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Can we change the long-term impact of the pandemic on young minds?

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Jan Dubiel: Life and Learnings after Covid

Have the recent global events reshaped and revaluated our view of Early Years Education? 

The seismic trauma inflicted on humanity through the Pandemic has left its indelible mark on all of us. We are full of stories and testimonies that bear witness to the personal impact of the virus, the anxiety that surrounded it, and the associated measures to control it. This has deeply affected individuals, communities and nations and the planet is a very different one from the place we knew in the Winter of 2019. Although there is now a sense of a return to normality in most of the world, there is a reluctant, and inevitable acceptance, that his new normal will need to be very differently defined.  

For young children, the ones currently entering Early Years and Kindergarten Provision, the effect of this has been particularly severe and significant. While it may take time, years even, to be able to evaluate the real effect this has had on them, we can already identify some obvious initial concerns.  

It is widely accepted that the first few years of life are dramatically and deeply important for long-term development. It is in this phase that the brain and neural connections grow exponentially and consequently, the child’s view of the world and their place within it is substantially formed and constructed. To have lived these years with the apparent normality of lockdowns, virtual (rather than face-to-face) communication with friends and relatives, vaccinations, mass testing, compulsory mask-wearing, extreme hygiene routines and social distancing, it is expected that this is going to have had an impact upon children in the early years.  

Although this has feasibly been an aberrated view of reality, and one that we hope will soon revert to something more familiar, the issues it has raised, while not new, are particularly intense. The Pandemic has, perhaps, simply shone a brighter light on the challenges of an effective, appropriate and impactful evidence-led view of Early Years Provision, and inadvertently exposed some of the possible fault lines in how this is currently understood and delivered. Maybe, in emerging from such uncharted chaos and the subversion of deeply held assumptions, we have an opportunity to reshape and revaluate how we perceive effective Early Years Provision.  

Within a range of disparate observations, concerns and consequences; three specific areas have surfaced that appear to be consistent areas of interest. They provide a practical and effective starting point for a wider and deeper debate about Early Years provision, which are critical in their own right. 

Emotional and physical wellbeing

The first of these is children’s well-being and emotional/psychological security. Abraham Maslow famously created a ‘hierarchy of needs’ which placed the importance of about material rial requirements; food, shelter, and water, below the ultimate aspiration of ‘self-actualisation’ and the role that learning and development play in this. Similarly, the work of Prof. Ferre Laevers identified the importance of assessing levels of emotional wellbeing as a precursor to effective ‘involvement’ in deep-level learning.   

Obviously, the experiences of children within the pandemic and the anxiety and uncertainty that surrounded it have invariably seeped into children’s awareness. Although the practice of supporting wellbeing as a priority has been a strong element of practice, there is a danger that this could be distracted. A narrative of ‘catching up’ has emerged in some countries that refers in general to the acquisition of knowledge and skills in what we might describe as ‘Academic’ areas such as Literacy and Mathematics. ‘Lost learning’ time has created its own panic that children may not reach the expected levels of attainment at points in time.  But we need to be acutely aware that if we do want children to achieve academically – and we all do – then this needs to rest on ensuring that they are emotionally secure, confident, happy, and relaxed within the learning environment. It is on this that the more cognitively demanding and challenging work of learning can take place. More than ever, we need to ensure that this is foregrounded in any approach to induction to new Provision and is continually monitored as a matter of course. Enabling children to become emotionally literate and supporting the co-construction of strategies to manage strong fears and emotions, should be, I would argue, the most vital element of any current approach. It is then within this context that the skilled educator takes the learning forward within the very academic element described. 

Social development

The second of these is children’s social development. Again, restrictions on access and socialisation, have denied a mainstay of childhood and the natural desire to communicate and cooperate with peers. Children’s experience of a lockdown environment, where this is restricted to immediate family members has potentially deprived them of the natural process of making friends, sharing, cooperation and negotiation. Again, while this has always been an important focus of an Early Years Curriculum, more than ever, it needs to be proactively and specifically supported with the cohort of children entering provision.

Language and communication

Thirdly is the development of language and communication. While in some cases the experience of lockdown provided enhanced opportunities for supported dialogue with older siblings and adults, this was again, in a situation that usually did not include peers. On entry to provision, the type, purpose and context of language with children of a similar age, in a social setting with which they are unfamiliar and possibly anxious about (as discussed above), may impact on an expected trajectory of ‘typical development’ Added to this is the pervasive presence of face masks, which continue in some areas. As much of communication is signalled through body language, especially facial expressions, children are potentially missing out on a vital element of learning and incorporating the natural process of being able to ‘read faces’ alongside the words being spoken. Again, the foregrounding of language, especially as a social communication needs to be actively supported and remain a specific focus of Curriculum intent and delivery. 

Only time, and reflection, and research will deliver a clear and accurate view of the impact of the last few years on this cohort of young children. In the meantime, we need to be ever vigilant that what we provide, teach and understand is consistent with what is important.

Article written by Jan Dubiel

Jan Dubiel is the Director of Early Years at AISL Harrow International Schools and Bilingual Kindergartens and is a nationally and internationally recognised specialist in Early Childhood Education

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