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Developmental Milestones Among Young Children Declined During COVID Pandemic, Study Finds

A recently published study found significant decreases in communication, problem-solving, and personal-social skills among children up to 5 years of age.

Source: The Epoch Times, Megan Redshaw, J.D.

A recent study published by researchers at Johns Hopkins found modest declines in developmental milestones among young children in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study published on April 22 in JAMA Pediatrics analyzed data from more than 50,000 children, including infants and children up to 5 years of age, to determine whether the pandemic negatively affected their developmental milestones across five domains. These domains included language and communication, problem-solving, gross motor skills, fine motor skills, and personal-social behaviors.

The researchers utilized the Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ) from the American Academy of Pediatrics to evaluate the developmental progress of children aged 1 to 66 months. During primary care visits, they asked six questions in each of the five key developmental areas to assess the child’s development.

Each question answered by a caregiver was rated as “yes,” “sometimes,” or “not yet,” and respondents were asked to disclose concerns or worries about the child’s behavior. The scoring determines whether a child is developing typically or needs a referral for early intervention services.

The study’s sample included 29,277 children with ASQs during only the pre-pandemic period, 1,657 with ASQs during the pre-pandemic and interruption periods, and 19,271 children with ASQs before and during the pre-pandemic and intra-pandemic periods.

Study Findings

The study found significant age-specific decreases in communication, problem-solving, and personal-social domains from the prepandemic to intra-pandemic periods, with communication skills generating the most significant concern among caretakers and gross motor skills comprising the least concern.

Communication scores decreased by approximately 3 percent, and personal-social and problem-solving scores decreased by approximately 2 percent, which would have a national impact of roughly 1,500 additional monthly referrals for services over baseline.

Fine and gross motor scores remained stable between the pre-pandemic and intra-pandemic periods, although gross motor scores decreased in the interruption period compared with the pre-pandemic period. While there were similar decreases in communication and problem-solving scores among infants, there were no changes in personal-social scores.

Despite the findings, the authors concluded that the changes in developmental screening were only modest and proved reassuring in the short term but “may tax an already overburdened developmental behavioral pediatrics infrastructure.”

Other Studies Show Negative Impact on Child Development

Although data is limited, other studies have found that young children were negatively impacted by the pandemic response and the closure of settings they would normally frequent during their early years.

In a December 2023 study published in JAMA Pediatrics, researchers using the same ASQ as the recently published study in the same journal found that community, family, and child factors affected by the pandemic contributed to delays in young children’s socio-emotional development, especially during the first year of life.

In an August 2022 preprint study published in medRxiv, researchers found a “striking decline” in cognitive performance among infants born during the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers examined general childhood cognitive scores in 2020 and 2021 and compared them to pre-pandemic scores from children born in 2011 to 2019. They found children born in mid-2020 had an average decrease of 27 to 37 points and significantly reduced verbal, motor, and overall cognitive performance compared to children born pre-pandemic.

“Results highlight that even in the absence of direct SARS-CoV-2 infection and COVID-19 illness, the environmental changes associated with the COVID-19 pandemic are significantly and negatively affecting infant and child development,” the authors wrote.

In a June 2023 editorial in Pediatric Research, researchers stated that the COVID-19 pandemic had “significant indirect effects” on many areas of child development, including school readiness, educational attainment, socialization skills, and mental health. Notably, handwriting was a fine motor skill negatively affected because children had fewer opportunities to read and write on paper.

An exploratory study published in May 2022 by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research found that 4- and 5-year-olds were less likely to meet expected levels of development in 2021 than before the pandemic when the same children would have been 3 to 4 years old.

Survey data collected as part of the study involving 94 schools, 1,105 families, and 3,253 children showed that parents and schools felt children were disadvantaged in socio-emotional well-being, communication and language development, literacy, and numeracy skills upon entering school. More than half of schools reported that children still needed support at the end of the school year.

Moreover, teachers reported an increase in behavioral issues such as biting, hitting, and an inability to share among these same children.

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