The global COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on the world (e.g., Prime et al., 2020). Indeed, many countries around the world took unprecedented steps to prevent and contain spread of the virus. UNICEF (2020) for instance, reported that physical distancing, shutting down of non-essential businesses, and suspension of community and recreation services and programmes took place in most countries. In addition, most countries also closed schools and early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings, playgrounds, businesses, restaurants, and recreational centres. Globally, the numbers of children affected by school closures alone was staggering, ranging between 1.4 billion children (Roberton, 2020) and 1.6 billion children in 190 countries (i.e., approximately 90% of the world’s school age children) (UNESCO, 2020). Indeed, the United Nations (UN, 2020) noted that while children were not the face of the pandemic, they risked being among its biggest victims in terms of the potential profound effects on their wellbeing.
Much research to date has necessarily focused on the medical and physical health impacts of the coronavirus on adults and children. While previous research offers some general insights into the likely psychological impact of the restrictions on children, the nature of previous research, and the scale, extent, and length of the COVID-19 crisis, make it difficult to draw specific conclusions about effects of the pandemic on young children. Many researchers (e.g., Brooks et al., 2020; Loades et al., 2020; Orben et al., 2020; Townsend et al., 2020) have highlighted that the crisis and restrictions are likely to have negative psychological effects on children (Loades et al., 2020), adolescents (Orben et al., 2020), and parents.
For example, a recent rapid review (Brooks et al., 2020) examining evidence relating to the impact of quarantine and social isolation on psychological well-being and mental health in children, found mainly negative effects. However, none of the papers included in the review focused on young children. Another rapid review (Loades et al., 2020) highlighted the negative psychological impact of loneliness and social isolation on healthy children and adolescents. However, the majority of the papers in this review related to children aged over 10, with none including children aged under 5 years. Prime et al. (2020) note the high levels of anxiety and stress reported by families in Canada, and based on previous literature on adversity (such as natural disasters, war and economic upheaval), maintain that the consequences of these experiences may be longstanding. The impact on children’s well-being when faced with such adversity depends largely on family relationships (e.g., Prime et al., 2020).
Given the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread lockdown, it is important to gather empirical evidence relating to the potential psychological effects of the current crisis on very young children and their families. Published empirical research of the effects on families is just beginning to emerge (e.g., Brom, et al., 2020; Spinelli, et al., 2020). For example, Spinelli et al. (2020) reported findings from data gathered during lockdown in Italy from parents, and found that parental stress and perceptions of quarantine were associated with children’s behavioural and emotional problems. Surveys by Save the Children (2020a) of over 6000 children and parents in the US, Germany, Finland, Spain, and the UK also suggest that many children struggled with boredom and feelings of isolation. The aim of the current study was to examine the evidence relating to the socio-emotional effects of the pandemic, gathered during a period of lockdown in Ireland, and to consider the impact of the closure of schools and ECEC settings on young children.
Socio-Emotional Development and Early Childhood Education and Care
Although socio-emotional development is defined in different ways, in general, it refers to the process through which children develop the ability to initiate and maintain trusting relationships with adults and peers; to understand and express emotions in appropriate ways; and to become independent, explore and engage with the environment and make responsible decisions (Ashdown & Bernard, 2012). In short, socio-emotional development is concerned with how children think, feel, and act. As noted by Berk et al. (2006, p. 74), “the early childhood years are a crucial time for the development of self-regulation — an array of complex mental capacities that includes impulse and emotion control, self-guidance of thought and behaviour, planning, self-reliance, and socially responsible behaviour” (p. 74). Furthermore, Kostelnik et al. (2015) assert that children’s social and emotional development affects their overall development and learning.
Ashdown and Bernard (2012) associate socio-emotional development with five core competencies: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Moreover, social and emotional skills include self-confidence, empathy, concentration, persistence, attentiveness, effective communication, and problem-solving (Santos et al., 2012). All of these skills enable children to interact positively with others, have a positive attitude toward school, and have increased academic performance (Ho & Funk, 2018). According to Domitrovich et al. (2017) children with poor socio-emotional competence display more challenging behaviours, including aggression, delinquency, and substance abuse.
