A Save the Children worker with a group of children.

In Rwanda a stimulating early learning environment, even outside of formal preschools is important to helping children achieve educational outcomes. Here, children participate in Early Literacy and Math activities in their home village. Photo Credit: Martin Kharumwa / Save the Children 2020

Understanding Learning Loss in COVID-19 and Early Childhood Development

September 9, 2020

Written by Lela Chakhaia, Senior Specialist for Learning Research at Save the Children USA; Lauren Pisani, Advisor for Learning Research at Save the Children USA; Caroline Dusabe,Senior Specialist for Early Childhood Development at Save the Children USA; Dana McCoy, Assistant Professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education; Andres Moya, Assistant Professor at Universidad de los Andes School of Economics; Elizabeth Spier, Principal Research at American Institutes for Research

Children under age nine are especially vulnerable during times of crisis due to their dependence on caregivers and the fact that their bodies and minds are at highly critical points in development. Evidence collected during COVID-19 confirms that many young children are experiencing a degradation in many aspects of their nurturing care but less is known about the effects of these disruptions on young children than on those of school age. Save the Children and our partners worked to address this evidence gap by analyzing a range of environmental factors that might be influenced by COVID-19 and can, in turn, affect learning and developmental outcomes of children under nine years old.

Introduction

Research has proven that the early years are critical for building the foundations that enable children to thrive throughout their lives. Children under age 9 are especially vulnerable during times of crisis due to their dependence on caregivers and the fact that their bodies and minds are at highly critical points in development. In the context of an emergency or large-scale crisis, new stressors are introduced or intensified, while the typical supports that exist in different spheres are often disrupted.

Evidence collected during COVID-19 confirms that many young children are experiencing a degradation in many aspects of their nurturing care. UNESCO estimates that 155 million preschool-age children are out of school worldwide. Further, UNICEF estimates that in countries experiencing quarantines or lockdowns, 1 in 4 parents show some symptoms of mental ill health. Similarly, emerging data from the Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development in Early Childhood Household Survey (RAPID-EC Project) conducted in the United States finds that caregivers of young children are experiencing decreases in wellbeing as well as material hardships, and associated increases in emotional distress in caregivers and children. Over 100 countries have reported disruption in services related to violence against children, and experts estimate that the share of young children suffering from malnutrition will increase this year. Despite the known impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on these dimensions of nurturing care, little is known about how these disruptions are likely to translate into effects on learning and development of pre-school aged children, particularly in low and middle-income countries.

About the project

Using longitudinal and cross-sectional datasets from Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Rwanda and Ethiopia, we project how learning and development of preschool-aged children in different contexts could be affected by COVID-19-related service disruptions, and which factors might mitigate potential adverse outcomes, or exacerbate them. In all datasets, child outcomes are measured using the International Development and Early Learning Assessment Tool (IDELA). In the absence of data on children’s learning and development post-COVID-19, we use IDELA scores from 2017-2019 to calculate observed rates of learning and developmental change, and project forward to 2020 based on these rates. In our analyses, we consider a range of environmental factors that might be influenced by COVID-19 and can, in turn, affect learning and developmental outcomes of children.

Projection

Preschool disruptions in Bangladesh

The projections in Graph 1 come from the Early Years Preschool Program (EYPP) evaluation in the rural district of Meherpur, Bangladesh. Based on the patterns in child learning and development displayed in 2017-2019, we estimated expected gains on standardized IDELA scores for two groups of children: those who were enrolled in EYPP at age four years in 2018 and those with no preschool in 2018 (and both groups attending a one-year government pre-primary class in 2019). We projected rates of developmental gain for the EYPP and non-EYPP groups in two scenarios: without any disruptions in preschool/school provision and with a 9-month disruption. These projections suggest that both groups would lose about five months’ worth of ‘natural learning and development’ as a result of COVID-19-related service disruption. Further, we examined the potential mitigating role of providing stimulating environment at home. Our projections indicate that engaging in diverse home-learning activities, such as reading, telling stories, singing to the child etc., could reduce the negative implications of preschool closures roughly by half. 

EYPP Group vs. Comparison Group results graph

Preschool disruptions in Rwanda

Projections from another dataset coming from a quasi-experimental trial coming from Rwanda in Ngororero and Gasabo Districts show similar patterns. In this dataset, all children attended some type of preschool, though these preschools varied in their quality. Based on our projections, COVID-19-related disruptions of preschool operations would substantially derail learning and developmental trajectories for children attending both high- and low-quality preschool programs. We again look at how home learning environment – in this case presence of learning materials, including books and toys – might mitigate some of the disruptions caused by COVID-19. According to these models, the adverse impact of COVID-19 on learning and development can be partially offset for children who have a highly stimulating learning environment at home. Projections also suggest that home learning environment is particularly important for those children who attended lower quality preschools.         

High-quality vs. low-quality preschool results graph

Preschool disruptions in Brazil

Analysis of data collected at preschools located in low-income communities in the western region of Sao Paolo, Brazil suggests that children coming with more disadvantaged households tend to make larger gains in their learning and development while attending preschool relative to their more advantaged peers. Accordingly, projections based on this evidence suggest that children from these more disadvantaged households might be affected the most by disruptions in preschool provision.    

Home possessions results graph

Preschool disruptions in Ethiopia

Analysis of data from a longitudinal quasi-experimental study from Central Tigray region in Ethiopia shows that girls enrolled in high quality preschool programs (presented here) on average gained more than boys during the 2017-19 school years. Regardless of whether we assume this suggests girls’ learning would be more resilient to loss or more at risk (presented here), both models predict that boys in this context would be at a greater disadvantage post-COVID-19. Detailed research is needed when children return to schooling to better under the gendered dynamics of learning and developmental loss, as well as other complex factors within families and communities that could be affecting children’s (re)integration into formal schooling.  

Girls vs boys results graph

Deterioration of maternal mental health in Colombia

Data collected in vulnerable communities in Tumaco region of Colombia indicates strong association between maternal mental health status and children’s learning and developmental levels. Monitoring data collected in the region after the outbreak of the pandemic indicates that maternal mental health has substantially deteriorated in this community. Based on observed data, we project total standardized IDELA scores for children following the pandemic to illustrate what type of change we might expect in their learning and developmental levels. Our models suggest that COVID-19 could have strongest negative implications for social-emotional development of children, followed by emergent numeracy skills.        

Pre-Covid cohort vs. Post-Covid cohort results graph

Conclusion

Our analyses suggest that developmental losses due to service disruptions caused by COVID-19 can have important implications not only for children in basic and secondary education, but for pre-school aged children as well. In addition to disruptions in preschool access, environmental factors such as loss of family income, increases in caregiver stress, and higher incidences of domestic violence could exacerbate learning and developmental loss further. However, our analyses suggest that stimulating home environments can potentially alleviate some of the adverse effects of the pandemic on early development. Policy-makers and donors must not exclude the youngest learners from their planning for children’s remote learning and return to school.  

Many thanks also to Jana de Torrico, Subodh Kumar, Lisa Easterbrooks, Monique Abimpaye, Sophie Barnes, Carolina Maldonado and Juan Camillo Cristancho Amaya for their contributions to this research.

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