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COVID-19 related emotional and developmental delays Children's Wisconsin

The COVID-19 aftermath: How to identify and support kids with pandemic-related delays

The COVID-19 pandemic was a historic, once-in-a-lifetime type event that required an equally serious response. Social distancing, isolation, quarantining, creating a safe learning environment were all necessary steps to help protect everyone from COVID-19. But they also took an emotional toll on everyone. For our kids, we know virtual learning and the loss of social experiences had a profound effect on their development and mental health. Now, as we attempt to reintroduce kids to more normalcy, we're starting to grasp the pandemic's full impact on our kids' academic, emotional and social development as well. 

What do COVID-19-related developmental delays look like? 

Coming out of the pandemic, schools are reporting large groups of students who seem to be two to three years behind where they traditionally would be developmentally. Generally speaking, schools are seeing kids who:

  • Are more rambunctious

  • Have less ability to regulate their emotions

  • Have a lower tolerance for task initiation and completion

  • Have high anxiety about social and academic situations

  • Avoid challenging and uncomfortable situations

  • Struggling to ask for help when needed, due to fear or not knowing how

Every child is different, and how these delays present varies by age and school level.

Why are kids experiencing these delays?

Kids typically achieve important developmental milestones at certain ages through exposure to interactions inside and outside of the home. The pandemic interrupted many of these opportunities, delaying the development of important social and behavioral skills.

Kids are now being asked to continue their normal development when they haven't yet solidified skills for their particular age range, which is resulting in mental health issues like depression, anxiety and avoidance.

Teachers are now faced with large groups of students who are experiencing:

  • Academic delays. Virtual learning was challenging for kids, and for many, it negatively impacted academic growth. Academic insecurity can also lead to behavioral issues like acting out or turning inward.

  • Increased conflicts with peers. Kids are having a lot more conflict with their peers, because they haven't had practice interacting with others and navigating social situations.

  • Anxiety connected to the school experience. For many kids, virtual experiences have lowered their tolerance for uncomfortable situations, creating anxiety about engaging in these events. Students try to avoid those experiences by missing school, isolating themselves from friends and not speaking up in class.

How do you know if your child is experiencing delays? 

While issues may be more evident in a social environment (like school), some signals that your child may be experiencing delays could include:

  • Avoiding social interactions. Many kids are having a hard time putting themselves in uncomfortable situations to make connections with new people (something they have less practice with).

  • Avoiding school. Going to school may prompt physical symptoms of anxiety (stomach pain, nausea, shortness of breath, headaches) in some kids. Assisting kids in reducing that emotional experience may be getting increasingly difficult for parents.

  • Lacking motivation. Prior to COVID-19, kids had external motivators to drive them. Many of these positive experiences were not available during the pandemic, which lessened motivation and engagement in the school process in general.

How can you support kids as they manage these delays?

Engaging in positive behaviors that improve overall wellbeing can help kids cope with symptoms of developmental delay. Some ways to focus on wellness include:

  • Engaging in mindfulness. Help kids to stay focused on the present moment rather than worrying about things that did happen or will happen. Find opportunities for them to get social interaction and get actively involved in creative play or movement (outside if possible). Finding ways to express gratitude can be another good exercise in mindfulness.

  • Establishing some structure. Creating a regular routine for kids can be helpful in letting them know what to expect. In setting your routine, make sure to include other healthy habits like stopping use of technology one hour before bed. Also include time for relaxation, activities or events to look forward to and engaging older children in scheduling so they learn their voice and self-advocacy

  • Finding opportunities to connect. Spending quality time with your child can open the door to discussing issues with you. It also creates opportunities for you to model behaviors you are wanting to see increase in your child. Finding a hobby to share can allow you to set aside time to connect while engaging in activities you both enjoy.  Having times to especially connect with peers (be they from school or not) to learn how to maintain interpersonal relationships, navigate conflict and compromise

If your child is exhibiting negative behavior (like conflict or avoidance) and/or experiencing symptoms of anxiety, here are some helpful practices that can calm tension in the moment:

  • Taking a structured break

  • Talking with a trusted friend or adult

  • Going for a walk (ideally outside in the sun)

  • Engaging in breathing exercises (these can be especially effective when you model them for your child)

  • Engaging in grounding sensory experiences (One method to try is 5-4-3-2-1: Identify five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.)

  • Progressive muscle relaxation with many different lengths and voice types on YouTube

How can we close the developmental gap?

Schools are continuously seeking ways to integrate social/emotional learning into the classroom experience and create support groups for students. Balancing multiple priorities can be challenging, but here are some things parents can do at home to help kids catch up:

  • Encourage real-life experiences. Getting kids to re-engage with experiences like sporting events, theater shows, dances and even in-person learning will be very important to kids' development. It exposes them to situations that allow them to work on critical developmental milestones. 

  • Expose kids to "normal" anxiety-provoking situations. The best way to help kids feel less anxious is by encouraging them do the thing that makes them feel anxious. The more practice kids can have with this, the closer they will get to learning how to regulate themselves in anxiety-provoking situations. Anxiety is a typical and normal human experience. Being anxious in and of itself is not negative and a feeling that needs to be experienced (giving a presentation, taking a test, trying a new experience etc.). Anxiety becomes an issues when typical life activities are unable to be completed without prolonged, significant distress.

  • Set realistic milestones. While it may seem like there's a lot of ground to cover, trying too much, too fast can be counterproductive. Validate the experiences kids are having, and sit with them to find attainable opportunities to be successful, building up to bigger challenges.

  • Seek additional help when needed. If any sort of emotional behavior is impacting your child's daily functioning and ability to move through the world, it may be time to reach out for some support. If behavior struggles occur mostly at home, seek a referral through your pediatrician. If most of your child's issues are related to school, speak to a school social worker, a school psychologist, a school counselor or an administrator about what mental health services are available.

Kids in Wisconsin are experiencing a mental and behavioral health crisis, and many families are unsure how to address it with their children. That's why Children's Wisconsin is committed to helping parents and caregivers get the answers they need. To learn how you can play an active role in your child's mental and behavioral health, visit our Shine Through website.