A study of 1,400 preschool children in Canada has found that children who were tested during the COVID-19 pandemic performed better on several cognitive measures than children assessed before the outbreak began. The team behind these results believe this is because these children have parents with relatively higher incomes, who may have spent more time with them during the peak of the pandemic.
Most other studies that have looked at how the pandemic has affected children have concluded that it has been overwhelmingly negative. However, says Mark Wade of the University of Toronto, who was involved in the latest Canadian research, almost all of these studies looked at social and emotional skills rather than cognitive abilities, and school-age children rather than preschoolers.
“It is not necessarily true that the pandemic has been completely and irreversibly bad for children,” he says. “We need to understand under what circumstances, or for whom, or when, do we see these positive and negative effects?”
To learn more, Wade and colleagues analyzed data from the Ontario Birth Study, which began in 2018, to compare how different children performed on the tests when assessed at the same age.
As part of this study, 700 children took several performance tests on an iPad when they were about four and a half years old and their parents filled out a questionnaire.
Among 700 children, those tested between March 2020 and June 2022 scored slightly higher on measures of vocabulary, visual memory and overall cognitive performance than children tested before March 2020. For example, children exposed to the pandemic scored about 4 units higher in overall cognitive performance. A scale where 100 is the average score. There were no differences in social-emotional measures between the two groups.
The study also evaluated 700 2-year-old children, simply by asking their parents to fill out a questionnaire. Those assessed during the pandemic appeared to be better at problem-solving, but were more likely to have personal-social difficulties.
“It was a bit of a surprise to us that children in some areas were doing better during the pandemic than before the pandemic,” says team member Katherine Finegold.
The incomes of the families included in the study were relatively high, with more than half reporting a household income of more than CAN$150,000 (US$109,000) per year and about 40 percent of the mothers had a university degree.
The researchers wrote in their paper that if these parents had not been going to work during the lockdown, they would have been more likely to spend more time with their children during the peak of the pandemic. Finegold says there’s a lot of evidence of the benefits to children of spending time alone with parents. “So within our sample, [the results] Makes sense, but may not generalize to other populations or other groups.
“I agree that the pandemic may have both positive and negative effects on children,” says Sarah Mulkey, MD, at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, DC. “Certainly, some families increased togetherness, found time for each other, and for parents of young children, they were often home together all day long, especially when parents had jobs such as in which they could work remotely.”