In April, the U.K.’s Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) published an analysis detailing the impact of lockdown on children over the last two years of pandemic-related disruptions. Among various observed mental health impacts, the report said that schools and caregivers were also noticing an effect on children’s language development, in the sense that some kids appear to be falling behind or experiencing delays in progressing with their communication and socialization skills.
“Children have missed out on hearing stories, singing and having conversations,” the report read. The combined effect of remote learning, lack of peer interaction, and masking in schools seems to have resulted in some children falling behind in vocabulary acquisition, and also occasionally lacking the confidence to speak. Some have noticed that babies are struggling to respond to facial expressions.
The effects aren’t limited to mere delays in acquisition, either. It seems that where in-person classroom environments normally would have played a formative role in language development, television and media have served as replacements. One provider told Ofsted that with children spending more time on screens during the course of the pandemic, they have begun to mimic the accents and voices of the characters they frequently watch. A teacher told Express.co.uk that students are now using American accents when they play with each other, likely after watching a lot of American media and YouTubers during lockdown. This goes both directions, by the way. Some children in the U.S. have adopted a British inflection after many hours spent watching Peppa Pig, referring to cookies as “biscuits” and the TV as the “telly.”
With all of that said, it remains to be seen whether there will be long-lasting effects or delays that are insurmountable with a bit of catchup. Ofsted noted that there has been “a lot of really good work” among education providers using strategies to help bring students up to speed. And while COVID may very well result in lasting cultural changes, young children’s brains are exceptionally plastic and capable of recovering from such setbacks with the right instruction. Some researchers believe children who fall behind in language development will be able to catch up without lasting effects.
“I do not expect that we’re going to find that there’s a generation that has been injured by this pandemic,” Moriah Thomason, a child and adolescent psychologist at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine, told Nature.com.
Early data cited by Nature.com suggests that masks have not negatively affected the emotional development of children, though some of the educators surveyed by Ofsted believe they may have played a role in babies’ ability to respond to facial expressions. One study found that two-year-olds were capable of understanding what adults in opaque face masks were saying. Still, it is too soon to draw firm conclusions, as many studies have not yet been peer-reviewed.
Additionally, the impact of lockdown on children is not universal and has, predictably, affected low-income families worse. Parents who are stretched thin (and also likely not able to work remotely, and thus stay home with their kids) have been less available to devote one-on-one playtime and attention to children. One Brown University lab that was able to stay open through the pandemic observed a drastic dip in the neurodevelopmental scores of infants, with the biggest drops in babies from low-income families.
Still, it’s unclear what this means for the long term. “IQ, as babies, doesn’t predict much,” Marion van den Heuvel, a developmental neuropsychologist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, told Nature.com. “It’s really hard to say anything about what that will mean for their future.”
For now, the best thing to do for children who may have fallen behind is to maximize their exposure to language and other people, give them ample opportunities to play with others safely, and talk to them as much as possible.