Pandemic babies: Tiny Social Circles

Pandemic babies: Tiny Social Circles
– By Máire Corbett, Early Childhood Ireland Digital Co-Ordinator

I came across an article last week from a UK agency called The Conversation. This is an independent news website, that publishes articles written by academics and researchers. The article that caught my eye was written by two researchers, Susan Byrne and Jonathan Hourihane from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI). Research carried out by the RCSI suggested that at age two, pandemic babies were behind on communication but had similar scores in other developmental areas to babies born pre-pandemic.

Developmental milestones

The article explains that the researchers looked at ten developmental milestones at the babies’ first birthday. Among these, fewer pandemic babies had said their first word, could point or wave “bye-bye”, and slightly more babies could crawl.

They put this down to fewer visitors to homes, babies being in the same home environment rather than being out and about and them generally hearing fewer words. In relation to crawling earlier, the researchers feel this is because they were in the same place more, probably less time in cars etc.

When they followed up with the same group of children, at age two, it was the area of communication that appeared to be most impacted, as the children had slightly lower scores in this area. The other developmental areas were on par with pre pandemic babies.

Lockdown babies

The line that jumped out at me as I read, said that ‘these lockdown babies had tiny social circles’. These babies are the cohort that will shortly be starting, or may have already just started, their first ECCE year. How do we support these children who were deprived of so much opportunity for communication during their infancy? Of course, it is important to be glad that the other areas of development do not seem to have been impacted by the repeated pandemic lockdowns.

Some of these children will have been attending Early Years or Childminding settings since lockdowns eased. However, we must also remember that even when children did get to settings during the lockdowns, masks were mandatory or desirable. In pre pandemic times, they may have attended parent and toddler groups or swim classes or play dates but for the first few years of these children’s lives, that opportunity was non-existent. Their ‘social circles’ have indeed been tiny. Encountering a large number of children and adults may not be something they have experienced before. For some children, starting at ECCE over the next while is their first introduction to being in a group of children. An Early Years environment may seem really noisy and busy and for some possibly overwhelming.

Transition and adjustment

It’s important to bear this in mind as we prepare for these children and their families to start in settings. I have always loved the Italian term ‘inserimento’ to describe the period of transition and adjustment needed when ‘delicately beginning relationships and communications among adults and children’. Chiara Bove, Associate Professor at the University of Milan-Bicocca describes this in her chapter in Bambini, The Italian Approach to Infant/Toddler Care (2001).

One of the strategies she refers to includes providing time for parents to care for their children in the out-of-home environment, saying that ‘eventually the child will benefit from the relationships growing between parents and teachers.’ This can also enable parents to make connections with other parents. Of course, not every setting is able to facilitate this engagement for an extended period and not every family is in a position to spend extended time in a setting. Indeed, not every child will need a prolonged settling in period. But it is worth thinking about how the settling in policy this year may need to be adapted to reflect the unusual period these children have been exposed to in their first years. If children are new to the hive of activity of a preschool room, can they have some time in the room with the person who will be dropping them off every day to get a feel for it? A small group of children getting accustomed to this new environment could reap benefits in the early days of the preschool year.

Communication and sharing

As these three-year-olds start their ECCE stage, it is extra important to use all opportunities to support oral language development. Interactions are always a key part of developing relationships with children. Use every opportunity to chat with the children, asking open-ended, authentic questions, giving children time to think and reply. And don’t just ask questions! Just chat about what’s happening, describe the experiences in the environment and daily routine too. Read and tell lots of stories, relating the stories to children’s lived experiences as well as introducing them to new ideas. Keep communicating with parents and families and share with them the learning that is taking place for the children as they settle in and further develop all their skills, especially communication.

As Chiara Bove says ‘Inserimento is a never-ending process of growth, transformation and getting to know each other.’ Let’s embrace inserimento and grow those tiny social circles!

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