The Cost of COVID on Kids

As we arrive at a full year of the pandemic, we must begin to consider the impact this has had on children and what will be required to mitigate the damage. Sure, there is general acceptance that kids have to get back to school, not only for education but also for social development. Social development is not just what happens in school, but it starts at birth. If we are to be successful in this effort, we must understand the dynamics at a much deeper level than I have seen in the discourse so far. Let’s look at a case in point, executive function.

Developmental psychology and biology have identified stages in a child’s life they call critical periods. These are stages when the nervous system is especially sensitive to environmental stimuli. Examples include vision or language development. Deprivations during these periods mean that the child may never acquire full functionality.

While many such periods have been identified, research shows some are weak, and others are strong depending on how serious the deficiency is to survival. For example, binocular vision is a critical function which develops primarily in the first year and continues to be refined for two more. This is one reason that there is concern about too much screen time in the early years. Indeed a Japanise study cited the overuse of smartphones as a primary cause of declining good vision.

When it comes to a skill that parents greatly cherish, empathy ranks among the top. Studies show that kids tend to be altruistic by nature. For children to build on, rather than lose, innate generosity, they need to learn to be truly empathic from role models. While parents say they want empathic children, they often send the message that they value achievement more.

Another critical issue is the many situations that impact the child’s development of a strong attachment and executive function maturation. Specialists in this area raise the alarm that COVID is exacerbating Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). I have written about ACEs in a previous blog, Play and Nurture Space. It is now well established that ACEs are a leading cause of Americans’ declining health.

If I haven’t lost you in all of these studies, let’s get to the meat of the issues. The research I have been doing over the past decade shows that kids have innate drives that cause them to seek ways to maximize their development. Kids are not born thrill-seekers. They are born skill seekers, and jumping off the roof provides both. That means when given the right environment and triggers, kids will do what comes naturally, and this is the primary way they develop. If parents had to do all of the teaching, we really would be in trouble. Let’s look at one of the primary way kids develop executive function through the lens of COVID-19.

If you accept the notion that kids have a natural drive to learn, what behaviors can we observe that develop empathy? One very popular play behavior that is actively suppressed in most educational settings is Rough and Tumble play. For really wonderful examples of a preschool that embraces this sort of play, search Teacher Tom’s Blog. For the science behind this, get The Playful Brain: Venturing to the Limits of Neuroscience by Sergio and Vivien Pellis.  If you want a “How to,” look no further than Mike Huber’s Embracing Rough-and Tumble Play.

Ok, Ok! I promised I’d get to the meat of the issue. Rough and tumble play helps kids learn empathy because if they don’t care about other children’s feelings, kids won’t play with them. COVID-19 is depriving kids of social interaction both at home and typically at school. That means few if any, opportunities for close personal contact and the developmental benefits of getting down and dirty during this critical formative period. It looks like these year-long restrictions may continue for another year with a slow return to normal.

The conclusion is that we may have nearly a generation of little egotists that will struggle with fitting into community life. Many will be driven by fear of failure and rejection. We have seen what happens to society when these traits are left without guardrails. Parents, educators, and society must come up with ways to implement help for these kids so they learn to play fair. We can’t pretend that we can go back to the way things have always been done.

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