Social Delays Due to COVID Policies

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Social interaction is fundamental to the human experience.

Greico-Calub

Consider how often you interact with others throughout your day, whether face-to-face or electronically. Even when strict pandemic protocols were in place, we still participated in social interactions online, through our phones, in our jobs, and with the people in our own homes. 


But how do children learn to appropriately and confidently engage in social interactions when they miss out on chances to play with peers or aren’t allowed to go out into the community? How do adults maintain those skills when not offered opportunities for socialization?


The skills that we use to interact with others were for the most part learned and developed over time through observation and practice. Now many of us use these skills without even thinking about them.

But how do children learn how to appropriately and confidently engage in social interactions when they miss out on chances to play with peers or aren’t allowed to go out into the community? How do adults maintain those skills when not offered opportunities for socialization?

In today’s post, we are going to take a look at the key role of social interaction in overall development. We will highlight the components of effective social communication, and how the COVID policies enacted hampered access to these. In addition, you will find out how the lack of social interaction greatly impacted the most vulnerable population in our communities.

To learn more about how the pandemic protocols have impacted children’s speech skills specifically, head to this blog post

The Importance of Social Interaction

During infancy, language, vocabulary, cognitive, and social skills develop through interaction with parents, caregivers, and siblings. During childhood, additional vocabulary and social-emotional skills are gained through interacting with teachers, peers, and family members. Throughout adulthood and into our golden years, cognitive function improves and deepens through our social interactions.

Whether students attend a brick and mortar school, a virtual school, or are homeschooled, and whether children spend most of their time with other children or adults, they need opportunities to interact with others. If not given opportunities to work together, resolve disagreements, deal with rude or disrespectful people, persuade others to their point of view, interpret sarcasm and jokes, and even just participate in conversation as a child, how will they know how to do these things when they are adults?

Seeing is Believing

worried couple with notebook looking at each other

Beyond just the ability to hear and see one another, effective communication also includes nonverbal components. Nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, gestures, and body language, provide context for the speaker’s words. Emotions, sarcasm, and attitude, as well as the comprehension and focus of the listener, are conveyed via nonverbal language. With mask wearing, these nonverbal cues are absent, leading to a major component of communication being missing. This can alter the listener’s perception of the emotions or intent of the speaker.

It is true that some nonverbal communication such as emotion can be conveyed through prosody, such as changes in the pitch and intonation of the speaker. However, research has shown that having access to both auditory and visual cues lead to the most accurate interpretation of emotions (Greico-Calub). 


Human confinement or social isolation is known to have adverse effects.

Heape

What are some of those adverse effects?

A Lack of Social Confidence

Many countries around the world were under similar lockdowns and school closure policies. A study was conducted by the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted). Based in the United Kingdom, Ofsted inspects and regulates education services for children and young people. According to the Ofsted study, students were observed to exhibit delays in social and emotional development under these policies, in addition to delays in other areas of development. 

Teachers have noticed that children seem to lack confidence in group activities, and they have also had difficulty building friendships. Children in early childhood education classes don’t seem to know how to share or take turns, and they need additional support in this area. Increased opportunities for participation in social situations have been offered to children in order to build their confidence in interacting with peers. 

Other early childhood experts have noticed similar concerns. Children have difficulty playing with others, or paying attention during activities. Teachers have reported an increased difficulty with classroom management and more need for discipline.

boy sitting on the floor while hugging a person s leg

Parents with babies born during the pandemic who are now toddlers are also speaking up. These children often lack personal boundaries, have separation anxiety, and have become clingy. They tend to scream or have outbursts in order to express themselves if they don’t have the words to explain how they are feeling or what they need. 

RAPID-EC, an early-childhood research group affiliated with Stanford University, has been continuously collecting data from families with children aged birth to five years of age since April 2020. One of these studies investigates children’s well-being over time, in the form of child externalizing behaviors and child internalizing behaviors. Child externalizing behaviors are described as how “fussy or defiant” a child behaves. Child internalizing behaviors are described as how “fearful or anxious” a child behaves.

According to this survey, the number of parents who reported that their child exhibited these characteristics increased from 31.5% percent in March 2020 (pre-pandemic) to 50.4% by April 2020. This rate has remained consistently above 40% every month since then.

Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman concluded, “I’m particularly worried about younger children’s development, which, if left unaddressed, could potentially cause problems for primary schools down the line.” (Spielman)

What will the implications of this look like for us as parents and educators in the years to come?

It’s Not Just Children

It is not only children that have been affected. 

Older adults are often already living more isolated lives that tend to leave them feeling lonely under normal circumstances. Throw in a pandemic with shelter-in-place policies, and that is only bound to worsen.

According to Heape, a Speech Language Pathologist, college professor, and Certified Dementia Professional, the social isolation that older adults endured during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic “has led to a pandemic of its own with mental, physical, and psychosocial effects that may be far-reaching in years to come.” 

The Principle of Double Effect

There is a doctrine of bioethics, called the principle of double effect, that was put into play in extreme measures during the pandemic. In essence, according to this principle, causing harm is allowed in order to and as a result of doing something beneficial. In the case of medical professionals, this means forgoing “doing no harm,” knowing that there will be negative side effects that will be outweighed by the benefit of the intervention.

