Generation C (COVID) is Entering School with Significant Language, Academic, and Social Delays
The Pressure on Our Preschool and Kindergarten Programs to Act NOW
One of my favorite consultations is with a preschool program in Kenai, Alaska.
I began working with the Kenaitze Indian Tribe Head Start Program during the summer of 2007. Now, 15 years later, this Program has expanded into an Infant, Toddler, and Preschool Program. . . as well as a Cultural Support and Instruction Program where Cultural Instructors support their Native American students—from kindergarten through high school—during their days in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, and then in a Tribe-run afterschool program where they teach them Native dance, the Dena’ina language, and the ten events that take place at the Native Youth Olympics.
This past month, I was honored to work with the staff serving all of these programs once again on-site in Alaska. During our time together, we discussed (among many topics):
- How to teach, prompt, and reinforce important interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional awareness, control, communication, and coping skills with different toddler through high school students
- The connection between students’ physiological and neurological development and their emotional, affective, and behavioral status and interactions
- The five building blocks of school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management
- How to teach the Stop & Think Social Skills Program effectively in the classroom and common areas of the school
- The characteristics of effective teaching and differentiated instruction
- How to identify the root causes when students present with academic problems and social, emotional, and behavioral challenges; and how to link the results of these analyses to multi-tiered services, supports, strategies, and interventions
- How to talk with students about their social-emotional challenges, and how to safely and productively respond to students when they are emotionally past the “physiological point of no return”
One of the goals was to begin this new school year with everyone focused on both the academic and social, emotional, and behavioral status and progress of all students, and to consistently use effective science-to-practice and multi-tiered processes needed to accomplish this goal.
It was a very productive and rewarding week, and we all learned many things together through the deep discussions and the case study applications that we shared.
Preschool and the Pandemic
As I prepared for the week with my colleagues, I reviewed a number of studies that have identified the impact of the pandemic on young children. . . even as the pandemic continues.
According to a handful of studies published within the last few months, some children born during the pandemic:
- Are showing below average scores on developmental tests of gross motor (e.g., walking), fine motor (e.g., drawing, cutting with scissors), and social and problem-solving skills when compared with children born before the pandemic began.
- Are vocalizing and engaging in verbal interactions much less frequently than their pre-pandemic counterparts.
- Lack a sense of personal space and boundaries, may be more “clingy” with their parents/guardians, and have difficulty separating from trusted adults—especially in new or unknown settings.
- Experienced more family poverty and food insecurity—increasing the potential for (family) stress and other emotional distresses.
- Experienced fewer routines and less predictability at home—potentially affecting their emotional security and executive functioning skills.
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In fact, while approximately one in six infants, toddlers, and preschool children experienced a developmental delay before the pandemic began, researchers in some communities are now finding that infants born during the pandemic may have nearly twice the risk of developmental delays specifically in communication and social development in comparison.
While not causal, some of the hypothesized pandemic-related reasons for these children’s challenges include:
- Mothers’ pandemic-added stress during pregnancy, fewer in-office maternity visits with their doctors, and parental/family stress at home after their birth.
- The children were sequestered at home for extended periods of time—without the opportunity to visit, explore, interact, play, and socialize in different settings, with different children and adults, and across different situations.
- The use of masks at home by parents, siblings, and extended family members (because there was no vaccine for a while) made verbal and non-verbal communication more difficult and restricted, and this decreased the children’s experience and learning of sounds, words, facial expressions, and understanding of others’ verbal and non-verbal cues.
Indeed, one study noted that pandemic babies had fewer people talking and interacting with them for less time every day.
- More and earlier use of computers, TV, and other devices to “entertain” these children—with possible effects on their attention and social interactions.
- Less opportunity to visit their primary care physicians for preventative health and other screenings, and to other clinicians (as indicated) for early psychoeducational and speech/language screenings.
- Less opportunity for on-site, interactive, and high quality early intervention services for students with developmental delays or disabilities, and fewer formal early education opportunities for all children as well.
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Some in the popular press are beginning to call this generation of children, Generation C (COVID). While the research (as above) is notable so far, none of us can accurately predict right now how many children have been negatively impacted by conditions directly related to the pandemic, how responsive they will be to strategic interventions, and whether some of their challenges will be short-lived or more sustained.