Children learn about emotions and how they can be managed in the context of social interactions. While such learning begins in the home, high quality Early Childhood Education and Care settings are also considered to be an important locus for supporting children’s social-emotional development (e.g., Blewitt et al., 2020; Vandenbroeck et al., 2018). Early childhood educators can promote social and emotional skills in the classroom by providing children with a safe, nurturing, and predictable environment (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), 2009; Ho & Funk, 2018). In a nationally representative longitudinal study, parents of young children in Ireland rated children who attended centre-based care as having fewer emotional and peer problems (Russell et al., 2016) and further analysis observed that non-parental childcare of any type at nine months was found to have a small positive effect on socio-emotional outcomes at age five. Teachers, educators, and caregivers play key roles in helping children develop social and emotional competence (Kostelnik et al., 2015). ECEC settings are especially rich in opportunities that support children to build and consolidate socio-emotional skills.
Play-based learning is particularly relevant for young children, providing them with relevant and meaningful learning opportunities (NCCA, 2009; UNICEF, 2020) through which they learn to cooperate and display socially appropriate behaviour. UNICEF (2020) posits that “play sets the foundation for the development of critical social and emotional knowledge and skills. Through play, children learn to forge connections with others, and to share, negotiate and resolve conflicts, as well as learn self-advocacy skills. Play also teaches children leadership as well as group skills” (p. 10). In addition, children use play as a tool to build resilience and coping skills, “as they learn to navigate relationships and deal with social challenges” (p. 10). It is widely acknowledged that this increased social competence is associated with more considerate behaviour, friendliness, conflict resolution, and peer acceptance (e.g., Elias & Berk, 2002; Singer & Singer, 2004).
As indicated, ECEC results in many benefits for young children’s learning and development, and in particular, it supports their emerging socio-emotional development. From a bio-ecological perspective (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006) schools and ECEC facilities are important settings in which children develop physically and psychologically. These settings interact with the microsystem of the home environment to support children’s development. Many other individual factors also affect young children’s socioemotional development. For example, Russell et al., (2016) identified children’s health, gender, and a range of family and socioeconomic factors as having an impact on young children’s socio-emotional development also. The current research focuses on wider factors that may have affected socio-emotional development, namely the COVID-19 crisis, which affected children and families on a global scale.
As mentioned earlier, millions of children have missed out on ECEC due to the closure of their settings during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the case of Ireland, these facilities closed with one day’s notice in March 2020 and continued to be closed for months, causing major disruptions for children and parents. Little is known about how these closures affected children and families during this time. As the lockdown was an unprecedented experience, investigating the experiences of families and gaining parental insights into the impact of the closures on their young children was deemed valuable. This paper draws upon data gathered online from parents during the initial period of lockdown in Ireland, and provides insights into the socio-emotional impact of the COVID-19 crisis on young children.
This section describes how the study was undertaken, providing details of the online parental-report Play and Learning in the Early Years (PLEY) Survey. The survey consisted of three sections and asked a wide range of questions about children’s play, learning, and development, including questions related to children missing ECEC, school and other children, which are the focus of this paper, and described in more detail below. Many questions on the survey were drawn directly from the longitudinal Growing Up in Ireland Study (McCrory et al., 2013; Williams et al., 2019), adapted from previous research, or developed specifically for the PLEY Survey (e.g., questions relating to the impact of the COVID-19 restrictions). The survey was open to participants for two weeks from May 21 through June 3, 2020. At this time in Ireland, early childhood education and care settings and schools had been closed since March 13th, with the announcement of these closures made by the government on March 12th.
Additional national restrictions were put in place in Ireland on March 27th, when the Irish government directed that all citizens must stay at home except in specific circumstances (e.g., travel to and from essential work, shop for food and, attend medical appointments) and practice social distancing (i.e., remain 2 m apart in all public spaces). Adults and children could leave their home for brief physical exercise, but only within 2 km of their home (RTE News, 2020 (Ireland’s National Public Service Media)). This limit was extended to 5 km on May 1st and to 20 km on June 8th. A Road Map for Reopening Ireland, published on May 18th, which proposed a phased re-opening of the country up to August, 2020 (Government of Ireland, 2020), with some ECEC settings reopening June 29th, and schools planning to reopen in late August or early September 2020 (the typical reopening period in Ireland after summer holidays).