Attending early education during pandemic benefited youngsters’ development

The more time pre-schoolers spent in childcare during the first year of the pandemic, the more their vocabulary grew, a new study has found.

Research led by the University of Leeds found that attending early childhood education and care (ECEC) during the Covid outbreak had sustained benefits for youngsters’ development.

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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 childcare.

Also, for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, the more time spent in those settings, the better their communication and problem-solving skills. Lockdowns are widely believed to have negatively affected young children’s language skills, but these results suggest that ECEC had sustained learning benefits for youngsters growing up during the pandemic – with specific benefits for those from less affluent homes.

Dr Catherine Davies, professor of language development at the University of Leeds, said: ‘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.

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

She added: ‘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.’

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.

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, and between these lockdowns.

Childcare 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 team of researchers called for education policy reform by the government to enable:

  • Better promotion of the role of ECEC for children’s development, for example by highlighting its provision of education as well as care, and as an engine for narrowing attainment gaps and generating economic productivity
  • Support for lower-income families to access early childhood education and care, e.g. by simplifying application processes and increasing funding for the early years pupil premium
  • A review of ECEC funding under the upcoming sector expansion, with the goal of ringfencing sufficient resources for high-quality, flexible, professionalised provision. This could include exempting providers from business rates
  • Schools to nurture children who may not have developed pre-pandemic levels of school readiness during the preschool years, investing in family and community support and parent engagement opportunities

Image: Dragos Gontariu

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