In a Disability Scoop article about so-called “COVID-babies”, author Adam Clark explores various ways that the pandemic has affected children’s development. Clark begins with a vignette about a two-year old named Charlie who is in speech therapy to help him learn to speak more than one-word utterances. Nancy Polow, one of the speech-pathologists interviewed in the article, is quoted as saying “I have never seen such an influx of infants and toddlers unable to communicate. We call these children COVID babies.” The good news is that lots of the kids like Charlie who are now turning up at speech therapy centers quickly make strides.
After reading this, I found some emerging evidence that being gestated during the early part of the pandemic is associated with some developmental lags. Babies born to two groups of mothers (those who were and those who were not infected with COVID during their pregnancies) were equally likely to show lags in both motor and communication skills compared to a pre-COVID cohort of babies. While in utero exposure to the virus does not seem to be the direct cause any developmental problems, this paper points to some of the impact that pandemic life might be having on the development of millions of babies and toddlers. The authors of this study, Shuffrey et al speculate that COVID-19 related stress during pregnancy could be to blame.
What about other pandemic “side-effects” on kids?
I wondered about the other “side-effects” of pandemic life on kids’ development, so I started asking around. My friend F. explained to me that her three-year old daughter K. is extremely wary of new places and new people. She said “It’s takes her so long to learn social skills…it took her four months to properly settle into preschool. I put a lot of it down to lockdown.” She shared that her child needs time to figure out how unfamiliar environments work before she can engage at all. However, since restrictions have been lifted, the family can go out a bit more, and K.’s confidence in new places is getting much better now, which is fantastic. An acquaintance E. who works in after school childcare said she has noticed a decline kids’ social skills too, saying the kids have literally forgotten how to share, wait, and take turns.
I think one of the best “new places” that so-called COVID babies and toddlers – and even older kids who have been socially isolated – can be taken to is their local library. What if we took all that we know about inclusion of kids with disabilities and expanded that to include kids who are adjusting to pandemic era community life? These are babies and toddlers with no template for our old “normal”. These are young school age kids who have missed out on countless outings and playdates with friends. Flip through a few picture books and I bet you’ll soon see images of children engaging with people in their communities. In real life, the kind of rich community experience that offers kids social learning opportunities was not available for over two years. Now that libraries are fully open, and storytimes and other programs are in person again, it is important to make sure that these COVID era kids and their families get what they need to thrive.
What are you noticing in your programs? When kids come into your storytimes, are they unusually wary, like my friend’s child? Do some kids take a really long time to figure out what is going on? Do they seem overwhelmed by the library space itself? What about the bustle, noise, and activity of a so-called “regular” storytime? Do parents even know that the library is a place that their kids can start building some of the language and social skills they may have missed out on?
Recommendations for Children’s Library Staff
1. Contact the speech-language services folks in your area and encourage them to send their caseload families to the library. Talk to the speech therapists about what they are seeing and ask what you can do to help the families they serve. Remind them that your storytimes are a great place to support early literacy and language growth and that you welcome children of all abilities all the time.
2. Adjust your storytimes for a wider range of development. Pandemic era 3 year-olds with little social experience might act more like 1 or 2 year-olds for a while and that’s fine. It’s okay if your preschool storytime looks like toddler storytime for a while. The longer books you can’t get through now will still be there when the kids are ready for them.
3. Invite conversations with parents about pandemic family life and ask what the library can do to help them. They might have some fantastic ideas that you could easily fulfill to make their lives easier. Just acknowledging what they went through (and are still going through) is a good place to start.
4. Point parents to resources and supports (like speech therapy services) if they have concerns about their children’s development. Encourage them to keep coming back to the library even if their child has a developmental issue that needs to be addressed.
5. Finally, focus on the joy of shared language, literacy, stories, materials, toys, spaces, and activities that you have for families to engage with at the library. The library should be a place where they can connect with other families and just let their kids play together.
I would love to hear about life in the children’s library these days! Please comment below and share your thoughts, experiences, and ideas.
Tess Prendergast was a children’s librarian for over twenty years and now teaches librarianship and children’s literature courses at The School of Information, University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada. She has served on many ALSC committees and is currently serving on the 2023 Geisel Award committee. You can read more about her work here and here.
This is great! Make sure families know about Early Intervention in the US (not sure what it’s called in Canada). If they qualify, families can get speech therapy and other services covered for free.
I’m finding the biggest adjustment is the parents! We’ve got parents of toddlers and preschoolers who sit back during storytime and don’t participate at all, or film their children running circles around the room shrieking (all this still after reminders about participating and modeling). And parents of older, school aged kids who stick to their sides like glue during programs where it’s quite a hindrance, like Lego club and a recent Halloween party. Little kids who haven’t been in social environments before are easier to handle, since that was often the norm pre-pandemic anyway. I always saw storytime as a place to practice being out in the world, following instructions from someone other than a parent, and interacting with other kids their own size possibly for the first time. But these parents are something else entirely, I tell ya!
Thanks for sharing this – it seems parents have lost out on socializing too. Everyone has some catching up to do I guess and it might take a lot longer to get folks to start tuning in and engaging in productive ways. Keep up the good work and it will happen.
Thank-you. It’s good to know that others are experiencing the same as me. I have noticed a lack of social skills and shortened attention span among three and four year olds at storytime and have been considering adapting to be more like toddler time, using fewer and possibly shorter stories.
We have adjusted our usual weekly Toddler Time (structured story time required registration) to bi-weekly. We have added a new bi-weekly program for toddlers- play time for toddlers. It’s drop in, and we just put out toys and books in stations, put on some music, and let the COVID babies and their caregivers interact. First time caregivers also suffered from isolation. It’s been very successful.
Our friends at Storytime Solidarity posted this recently and I thought it was a great addition to this conversation!
I was educated as an early childhood care giver ( kindergarten teacher) in the 70ish, I had my son in the 90-ish, was a stay at home mom and worked part time with children up till the pandemic. For me the onset of the pandemic was heaven , as right away I took the opportunity to retire somewhat early.
working with young children, some ten years ago I started noticing a disinterest in books. For my whole life i had never seen that, story time was always the number one favorite activity.
I think it is too easy to say that a lack of social contacts is what causes this. As we raised our son as an only child in the wilderness, felt the lack of nearby family/friends and neighbours more for me. He always spoke more then was accounted for in his age group. I maybe arranged a playdate once a week. when he was 3 I started working part time in a day care, and I was able to take him . He did not go to school till age 5, and that only part time. Later a thing of concern; he did not started to read till grade 4, which was an enormous concern for me and i spend a lot of time finding books that peeked his advanced interest but matched his reading skill. Somehow onward he always did well in life and still does. I have no idea how parents fared in cities during the pandemic. DId they really saw/interacted with no one . Or did it l match how we raised our son? or somewhere in between?