Chloe Learey: The developmental impact of COVID-19 on young brains

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During this coronavirus crisis, we have heard that COVID-19 does not seem to be as devastating for young children as some other illnesses are, at least not physically. As we face a much longer-term reality of a world where children do not leave their homes every day to go to school and childcare, we will need to grapple with the psychological impact of COVID-19 that they will experience.

Social learning is one of the primary activities of young children. Childcare is not just about keeping children physically safe while families work, it is early education that creates the foundation which makes engaging in academic learning and beyond possible. Even if a family has two caregivers and one can have the job of managing the home, early care and learning are still necessary, whether or not it happens in a formal program. A child who enters kindergarten not having the experience of interacting with peers, learning to take turns, learning how to identify emotions and share them, or learning how to be part of a group, is a child who starts behind and has difficulty catching up. When 90 percent of the brain is developed by age 5, before children even get to kindergarten, it is imperative that they get the opportunity to learn these foundational skills.

Will we be able to implement virtual early care and learning that is not static, one-way communication? We certainly must try. Extending the "no physical school" period for another two months may not feel long for the teachers and children who are doing virtual school right now. However, it is forever in the life of our youngest children.

How will we engage and support them during this critical time of life? Ordering childcare for essential personnel was a significant acknowledgment of the sector, but it highlights only the physical safety aspect of the work, not the education. We want to make sure that the care provided is as high quality — both physically safe and educational — as possible in an environment where distancing in social and shared spaces is important. There is some guidance coming out. As the situation continues to evolve and our knowledge base, resources and activities increase and shift, we can continue to refine our understanding of how best to provide early care and education.

In the meantime, early educators are being creative in finding ways to connect with children and families, providing ideas for play and learning, offering stories and sing-a-longs, sharing resources and generally being available for support. Hopefully, we will find tools that help build social skills and learning as we continue to have time to explore options for connecting and teaching.

At Winston Prouty, we are updating our web site, http://winstonprouty.org/coronavirus/, with coronavirus information resources. While it is unfortunate that it has taken a crisis like this to further highlight the importance of early childhood education, it is good that we are talking about ways to improve America's childcare infrastructure.

Chloe Learey is the executive director of the 50-year old Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development in Brattleboro. She serves on the Building Bright Futures State Advisory Council, a governor-appointed body that advises the administration and legislature on early childhood care, health and education systems. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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