As always, it is important to recognize that the challenges above must be identified on an individual child basis, and that analyses to determine the root causes of any problems found are essential before recommending and implementing services, supports, strategies, and interventions.
Moreover, as appropriate, these analyses must include assessments of the child’s status before the pandemic began, so that issues or causes that predated the pandemic or that are not pandemic-related can be identified and addressed.
The Benefits of Early Childhood Education
As noted above, most of today’s infants, toddlers, and preschoolers did not have the benefit of attending early childhood programs during the first two to three years of the pandemic.
At this point, given the effects of the pandemic noted above, the pressure is now on early childhood, preschool, and kindergarten teachers to address the significant pandemic-related gaps that some students are experiencing.
The benefits of early childhood education have been empirically researched and objectively documented in many studies beginning with the Perry Preschool Project in 1962. In fact, there are quite a number of studies that have longitudinally tracked students from their participation in early childhood programs into adulthood—some of them (e.g., in Tennessee) that are quite recent.
Overall, students—especially those living in poverty—who participated in past early childhood education opportunities:
- Were more prepared to enter kindergarten and succeed both academically and socially during their early elementary school years
- Closed some of the receptive and expressive language development gaps that they originally entered their programs with
- Were less likely to be retained during their school careers, were less likely to need special education services, and were more likely to graduate from high school. . . with higher SAT scores
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- Were more likely to graduate from college, to be employed full-time, to own a car and home, and to be less likely to live in poverty as adults
- Had more positive social interactions as adults, had more positive relationships with family members, and were more community-focused
- Were less likely to have substance abuse problems, to have run-ins with the law, and to be incarcerated as juveniles
We expect these same results to occur for today’s (pandemic-affected) students in need—even though some educators point to research showing that some of the academic gains above dissipate by the end of Grade 3.
The need right now is too great to wait.
Educators need to focus more on the long-term high school through adulthood outcomes. Even if the “disappearing” Grade 3 academic results are fully accurate, this does not mean that early childhood education has no “long-term” effects. Indeed, consider where the children in the Perry Preschool (and other) study(ies) would have scored academically at the end of Grade 3 had they not participated in their early childhood programs!
What Should Early Childhood, Preschool, and Kindergarten Teachers. . . . Schools and Districts Do?
And so. . . the pressure is on our early childhood, preschool, and kindergarten teachers, their administrators and support staff. . . and their schools and districts.
More than ever before, the teachers, administrators, and support staff need to screen and validate the students who are developmentally delayed, in what areas, and for what reasons. But they also need to recognize, within the wide range of normative behavior, the students who are performing well and as expected.
To address the needs of the infants, toddlers, and preschoolers who are behind due to pandemic-related factors, schools and districts need to immediately attend to the following three important areas:
- Child Find;
- Completing Social-Developmental Histories; and
- Providing Effective and Compensatory Educational Services and Supports
Recommendation #1: Child Find
Child Find is required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2004) for both infants and toddlers (Part C) and school-aged students (Part B). All school districts receiving federal funding are required to have a systematic Child Find system and process so that infant through school-aged (i.e., high school) children and adolescents with suspected developmental delays (Part C) or disabilities (Parts C and B) are identified as early as possible, are found eligible for special education services (or not), and receive those services and interventions (if qualified).
This early identification and intervention responsibility is especially important right now given the infant, toddler, and preschool status and information described above.
According to special education law (IDEA, Part B):
300.111 Child find.
(1) The State must have in effect policies and procedures to ensure that—
(i) All children with disabilities residing in the State, including children with disabilities who are homeless children or are wards of the State, and children with disabilities attending private schools, regardless of the severity of their disability, and who are in need of special education and related services, are identified, located, and evaluated; and
(ii) A practical method is developed and implemented to determine which children are currently receiving needed special education and related services.
(b) Use of term developmental delay. The following provisions apply with respect to implementing the child find requirements of this section:
(1) A State that adopts a definition of developmental delay under §300.8(b) determines whether the term applies to children aged three through nine, or to a subset of that age range (e.g., ages three through five).
(2) A State may not require an LEA to adopt and use the term developmental delay for any children within its jurisdiction.
(3) If an LEA uses the term developmental delay for children described in §300.8(b), the LEA must conform to both the State’s definition of that term and to the age range that has been adopted by the State.
(4) If a State does not adopt the term developmental delay, an LEA may not independently use that term as a basis for establishing a child’s eligibility under this part.
