spring 2020, Winter 2020, Spring 2021), and between these lockdowns.  


ECEC provision was reduced not only because of lockdowns but also due to issues such as staff shortages, social bubbles, cleaning regimes, and quarantining of close contacts.  


The research team plan to continue to follow this cohort of “pandemic babies” as they start school and advance through their education.  


Read the paper Sustained benefits of early childhood education and care (ECEC) for young children’s development during COVID-19 in the Journal of Early Childhood Research.  


Image credit: Michael Elliott Photography.

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