Steven Barnett, Rutgers University – COVID’s Effects on Preschool Children’s Learning

The pandemic has had long-term negative effects on pre-school students.

Steven Barnett, Board of Governors professor of education at Rutgers University, discusses.

Board of Governors Professor of Education at Rutgers, Dr Steven Barnett is co-Director of the US National Institute for Early Education. His work focuses on public policies to support early learning and child development, including the economics of early education. He is also an Awarding Committee member of the prestigious Khalifa International Award for Early Learning, which is open to researchers, schools and educators. To enter, please visit the website.

COVID’s Effects on Preschool Children’s Learning

In 2020, my team launched a national US survey to track changes in young children’s learning activities during the first year of the pandemic and beyond. As concerns emerged from parents and teachers, we added a measure of young children’s mental health and social-emotional development. This Preschool Learning Activities survey has found important changes. Some were temporary but others have continued.

Participation in classroom-based learning for three- and four-year olds plummeted during the early months of COVID, but bounced back to near pre-pandemic levels. However, the frequency of parent-child book reading dropped sharply and has stayed low.

In 2020, the percentage of parents saying they read to their three- to five-year-olds at least three times per week fell from 85% to below 75%, where it remained through 2023. This is very concerning as no parent-child activity is more predictive of learning and development when children begin kindergarten.

A recent OECD study suggests that reading five to seven days a week boosts young children’s learning even compared to three or four days per week.  Other parent-child activities that declined during COVID have recovered, so why reading remains low is a worrying mystery.  Further research is vital.

Another major concern from our survey is that parents report that one in five three- to four-year olds has serious behaviour problems. This number is much higher than expected and has not declined from 2020 to 2023. As with the drop in reading, this suggests persistent changes in home life rather than pandemic-specific impacts. It is hardly surprising that teachers are reporting unusually high levels of challenging behavior in preschool and kindergarten.

Our children’s future well-being is jeopardized by these enduring changes in their lives. We need to turn our attention now to identifying their causes and how children and their parents might be helped.  

  1. Samantha Hicks