(c) Other children in child find. Child find also must include—
(1) Children who are suspected of being a child with a disability under §300.8 and in need of special education, even though they are advancing from grade to grade; and
(2) Highly mobile children, including migrant children.
(d) Construction. Nothing in the Act requires that children be classified by their disability so long as each child who has a disability that is listed in §300.8 and who, by reason of that disability, needs special education and related services is regarded as a child with a disability under Part B of the Act.
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According to the Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center:
Regulations for Part C of IDEA require each state to have a comprehensive child find system for the purposes of identifying, locating, and evaluating all infants and toddlers with disabilities ages birth–2 as early as possible. The system must be consistent with Part B, and also meet additional requirements.
The lead agency—with the assistance of the state interagency coordinating council—ensures that the system is coordinated with all other major efforts to locate and identify young children by other state agencies and programs.
- These other state agencies and programs may include:
Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) Programs;
Early Periodic Screening, Diagnosis, and Treatment (EPSDT);
Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP);
Early Hearing Detection and Intervention (EDHI);
Early Head Start;
child protection and child welfare programs, including foster care and CAPTA;
programs that provide services under the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act; and
child care programs, and tribal agencies.
Part C eligibility is determined by each state's definition of an infant or toddler with a disability (34 CFR §303.21) which must include: an infant or toddler with a developmental delay and an infant or toddler with diagnosed physical or mental conditions with a high probability of resulting in developmental delay.
Developmental delay is "measured by appropriate diagnostic instruments and procedures" to determine the developmental functioning in each of the 5 developmental areas: cognitive, physical including vision and hearing, communication, social or emotional, and adaptive.
Included in the evaluation process is the use of the informed clinical opinion of professionals experienced with development of infants and toddlers.
An infant or toddler with diagnosed physical or mental conditions with a high probability of resulting in developmental delay include such conditions as chromosomal abnormalities; genetic or congenital disorders; sensory impairments; inborn errors of metabolism; disorders reflecting disturbance of the development of the nervous system; congenital infections; severe attachment disorders; and disorders secondary to exposure to toxic substances, including fetal alcohol syndrome.
States may choose to serve children at risk for disabilities in their eligibility definition (34 CFR §303.21).
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Recommendation #2: Completing Social and Developmental Histories with Parents/Guardians
As part of the early education and Child Find process, I believe that teachers and related service professionals at the early childhood, preschool, and kindergarten need to become proficient in interviewing parents, guardians, or other caretakers using a sound Social and Developmental History Questionnaire.
These questionnaires help to collect and organize historical and present status information about an individual child from birth (or before) to the present in a number of important home, school, and other developmental areas. And this information will help to differentiate between student challenges that existed before the pandemic, that may be related to the pandemic, and that began during the pandemic, but are unrelated to it.
Critically, most Social and Developmental History Questionnaires ask questions in the following areas:
- General Information: Includes questions about the history, background, and status of the child and his/her family.
- Health and Development: Includes questions about prenatal to post-natal status and health, infancy through current age developmental milestones and status, and family history and status.
- Behavior: Includes questions related to infancy and about early temperament; social-emotional development and current status; behavioral interactions at home, with peers, and in other settings; responses to frustration and discipline; and responsibilities, independence, and self-help interactions at home.
- Education and Learning: Includes questions about academic history and status, feelings toward learning and school, need for educational support and/or special education, and social and peer interactions at school.
- Family and Other Stressors: Includes questions about critical life, medical, or other stress-related events experienced by or around the child.
Every educator who completes a Social and Developmental Questionnaire with a parent/guardian should be trained beforehand to a specific level of expertise. Schools should consider using collegial dyads—pairing a teacher and a related service professional (a counselor, school psychologist, social worker)—whenever a social and developmental history interview is completed with a child’s parents or guardians.
Social and Developmental History Questionnaires should be used only for those children exhibiting one or more important developmental gaps or experiencing a significant, problematic early childhood event. They also should be an inherent part of a school or district’s Child Find and/or multi-tiered service and support team (MTSS) process.
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Recommendation #3: Provide Effective and Compensatory Educational Services and Supports for Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers
This final recommendation emphasizes the importance of high-quality, evidence-based instruction for all “Generation C” infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. As above, this instruction should be supplemented by strategic or intensive services, supports, strategies, or interventions for students needing more multi-tiered attention.