In order to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19, social isolation was put in place. The desired effect was the containment of the virus, which was hoped to be achieved through the undesired effect of isolation. 


In essence, according to this principle, causing harm is allowed in order to and as a result of doing something beneficial.


man in blue sweater sitting on brown chair near the window

According to Heard, social isolation has had multiple detrimental effects on the elderly. Of course, because older adults were at higher risk of illness or death, they were often the ones most impacted by shelter-at-home orders. Some of these negative effects include anxiety and depression, neuroinflammation, substance abuse, nutritional deficits, physical effects such as insomnia, fatigue, and increased frailty due to decreased physical activity, and overall health decline. In addition, loneliness is associated with poor quality of life, mood, and cognition.

Did the abrupt halting of visits to residential care facilities and reduced opportunities for social interactions in elderly community housing really help this population? What about their quality of life?

The principle of double effect comes into place in the lives of our children and students as well. As we have seen, keeping children isolated from each other and at home with the goal of keeping them healthy may have led to undesirable consequences, including delays in social development. 

Helping Hindered Skills

In the field of speech language pathology, professionals like myself often help children and students who may be struggling socially. Instead of referring to certain social skills and behaviors as “good” or “bad,” we sometimes talk about them as “expected” or “unexpected” behaviors. These terms are especially helpful when children are experiencing times of stress and a variety of emotions that they are unable to verbalize. 

Donna Housman is a developmental psychologist who founded the Housman Institute, an early-childhood research and training center in Massachusetts. She puts it this way:


Many of the anchors for very young children – the consistency, the routines, the support, the social opportunities – have all been kind of taken away. They’ve been left with inconsistency, major change and disruption that can be traumatic without the presence of an attentive, supportive adult who is responsive to their needs and able to help them deal with and regulate their emotions.

Housman

Parents and teachers spend the most time with their children, whether they are in the middle of a shelter-at-home order or not. They are the perfect people to help children process all the changes happening in their world. Keep reading for some strategies you can incorporate to help enrich the social skills of these children.

Encourage Expression of Emotions

Children’s first language is emotion.

qtd. in Wong

Since infants and toddlers are still developing language, they often communicate through their behavior. In fact, this may be one of the only ways they are able to demonstrate or express how they feel. Instead of overreacting to a child’s behavior or sending them into a time-out, start by trying to determine what might be causing that specific behavior. How might they be feeling? What do they need?

Using simple language, talk through what your child or student is feeling and help them learn the language to identify their emotions. Once children can identify their emotions, they can be taught how to express their emotions in a positive and socially appropriate manner. This will lead to improved confidence, self-control, and the ability to problem solve.

Model and Affirm Positive Behaviors

According to early childhood experts, parents of children who have lived the majority of their life during the pandemic will need to teach their children these missing or immature social skills. (Wong) The best way to do this is through play and modeling appropriate behavior. At this age, children learn most skills by observation and imitation of the important people in their lives that they spend the most time with. 

It is important to set specific expectations for children. Describe the expected behavior or skill before modeling that behavior. For example, when working on sharing and turn-taking, you might say: “When you play with friends, it is fun when you both get to do something you like and when your friend lets you play with some of their toys. I’m done playing with these blocks and would like to try the trains. Can we switch toys now?”

photo of family sitting on floor while reading book

This can also be targeted by observing others. A great way to do this is through favorite children’s books. Use the actions and behaviors of characters as teaching points. Ask your child or student how they think a character feels based on their actions or facial expressions. Discuss the ways that a character was a good friend. Come up with a list of things you could do to help a sad or disappointed character feel better. (As a speech language pathologist, I incorporated this activity often with my students and clients. Books and short video clips are a great way to target social skills!)

When you notice your children or students exhibiting positive or desired behaviors, be sure to affirm them in those behaviors. Children thrive under praise, and this will encourage them to repeat those behaviors.

Looking Ahead

Although at this point much of the information is anecdotal or a prediction of what may come, most parents and teachers agree that there are significant social differences between young children born and raised during the pandemic and those raised in the pre-pandemic era.

What have you noticed in your classroom or in your home? Are your students exhibiting delays in basic social skills? Have you noticed an increase in outbursts or negative behaviors? If so, what strategies have you implemented in order to fill that gap? Let us know in the comments!

Of course, additional research over time is needed before the long term effects of social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic will be known. As always, we at One-Room Education will stay up-to-date with the latest research, so be sure to keep up with us here by subscribing below.

girl in old fashioned dress standing in library holding books

References:

  • Greico-Calub, Tina M. “COVID-19, Face Masks, and Social Interaction: How a Global Pandemic is Shining a Light on the Importance of Face-to-Face Communication.” Perspectives of the ASHA Special Interest Groups, vol. 6, p. 1097-1105. 20 October 2021. https://doi.org/10.1044/2021_PERSP-21-00037

  • Heape, Amber. “Loneliness and Social Isolation in Older Adults: The Effects of a Pandemic.” Perspectives of the ASHA Special Interest Groups, vol. 6. Issue 6, p. 1729-1736. Dec. 2021. https://doi.org/10.1044/2021_PERSP-21-00107

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