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How COVID-19 Has Impacted Child Development

While the effects of COVID-19 on children’s growth likely won’t be understood for many years, here’s what you can do to help children get back on track now.

How COVID-19 Has Impacted Child Development

How COVID-19 Has Impacted Child Development

It has been nearly three years since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Many toddlers and young children have lived most, if not all, of their lives during this time of limited social interactions, where an evolution in how education is being delivered has emerged. 

Families, educators, and childcare providers have all reported that COVID-19 has dramatically impacted children’s development across all developmental domains, including emotional, social, cognitive, physical, and language. And while the extent of these impacts on children’s growth likely won’t be fully understood for many years, fortunately, there are ways for caregivers and providers to help children overcome developmental obstacles and continue growing up happily and healthily. 

Mother standing behind her child sitting in front of a laptop on a white table.


Emotional vulnerability

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, social distancing rules, stay-at-home orders, and less frequent in-person interactions with friends and family members have all had a significant effect on many children’s emotional well-being. Children were forced to miss birthday parties, vacations, and even time at school or daycare. 

For many of them, going back to a normal routine has presented its own set of emotional challenges, leaving them feeling stressed or dealing with separation anxiety from their parents after so much time together. Without a sense of safety and security, children can face difficulties expressing and self-regulating their emotions in healthy ways. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that parents and caregivers have honest conversations with young children about grief (especially if they have lost someone close to them due to COVID-19 or another illness). Reading books about emotions and expressing feelings can also be helpful in supporting young children who are coping with anxiety, stress, or sadness.

The most important thing is to recognize and address signs of fear or other negative emotions in young children when they arise. Unusual eating or sleeping habits, or difficulty with attention or concentration, can be signs of a child’s emotional vulnerability. Talk to children as often as possible about how they are feeling and help them stay socially connected in safe ways as much as possible. 

Social vulnerability

Similar to emotional vulnerabilities caused by a lack of in-person interactions with friends and family members, children’s social skills have also been negatively impacted by COVID-19 protocols. Social-emotional skills are one of the key developmental domains that are essential to a child's growth. These skills include recognizing and managing their feelings and the feelings of others, developing empathy, and forming positive social relationships. Studies have shown that children with healthy social-emotional skills not only display more positive behavior but are also more likely to perform better academically

Without opportunities to play and learn alongside peers, children have lost valuable opportunities to practice social-emotional traits like managing their feelings, sharing with others, learning impulse control, and communicating their emotions in appropriate ways. Today, teaching social-emotional lessons are even more important, as many children have been out of practice since the COVID-19 pandemic and need extra patience from parents and educators as they learn (or re-learn) how to behave appropriately in social settings. 

For educators, it’s important to assess each child’s individual social needs and diverse perspectives. This will help to establish a sense of safety and belonging and encourage the children to feel more at ease as they learn to build relationships with you and other children around them. 

Cognitive vulnerability

Research has revealed a stark decline in the cognitive functions of children under the age of three, as compared to those of children who were born prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. This was found to be especially true for children from lower socio-economic families. 

Aside from genetic factors that may have contributed to this drop for many children, such as the physical and mental health of their mothers during pregnancy, limited opportunities for in-person learning have reduced children’s abilities to practice and develop important early cognitive functions, like problem-solving, creativity, and symbolic thought.

Fortunately, the impact that the reintroduction of in-person lessons can have on social-emotional skills can, in turn, have a positive effect on children’s cognitive abilities. As children begin to get reacclimated to daycare or classroom settings and establish relationships with their peers and caregivers, they will have more opportunities to play and learn. 

Physical vulnerability

Physical growth, primarily the development of important gross, fine, and perceptual motor skills, may also have been negatively impacted for many children due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The reason for this is apparent, as children at home (often with working parents) have fewer opportunities to move, play, and navigate unfamiliar environments. 

It is recommended that children engage in physical activity for at least one hour per day—a benefit that childcare settings can provide. For children born during the pandemic, or those who are older and switched to remote learning, these opportunities have been less frequent. This may have caused reduced development in walking, handling small objects, coordination, balance, and many other important areas of physical growth. 

Outdoor time and frequent opportunities for play are important ways to help reduce physical vulnerabilities. This can mean less screen time for children at home and more emphasis on active play to help bolster their movement and physical capabilities.

Communicative vulnerability

Much like cognitive functions, language, and communication skills have also declined in children born since the pandemic. Infants born during the pandemic often exhibited significantly reduced verbal and non-verbal performance as compared to children born prior. While genetic factors were considered to be a contributing factor, studies found that the frequency of caregiver/child conversations also decreased dramatically, particularly in lower socio-economic families. 

Language skills are an essential part of children’s overall development. Developing the ability to communicate effectively has a major impact on all other developmental domains. It is how children learn new academic concepts, build social skills, and learn about body and emotional awareness. 

It is no secret that reading, talking, and singing with children from a young age is one of the most important things parents and caregivers can do to enhance language skills. In a post-pandemic world, these activities are even more important to reducing communicative vulnerability and helping children acquire the skills they need to learn and express themselves accurately. 

This requires teamwork between educators and families to ensure consistent growth in children’s language abilities. If you are an educator, using a tool like brightwheel’s communication feature can help you stay in touch with parents easily and frequently to ensure children are getting as much language support as possible, both at home and in the classroom. 


The studies are very clear—the COVID-19 pandemic has had significant, negative impacts on many children’s emotional, social, physical, cognitive, and language development. Educators play a vital role in helping children overcome these effects as they have the expertise and experience needed to support children’s growth. With the right guidance and learning environment, children can get back on track and continue developing these essential skills.

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