The “core” instruction must focus on teaching these children the many developmentally-anchored pre-academic and social-emotional skills that they need—starting from where they are currently functioning, and factoring in their developmental histories and service and support needs.
To provide a roadmap for this process, we suggest a review of a recent (August, 2022) publication from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Educational Services (Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance Center).
[CLICK HERE for “Preparing Young Children for School”]
The Introduction to this Practice Guide states:
The education children receive in preschool can prepare them to benefit from the learning opportunities they will encounter in elementary school. Children who learn social-emotional and executive function skills in preschool, for example, may be better able to maintain positive relationships, follow directions, exhibit self-control, and learn to deal more successfully with problem situations. Similarly, children who are exposed to and have gain a deeper foundational understanding of mathematics, language, letters, sounds, and print material. By learning social-emotional, executive function, mathematics, and literacy skills in preschool, children are likely to be better prepared for the higher expectations and more formal curriculum in elementary school.
While written for all preschoolers, we think that the Guide’s seven practice recommendations and five “overarching” themes can easily be adapted for use with most Generation C infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.
The seven practice recommendations are:
- Regularly provide intentional, engaging instruction and practice focused on social-emotional skills.
- Strengthen children's executive function skills using specific games and activities.
- Provide intentional instruction to build children’s understanding of mathematical ideas and skills.
- Engage children in conversations about mathematical ideas and support them in using mathematical language.
- Intentionally plan activities to build children’s vocabulary and language.
- Build children’s knowledge of letters and sounds.
- Use shared book reading to develop children’s language, knowledge of print features, and knowledge of the world.
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The five overarching themes, according to the Guide are “central to providing instruction in preschool. Quoting from the Guide, these themes are:
Theme #1. The importance of intentional instruction
The panel believes preschool instruction should be focused, deliberate, and purposeful in directly addressing the specific learning objectives of the lesson. Teachers should set up lessons to include conversations and activities to intentionally help children learn a skill or concept, as well as ample repetition and review to clarify and support learning of both newly learned and previously learned skills and topics. Intentional instruction also includes repeated opportunities for children to practice what they are learning. Teachers can provide specific praise to highlight and reinforce the desired behavior, skill, or understanding children demonstrate as they practice what they learned.
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Theme #2. The importance of interaction and conversation
The panel believes that interaction plays a pivotal role in children’s learning. Supportive interactions between teachers and children that are essential for this age need to be prioritized. Children learn more from conversing with the teacher than from listening to teachers talk for extended periods.
The panel suggests giving children multiple opportunities to engage in group or one-on-one multi-turn conversations. During these conversations, children can be encouraged to talk about the skills and concepts they are learning in a back-and-forth conversation with the teacher and/or other children. Teachers can also lead interactive activities, such as playing games, singing songs, and reading books, to engage children in learning. These activities should be relevant to and supportive of a wide variety of cultural backgrounds and social experiences.
Developmentally appropriate instruction for children ages 3–5 involves hands-onactivities that keep them engaged. Requiring children to sit still for more than 10–15 minutes, to listen to an adult talking for an extended period, or to complete a worksheet are not appropriate expectations for children ages 3–5. To maintain children’s engagement, choose hands-on instructional activities, keep verbal instructions short, and allow children many opportunities to contribute to conversations.
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Theme #3. The importance of lessons building sequentially
The panel believes that each area of learning—social-emotional, executive function, mathematics, and literacy—should proceed in a sequential manner, deliberately and systematically building skills and knowledge. New learning should proceed in a sequenced order, from easy to more difficult skills and concepts, and be based on knowledge of young children’s natural development. Teaching of new concepts and skills should build on what children know, adding more challenge as children learn and leading toward skills/knowledge that will help children succeed in kindergarten.
The panel recommends choosing an evidence-based program or curriculum developed by content experts that follows a sequence of topics in social-emotional, executive function, mathematics, and literacy. Following a sequential program or curriculum, rather than piecing together a variety of activities, can help ensure that learning is being addressed in a developmentally appropriate way.
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Theme #4. The importance of scheduling time for intentional learning
The panel recommends developing a schedule in which intentional instruction time is devoted on a consistent basis to social-emotional learning, executive function, mathematics, and literacy. Note that the amount of time spent on these areas of instruction will vary depending on the length of the preschool day.
