How COVID-19 Affects the Youngest Learners

The formative years in a student’s academic journey are incredibly important. A longitudinal research study of more than 30,000 kindergarteners through eighth graders by the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education demonstrates that the steepest learning occurs before third grade. Those critical years build a solid foundation from which all growth and depth in learning begins. But because of the pandemic, our youngest learners have been disrupted for three academic years, and that’s concerning for long-term academic success.
The return to school has been a challenging transition for adults and children alike. Because of school closures and parental choices to keep children home, many young children have never experienced the wonderful, noisy, creative, joyful life of a school. At Kent School (MD), where I am the head of school and oversee a preschool and lower division of just over 100 children, many young students did not begin this academic year with the stamina or the skills to learn in a busy classroom setting with other children.
While the media and educators are paying the most attention to older students’ social and emotional well-being, particularly because of the increasing rates of anxiety and depression, we may have forgotten that our very youngest learners also need support and help in unexpected ways. We noticed right away during the first few days of school that there was a significant increase in young students’ separation anxiety from parents. Our students expected and demanded instant gratification and were often impatient and frustrated. They were having trouble with some basic skills like sharing and waiting their turn.
We realized quickly that we need to teach children the social skills of how to learn in a group, listen to others, be a good friend, and navigate transition times between activities. The developmental pace of almost everything related to our youngest learners has slowed, and the transition to school life is taking longer. We have had to be flexible, patient, and ready to teach skills that students would normally come to school possessing.

Longer, Slower Transition to School

Because most of our newest students have never been in a school setting, we have had to reevaluate the correlation between grade and age. The month of September is generally a time when teachers begin to build classroom culture and assess where students are academically and socially. Two weeks after the start of school, we made the decision to have a first grade student join the kindergarten class. The 6-year-old was coming into a formal classroom for the first time, and developmentally, he was not ready to adapt to a structured routine focusing on learning to decode words and to read. Now, in kindergarten, he is happy because his developmental needs are being met. He is learning letter sounds and phonetics at a manageable pace and thriving in the more play-oriented environment.
While we’ve assessed our students individually, we’ve also needed to take a closer look at our age-appropriate activities. Three-year-old children who were at home last year, and not in a preschool or daycare setting, are exhibiting speech delays at a higher rate than we have ever seen. We attribute this to being at home alone with a parent, a grandparent, or an older sibling who speaks for them. So, for this age group, while we have a few students who are now in speech therapy with outside professionals at our recommendation, our teachers are focusing more on intentionally developing language skills, letter sounds, and pronunciation.
We are seeing other issues as well. Independently using the bathroom is a prerequisite for enrollment in our preschool. It is rarely an issue, but we are finding that children ages 3 to 5 have never been to a bathroom outside of their own home. For the first time, we have seen several new students who are afraid of our school’s multi-use bathrooms. They are scared of the flushing noise, the commotion when several students are using the bathroom, and/or being alone in a stall.
While this may seem like an insignificant problem in the face of many pressing educational issues, this regression in toilet training has been an emotional crisis for these children and parents. From parents sending the school videos of their children using the bathroom at home to parents wanting us to bring their children individually to the bathroom and not let anyone else in while their child is there, we have observed and learned a lot. Noise cancelling headphones have helped with the bathroom use for some students, as well as sending small groups to the bathroom.

Understanding the Needs of Young Learners

While educators have been most concerned publicly about high school students mastering curriculum necessary for graduation and college admission, those of us with early childhood education programs in our schools are just beginning to understand and address the impact of COVID-19 on learners in the early years of their development. Young children need in-person learning to grow and thrive. Knowing that their brains are rapidly developing, we understand the importance of getting them acclimated to the comforting routines of daily school life with patience, agility, and speed.
Thankfully, we have educators who believe in children, understand child development, and know that the path is often winding.

Little School students prepare their clay bowls in ceramics class.
Nancy Mugele
Nancy Mugele

Nancy Mugele is head of Kent School in Chestertown, Maryland.


Cassie Abodeely
12/8/2021 1:45:15 PM
I appreciate your assessment of the impact on our youngest learners. As the Summer & Auxiliary Programs Director at a Pre K - Gr 12 school, I recognized similar social, emotional, and physical challenges in our young students and campers in the last years. Summer and after school programs address each of these concerns in real, engaging, and intentional ways, while preparing kids for the classroom. Our programs support increased physical and mental stamina; personal development (waiting your turn, sharing, self regulation, healthy separation at drop off); and develop social skills and friendships outside of the home environment. I encourage schools to work closely with their auxiliary programs to align mission and goals - and believe that in doing so we'll address some of the effects of this pandemic on our youngest learners and all participants will benefit.

John R Cissel
11/10/2021 1:12:13 PM
I am the head of a PK2-8th grade school of 150 students in Long Island (Harbor Country Day School) and we are experiencing the same thing with delays in behaviors in our youngest learners just as you describe. We feel the students are months behind their social development and have had to change the pace of our curriculum.

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