The importance of monitoring the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on young children and their families


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Madeleine Sarr and her 17 month-old daughter in Senegal
Madeleine Sarr and her 17 month-old daughter in Senegal

Young children and their families around the world have been exposed to the direct impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and are at the highest risk of being left behind if governments do not take action to protect them. Measures to limit the spread of the virus have resulted in changes to the everyday life of children and their families. In most countries, childcare centers and schools have closed to prevent the spread of the virus, which has changed home dynamics and may have an impact on children’s cognitive and socioemotional development. At the same time, many parents and caregivers are being pressured to either work from home, continue to go to work outside of home despite the health risks involved, or have lost their jobs because of the pandemic. 

The increased demands on parents to provide care and support learning, coupled with economic uncertainty and isolation, have elevated stress levels and the risk of violence at home. These health and economic factors may also impact families’ capacity to fulfill young children’s basic needs, including their nutrition and health, and even their other psychosocial needs such as education and social development. With prolonged lack of access to education, health, and social services, young children, particularly those living in fragile and impoverished conditions, are at risk of not developing to their full potential. 

In order to support families with young children, more information is needed about how they are coping and how their family situation has changed.  A range of information could help governments better understand how to support young children and their families, including: families’ access to services during the pandemic, children’s early cognitive and socioemotional development, understanding of prevention measures, how parents/caregivers are supporting children’s learning at home, caregivers’ well-being, and how families are coping with the pandemic. 

To help, UNICEF has made available data from their country survey on the socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 response. The information from this survey is useful to understand how the pandemic has disrupted services provided to children and families. As shown by the indicators collected by UNICEF, many low- and middle-income countries have experienced disruptions in their capacity to provide health, hygiene, and other social services to families. As a result, families are experiencing financial insecurity, and children are not able to access free meals and healthcare services (e.g., immunizations).

Similarly, results from a survey to parents in the United States conducted by the international organization Save the Children has found that caregivers are worried about the emotional well-being of their children during the pandemic; nearly half of the children interviewed in this study reported feeling worried about the potential risk of a close relative getting infected, but they are also concerned about not learning enough at home to be ready for the next school year. Similarly, results from the online survey produced by the RAPID-EC project, conducted by specialists in Early Childhood at the University of Oregon, show that children are experiencing difficulties in their socioemotional development and present higher rates of disruptive behaviors than before the pandemic started. At the same time, families are experiencing household economic insecurity that limits their capacity to meet their basic needs.

In normal circumstances, this sort of information would be gathered using a combination of in-person direct assessments of children and in-person interviews with their caregivers, which allow information to be corroborated from different respondents. Due to social distancing measures, governments, civil society, and international organizations have relied on collecting information using phone interviews with caregivers (see, for example, this blog post from our colleagues at the World Bank and this blog post from J-PAL). Phone surveys provide an important and unique window into young children’s and their families’ experiences of the pandemic despite the limitations and unique challenges surrounding their use (e.g., samples are limited to segments of the population that own phones, higher incidence of non-response, limited scope for verifying the accuracy of reported data).

Responding to the demand for information from low- and middle-income countries, the Scaling Up Measurement in Early Childhood team at the World Bank has developed a phone survey to capture critical issues that young children and their families are facing during the current pandemic. The core survey contains 40 questions on parental support at home, household context and COVID-19, engagement with educational resources, internalized/externalized behaviors, and child discipline. At the end of the core questionnaire, additional modules are included for teams interested in expanding the caregiver interview, depending on the information needs of clients and other stakeholders. It is estimated that the core survey will take approximately 15 minutes to administer over the phone.

In addition, the team has developed accompanying resources to support the implementation of this survey: a short manual with general guidelines to engage with parents/caregivers over the phone, a data management codebook that specifies how questions should be coded as variables in a data file for subsequent analyses, a data-entry spreadsheet template to facilitate the data-entry process, and files to support the survey content to computer-assisted personal interviewing (CAPI) systems. Additional documents to support World Bank teams, partners, and policymakers to analyze data and report results are under development.

At the country level, the data from this survey will highlight the urgency of and inform policy actions around supporting young children and their families during the pandemic, including the need to increase the availability of learning materials at home, support caregivers’ and children’s holistic well-being, and support positive caregiver-child engagements. At the global level, the data can be aggregated to provide a cross-country view of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on young children and their families. It is hoped that these data, in combination with the data resulting from other efforts mentioned in this blog and elsewhere, will emphasize the need for a coordinated response to ensure that young children do not get left behind in local and global responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you are interested in accessing the survey and related resources described in this blog post, please contact Diego Luna Bazaldua and Adelle Pushparatnam

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