COVID-19 Policy Fallout

Preschoolers Losing Learning Opportunities in Pandemic

K-12 students aren't the only ones who have experienced learning loss due to the pandemic. According to new research, children ages 3 to 5 have also lost important learning opportunities over the last year. Preschool enrollment rates were down nearly a quarter across the country, and in-person education decreased even more. There was also a sharp decline in parent at-home support for book reading and other learning activities, and parents reported higher-than-normal rates of mental health problems for their young children.

The findings came out of a survey undertaken by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education. In December 2020 the organization queried 1,001 families of children not yet in kindergarten, asking similar questions as an earlier survey done in spring 2020.

The survey found that pre-pandemic, 51% of three-year-olds and 71% of four-year-olds participated in preschool. By fall, in-person attendance had dropped to 32% and 40% and hybrid or remote participation declined to 39% and 54%, respectively. Those with household incomes below $25,000 were far less likely to have children participating in preschool than families with incomes above that amount.

Parental support for early learning saw a drop in many but not all areas. Whereas pre-pandemic, 85% of parents read to their kids, that shrank to 71% during the pandemic. Similarly, direct interaction on teaching letters, words and numbers fell from 73% to 66% before and during the pandemic. However, the amount of story-telling (38% before versus 54% during) and singing (67% versus 73%) rose over the same period. Working on arts and crafts together stayed about the same (46% versus 45%).

The share of parents who reported "high" levels of social and emotional problems with their children has also evolved during the pandemic. While the number of respondents citing emotional symptoms among their kids rose from 3% to 9%; behavior problems increased from 20% to 25%; and evidence of prosocial behavior (those behaviors that benefit others) shrank from 26% to 16%. Other aspects declined. Hyperactivity dropped from 16% to 14% and peer problems from 19% to 16%.

Parents too experienced emotional roller-coasters. Almost half (47%) said they felt "very" overwhelmed by the responsibilities they faced in facilitating at-home learning for their children. Among the hardships parents reported from the pandemic, the most common one, mentioned by 32%, was getting less work done due to child care and education issues.

"The pandemic has dealt a one-two punch to the nation's young children, decreasing opportunities to learn in preschool programs while sapping parents' capacity to support learning at home," said W. Steven Barnett, NIEER's senior co-director and founder and an author of the survey report, in a statement.

The entire report is openly available on the NIEER website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.