Examining the Impacts of COVID-19 on Child Development
by Kat Tanaka
During the COVID-19 pandemic, most people’s lives were altered drastically. As rapidly developing individuals, children are extremely sensitive to environmental changes, and the effects of the pandemic, both negative and positive, will have a lasting influence on the rest of their lives. Therefore, in this paper, I review how the COVID -19 quarantine and mass exposure to illness impact child development in terms of executive function, cognition, brain development, emotional and self-regulation, and physical development. The implications of individual differences are also considered, and contemporary theories such as Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Model are utilized to approach the interaction between child development and recent events.
executive function, Ecological Systems Model, emotional regulation, toxic stress, individual differences
A child’s development can be impacted by a plethora of factors, from something as small as gene activation to as large as a catastrophic global event. A recent example of the latter is the COVID-19 pandemic. During the peak of the pandemic, daily life was drastically altered for many children. Schools and daycares were closed, there was a mass switch to at-home learning, children were no longer allowed to interact with peers in large group settings, masks had to be worn when in public spaces, entire family units were forced to isolate together in a single space, and the uncertainty of the future was a burden on countless individuals. The effects of these sudden and drastic changes on child development may be examined through Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Model. Using this model, we can analyze how these events have affected child development from a variety of angles and developmental domains including executive function, emotional regulation, and physical development, all while taking individual differences into account.
Ecological Systems View of Changes to Social and Physical Environments
Current events have a significant impact on both the physical and social aspects of child development. Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory can be used to highlight these effects because this model regards a child’s development to be a product of environmental systems and interactions between these systems.
COVID-19 affected many children’s entire ecological system, from the individual level to the all-encompassing chronosystem level, which includes major life transitions and historical events at a global level. At the individual level, a developing child could be affected in a number of ways. For example, physically, if a child contracted COVID-19, their development may be negatively impacted due to the sickness. If they lose a parent or other loved one to the virus, key aspects of their personal lives such as their support system, mental health condition, and even economic situation could be forever altered.
Individual changes may bleed into the microsystem level, which is defined as a “pattern of activities, roles, and interpersonal relations experienced by a developing person in a given face-to-face setting” (Härkönen, 2007). Children’s home, school, and social lives were all impacted by the pandemic, as their immediate environments were drastically altered due to isolation during quarantine. While the removal of social interaction with peers at school due to the switch to online learning may have been detrimental to development, in some cases, being isolated at home with immediate family could alternatively have had a positive effect. Previously, time deficits precluded extra family attention that could stimulate the cognitive, physical, and social development of their child. If the family unit was strong and used quarantine as a chance to grow closer, then the extra attention granted to the child would certainly have been beneficial. For example, a study found that during this extended time at home with their children, “parents began to understand the value of exercise… as an auxiliary tool to strengthen and prepare the immune system for COVID-19” (Li & Cheong, 2022). The most prominent stipulation of this positive impact is that caretakers were willing and able to provide the developing children with the extra effort; unfortunately, this was not always the case.
Besides a child’s immediate environment, their development is also impacted on the mesosystem level, which connects exosystem level environments, such as communities, caretakers’ workplaces, or school systems, to the individual. Changes in a caretaker’s employment, such as switching to working remotely or losing a job, could affect a child’s home environments positively or negatively. On one hand, more quality time with the caretaker could stimulate the child’s development (see above). On the other hand, an increase in harmful stress or the inability to acquire necessary resources due to a change in income could hinder development in a way that would not occur if the child were able to spend less time at home and more time in other settings where their needs are met. For example, children in families who struggle to provide food during the day often rely on free school lunches. Since children could not attend school due to COVID-19 restrictions, many were unable to get the nutrition necessary for healthy development for a prolonged period of time.
Lastly, on the broad macrosystem and, even larger, chronosystem levels, the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the environment that encompasses a broader range of social contexts, such as widely shared cultural values, mass media, laws, and major historical events (Härkönen, 2007). Physically, children were likely affected by the exponential influx of fear-inducing information in the media regarding the state of the world and the spread of the virus, and this prolonged exposure to stressful events is damaging to their development. Socially, the political climate during the pandemic surrounding topics such as mask-wearing was largely controversial and led to a great deal of conflict. This conflict may have led to family and community division, which would impact who the child interacted with and what views they internalized about the state of the world around them.
Executive Function, Cognition, and Brain Development
The broad domain of executive function, cognition, and brain development is important to examine when considering the impact that COVID-19 may have had on child development due to its lifelong implications and individual variations. Executive function abilities include “working memory, inhibitory control, and the flexible volitional shifting of the focus of attention,” and these abilities “provide a foundation for reflection on experience, reasoning, and the purposeful regulation of behavior” (Blair, 2016). Working memory governs how individuals retain and manipulate information over short periods of time, inhibitory control allows for the setting of priorities and resisting impulsivity, and mental flexibility aids in the sustaining or shifting of attention as a response to demands or changes in setting. Combined, these cognitive processes provide the foundation for intentional and volitional control of behavior. They are trainable and shaped by environmental experiences. Therefore, traumatic events in a child’s life, such as a pandemic, are harmful to the development of executive function. The exponential increase in stress resulting from pandemic-related events may have negatively impacted the foundation for proper cognitive control, which in turn can have lasting effects on the individual.
