Early childhood education and care enhance language and problem-solving skills, study reveals

In a recent study published in the Journal of Early Childhood Research, researchers investigated the benefits of early childhood education and care (ECEC), especially during the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. They used data from 171 children aged five to 23 months to elucidate the impacts of ECEC on language development and childhood executive function and to evaluate if the pandemic-related disruptions adversely altered ‘school readiness.’ Their findings reveal that children receiving ECEC presented improved vocabulary, communication, and problem-solving than those who did not, with these findings exuberated in socioeconomically backward households. This study highlights the importance of ECEC in early childhood growth and development and discusses how expectations and learning conditions must be adapted to account for the COVID-19 outbreak.

Study: Sustained benefits of early childhood education and care (ECEC) for young children’s development during COVID-19. Image Credit: FamVeld / ShutterstockStudy: Sustained benefits of early childhood education and care (ECEC) for young children’s development during COVID-19. Image Credit: FamVeld / Shutterstock

What is ECEC, and what are its presumed benefits?

Early childhood education (ECE) is a branch of education theory concerning child education (formally and informally) from birth to age eight. Also called ‘nursery education,’ this theory recognizes early childhood as both a period of rapid and profound mental development and that children in this age group learn differently from their older peers.

ECE is by no means a novel concept – it first emerged independently across numerous European countries during the Age of Reason (17th and 18th centuries). Based on the theories of intellectuals including Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, John Dewey, and Lucy Sprague Mitchell, ECE is centered around the idea that development in children (physical, social, emotional, language, and cognition) is fueled by experience-based learning, not text-book theory.

A plethora of studies, especially those between 2000 and 2020, have verified the benefits of ECE in childhood development, with participants in ECE programs presenting much higher social- and cognitive development than those who did not. Research suggests that these benefits are linked with the socioeconomic background of a child’s parents, with underprivileged children benefitting most. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) cites this research in its memorandum and, as of 2010, has made it compulsory for member nations to strive toward a universal nursery education policy.

In the United Kingdom, this policy is called the Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) system, and studies (scientific and social) into its outcomes have unanimously prescribed its adoption by all households. Unfortunately, ECEC was significantly impacted by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, with the UK government imposing a blanket shutdown of all schools and ECEC centers on 20 March 2020 as a part of the Coronavirus action plan. Even after the reopening of centers, intermittent closures due to repeat COVID-19 waves resulted in estimates of only 5-10% of children receiving ECEC during the 2020-21 period.

Hitherto, studies investigating the impacts of these disruptions on children’s development remain lacking. These studies might reveal changes in kindergarten and grade 1-3 education policies to account for the potentially slowed childhood development during the pandemic.

About the study

The present study evaluates the impacts of COVID-19-related ECEC disruptions on children’s development as a means to inform early school education policy for the wave of children who missed out on the hitherto routine ECEC program. The study had two main aims – 1. Investigate the impacts of the lack of ECEC on cognitive development, and 2. Track children’s development milestones and how ECEC disruptions affect these, as a means to provide educators with the information they need to modify early school curriculum.

The dataset comprised households with children in the 8-to-36-month-old age group recruited from Scotland, Wales, and England in Spring 2020. Data collection comprised three online questionnaires, administered in Spring and Winter 2020 and Spring 2021. Inclusion criteria and initial screening ensured that children with genetic learning abnormalities were excluded from the analyses. The final dataset contained 171 children (100 female).

Collected data included the child’s age, household socioeconomic status, language ability, executive functions, and cognition. Socioeconomic status was measured using standard socioeconomic status (SES) indices – Household income, caregivers’ education status, caregivers’ occupational prestige, and the postal code-derived Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD). The Oxford Communicative Development Inventory (O-CDI) was used to measure a child’s language proficiency. Executive functions were measured using the Early Executive Functions Questionnaire (EEFQ).

The Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ-3) was used to assess overall personal-social skills, problem-solving skills, and communication skills and verify that participants were meeting age-appropriate developmental milestones (for informing future education policy). Multiple linear regressions were used for statistical analyses.

Study findings

The 5-10% of children who attended ECEC sessions despite COVID-19 disruptions displayed substantial improvements in all measured indices (communication, personal-social skills, and problem-solving) than those who did not. This cohort further depicted significantly enhanced receptive vocabulary growth. However, the latter findings were tied to socioeconomic background, with children from affluent backgrounds presenting substantial improvements even when compared to other ECEC attendees.

“Together, these results suggest that ECEC has sustained language benefits for young children growing up during the pandemic despite ongoing disruption to settings, and also has specific benefits for the language of children from less affluent environments. There was no effect of SES or ECEC attendance on growth of either of our measures of executive function.”

Time-stratified analyses revealed that when adjusting for the duration of ECEC exposure, children from socially backward backgrounds benefitted the most from at least 6-months of ECEC sessions. Surprisingly, the 12-month analysis does not show an association between executive function improvements and ECEC exposure.

“This is somewhat surprising since common features of ECEC (e.g., provision of developmentally appropriate learning materials and high-quality adult-child interactions) have been shown to scaffold learning and promote child EFs.”

Conclusions and recommendations

The present study revealed that COVID-19 substantially decreased the cognitive, language, and social development rates of children unable to attend ECEC sessions. Study findings revealed that, while socioeconomically affluent children benefit from ECEC fastest (high initial development rate increases), those from backward households need the ECEC system the most (highest overall improvements between ECEC attendees and those that did not attend the program).

“…we suggest that increasing access to ECEC is a way of providing post-pandemic opportunities for socialisation, emotional wellbeing, physical development and foundational academic skills, rather than compensating for ‘missing skills’. Increasing these opportunities and nurturing children via responsive support should address concerns about school readiness and help to mitigate socioeconomic attainment gaps”

Journal reference:
Hugo Francisco de Souza

Written by

Hugo Francisco de Souza

Hugo Francisco de Souza is a scientific writer based in Bangalore, Karnataka, India. His academic passions lie in biogeography, evolutionary biology, and herpetology. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. from the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, where he studies the origins, dispersal, and speciation of wetland-associated snakes. Hugo has received, amongst others, the DST-INSPIRE fellowship for his doctoral research and the Gold Medal from Pondicherry University for academic excellence during his Masters. His research has been published in high-impact peer-reviewed journals, including PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases and Systematic Biology. When not working or writing, Hugo can be found consuming copious amounts of anime and manga, composing and making music with his bass guitar, shredding trails on his MTB, playing video games (he prefers the term ‘gaming’), or tinkering with all things tech.

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