The panel emphasizes that each of these intentional instruction times should fit into the daily routine and accompany the learning opportunities that occur throughout the day. Intentional instructional time can, for example, be embedded into large-group and small-group activities. Large-group instructional activities can be used to provide a brief explanation or demonstration but should be quickly accompanied by hands-on, engaging activities.
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Theme #5. The importance of recognizing everyone’s backgrounds and experiences
The panel recognizes that children come from a wide variety of cultural, racial, and linguistic backgrounds and have different social experiences. The panel believes that preschools should reflect and value the cultural, racial, and linguistic backgrounds of the children, teachers, and community, and provide opportunities for children to learn about various cultures in meaningful ways.
To make learning more relevant, engaging, and interesting for all children, the panel suggests using culturally responsive practices. The work of incorporating these practices into current materials or curricula may need to be done in collaboration with a curriculum or preschool director.
Teachers can consider the following ways of engaging with young children from diverse backgrounds:
Learn about the children, their families, and their communities and use this knowledge to adapt teaching, materials, and classroom setup.
Ensure classroom teaching materials, such as posters, books, toys, and songs reflect the diversity of the children in the classroom so that children see someone who looks like them.
Seek out books that include characters with whom children and their families share identities; ensure that the characters in the books are presented in authentic and positive ways.
Encourage children and families to bring their traditions and culturally important experiences to school to share.
Display real pictures of the teachers, children, their families, and their communities.
Include meaningful, engaging activities from various communities and cultures in the classroom community such as food, music, literature, and celebrations.
Read books about different cultures, traditions, countries, and regions of the world.
Interact with children in a way that delivers positive messages about their self-identity.
Place children in diverse, heterogeneous groups, including, for example, children from homes with differing primary or home languages, income levels, or cultural backgrounds.
Before the pandemic, the first three years of life were considered crucial to children’s learning, socialization, language development, and well-being.
But now, given the effects of the pandemic, the next three years of effective instruction and early strategic or intensive intervention will be instrumental in helping our infants, toddlers, and preschoolers to developmentally catch up and recalibrate their paths toward academic and social, emotional, and behavioral success and proficiency.
This Blog first reported the results of a number of recent studies and their descriptions of some of the delays exhibited by infants, toddlers, and preschoolers who have grown up during the pandemic.
It then discussed some of the pandemic-related reasons why infants born during the pandemic appear to have nearly twice the risk of developmental delay—specifically in communication and social development—when compared with pre-pandemic infants.
We then emphasized that we cannot accurately predict how many Generation C (COVID) children have been negatively impacted by conditions directly related to the pandemic, how responsive they will be to strategic interventions, and whether some of their challenges will be short-lived or more sustained. We concurrently noted that we cannot assume that children with specific pandemic experiences will automatically present with academic, social, or other concerns.
Instead, we recommended the importance of evaluating individual children as needed, determining the pre-pandemic, pandemic-related, and pandemic-unrelated root causes of any problems found, and linking the evaluation results to specific services, supports, strategies, and interventions.
Finally, we reviewed the previously-identified short- and long-term benefits of early childhood education and intervention. And then we detailed what early childhood, preschool, and kindergarten teachers, administrators, and support staff need to do for today’s Generation C children—supported in three areas by their schools and districts: Child Find, the use of Social-Developmental Histories, and the implementation of effective and compensatory educational services and supports.
The academic and social, emotional, and behavioral progress of many students—from preschool through high school—was negatively impacted during the pandemic. While we must address the needs of all of these students, the developmental gaps experienced by our infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergarteners are especially important given the neurological development that occurs during these years.
Educators, schools, and districts must “reach down” to these children in order to “raise them up” with the most strategic and intensive services and supports needed.
If we are going to weather the long-term effects of the pandemic, it will be through our attention to early childhood instruction and interventions. This has always been our investment in the future. It now must be our investment to the present.
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As always, I hope that this Blog has provided an opportunity to think more broadly about the issues confronting educators, schools, districts, and others in the field today. And I hope that the information discussed will create a path toward more effective solutions on behalf of our students.
I appreciate the time that you invested in reading this Blog, and your dedication to your students, colleagues, and the educational process—especially at the beginning of this new school year.
Please feel free to send me your thoughts and questions.
And please know that I am always happy to provide any initial Zoom consultation needed by you and your colleagues without charge.