A way to combat this damage to the foundation of executive functioning in the home is for caretakers to be educated about the delicate developmental situation that their children are in during a time of global distress. This education could be done online or in small community groups to adhere to pandemic restrictions. If the caretakers are cognizant of the developmental dangers of poor working memory, inhibitory control, and mental flexibility, then they can work to create a safe, reliable environment in their own homes to foster the development of proper executive functioning, even if the world outside is in crisis. A protected environment like this would give children a better chance to flourish and develop in a way that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.
Emotional and Self-Regulation Development
Emotion regulation includes many different components, including emotional reactions, regulatory components, sensory info, biological arousal, appraisals, cognition, attention, language, social and cultural influences, and hormonal activation and regulation. It also consists of extrinsic and intrinsic processes, which monitor, evaluate, and modify emotional reactions in order to accomplish goals. Intrinsic regulation involves attempting to change one’s personal emotions, while extrinsic regulation is how others influence the emotions of those around them. A child is unlikely to have a strong intrinsic regulation foundation; therefore, they may be highly impacted by how others, such as caretakers or other social influences, manage their emotional reactions. During the isolation and high stress of the pandemic, it is likely that adults around children were also struggling with their own personal emotions, and this negative extrinsic influence could have damaged the emotional regulation of the developing child by teaching them poor emotional modification and evaluation techniques. On the other hand, if caregivers provided beneficial strategies for children to use during these times of distress and demonstrated them through their own actions, then negative events could be transformed into a positive teaching/learning experience.
To work against the harmful impact of poor emotional regulation, it would be beneficial to establish programs for children that would help them develop healthy intrinsic coping strategies. During times that are as uncertain and disruptive as the pandemic, it is crucial to help children handle negative emotions by practicing regulation techniques. Long-term, these techniques would continue to aid children in difficult situations for the rest of their lives. In these programs, caretakers could be shown proper extrinsic regulation mechanisms, such as expressive encouragement, in order to be able to implement them in the home. Additionally, these programs could serve as a controlled area for children to interact socially with each other, where they could gain much-needed peer support and witness other children also practicing healthy emotional regulation.
The events of the COVID-19 pandemic could also impact a child’s physical and health development. An example of one of these impacts is toxic stress. Toxic stress is defined as the “prolonged activation of stress response systems in the absence of protective relationships” (Harvard University, 2015). During critical periods of development, experiencing prolonged periods of toxic stress, such as those associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, could lead to lifelong detrimental consequences. If a child has a poor physical stress response to events of the pandemic and no safeguarding support system, their health development could suffer. Building a strong physical foundation in childhood is important because it can impact the quality of the rest of an individual’s life. If the physical foundation is weakened due to toxic stress, a child’s epigenetic development can be damaged. Epigenetic development is a “dynamic interplay between environments and biology/health” in that the physical, social, and even nutritional environment can shape the epigenome (Harvard University, 2015). Early experiences, such as the effects of contracting COVID-19 or suffering from toxic stress as a result of the environment, can be embedded in the biological process that will continuously impact the individual throughout their life.
These early experiences can go as far back as prenatal development. Mothers who are pregnant during times of pandemic should be made aware of the effects that the toxic stress of the environment could be having on the health development of their unborn children. Implementing strategies, such as increased prenatal care before birth and closer monitoring of child health through increased check-up frequency after birth, could help to alleviate the disruption to children’s development. Additionally, efforts to reduce toxic stress by providing adequate mental health care, specifically that which takes the circumstances of the pandemic into account, could help to alleviate some of the negative consequences.
Accounting for Individual Differences
Individual differences and other variations between children such as age, temperament, and environmental sensitivity must be accounted for in order to fully grasp the scope of how the pandemic is shaping the children’s development. The damage that the COVID-19 pandemic may have inflicted on the formation of executive and cognitive function may vary widely for each among individuals. In children who are of the same age, temperament can play a role in variations of executive function and cognitive development. Temperamental patterns are basic dispositions that are formed by genetic, biological, and environmental interactions. These patterns are “related to reactive and regulatory processes within childhood anxiety” (Affrunti & Woodruff-Borden, 2013), meaning that children possessing different temperaments will acclimate to environmental changes in different ways. According to the Environmental Sensitivity Theory, all individuals have varying levels of susceptibility to environmental contexts. Therefore, even within children of the same age, individual temperaments would cause them to react to the drastic life changes that occurred during the pandemic, such as social isolation, change in routine, and increased anxiety, in a variety of different ways.
It is also important to note the presence of stark developmental differences among children of different chronological ages. According to the early experience hypothesis, the “first three years or so constitute a relatively more important period in development because of the profound changes in brain development known to occur during that time” (Zeanah et al, 2011). These early years are a sensitive period, which is a time in an individual’s development when they are more responsive to environmental stimuli. For example, someone who was a toddler during the worldwide COVID-19 crisis is much more likely to suffer negative developmental impacts than another person who was older and not in a sensitive period of development. In terms of executive function and cognition, younger and more impressionable children may be more susceptible to lifelong developmental damages resulting from the isolation and environmental disruption of the pandemic.
Child development is a multifaceted process that should be examined from a variety of different angles. Theories such as Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems theory can help to investigate how events such as COVID-19 have disrupted children’s daily lives and impacted their development. It is also important to consider how development may be altered over different domains, such as cognitive, emotional, and physical. There are a number of methods that could be utilized to combat some of the negative developmental effects of the pandemic, e.g., educating caretakers, teaching children healthy intrinsic regulation techniques, or closely monitoring physical health. Finally, individual differences and other variations between children must be considered by being aware of varying environmental sensitivities, individualized temperamental patterns, and the implications of age differences.
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