Five-year-old Andy wants a Nintendo Switch for Christmas to share with his three-year-old brother. “I know it is a lot of money so its [sic] ok if we don’t get one,” Andy writes to Santa. “I wish COVID was over so we can hug.”
Kimberly, 13, tells Santa this year has been tough on her family of six due to the pandemic. “I will gladly appreciate it if you can bring Christmas home,” she writes.
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Savannah, who wants Lego sets, concedes in the postscript of her letter to Santa, “I’m sorry if I’ve been bad. It’s really hard because of COVID-19 and online school (school in general) I’m trying to be good. Hope you understand.”
McKinlie just wants “me and my family to get along”.
I wish COVID was over so we can hug.
Many of the letters, collected and posted online through the United States Postal Service’s Operation Santa programme, echo those of years past, with requests for toys, games and clothes. But this year’s letters also reveal the stark reality children are living in: One of stress and anxiety over the coronavirus pandemic, concern for their family and friends and social isolation that no one, especially a child, is equipped to handle for prolonged periods of time.
It is that isolation that has many parents and caregivers worried about the effects the pandemic may have on their children’s development and mental health for years to come.
While studies must still be done on the long-term effects of the pandemic itself on children, child psychologists and other experts point to past research that shows that playing and interacting with others promotes cognitive, social and emotional development and language growth.
I’m sorry if I’ve been bad. It’s really hard because of COVID-19.
“The interactive piece is how we gain knowledge in this world,” said Wendy Ostroff, an applied developmental and cognitive psychologist and associate professor at Sonoma State University.
“We can’t understate how important that is: the playing with other kids, the observing and the actively engaging in communities of multi-age peers,” she told Al Jazeera.
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University, borrows a term coined by a friend to explain the importance of relationships to child development.
Humans have “socially gated brains”, Hirsh-Pasek said.
“If you want to find out how to get in there and out of there, it happens through relationships,” she explained. “Relationships may be the foundational key piece of everything we ever do for the rest of our life.”
Unfortunately, Hirsh-Pasek said, “this has been a terrible time” for children, especially those without siblings.
Zoom and Facetime calls offer some reprieve, but children, especially young children, need the physical interaction – the giving and taking, sharing, playing side by side – as their brain and social awareness develop.
The good news is, Hirsh-Pasek said, that while some children’s development may be pushed back a bit due to the pandemic, the lack of interaction does not mean children will be harmed for life. “They still have people [and parents] around,” she said.
Hirsh-Pasek, as well as Ostroff, say, however, that where the real concern lies is how the pandemic has changed children’s relationship with the world outside their homes.
“I’m concerned that kids are seeing the social world of other kids as a danger,” Ostroff explained.
For example, during the pandemic, children, especially toddlers, walking down the street with their parents have been taught to cross the street or not interact with another family headed in their direction.
“I think those messages are becoming implicit for kids, because what they’re doing is always gaining information about how to be in the world, and as they’re watching, the messages we’re sending them are that other people are dangerous, stay away [and socially] distance,” Ostroff added.
I'm concerned that kids are seeing the social world of other kids as a danger.
‘Pandemic pain points’
What is also concerning is that children are experiencing the anxiety and stress of their parents or caregivers who may be facing financial distress, health problems or other negative effects of the pandemic. This coupled with social isolation can lead to a higher risk of children developing mental health problems such as depression and anxiety – conditions that were already on the rise for children aged six to 17 years.
This is especially worrisome in communities of colour, which have been disproportionately affected by the virus at nearly every juncture.
A report released on Monday by the Annie E Casey Foundation titled Kids, Families And COVID-19: Pandemic Pain Points and the Urgent Need to Respond, found that 23 percent of African Americans with at least one child in the household, felt down, depressed or hopeless during the pandemic, compared with 20 percent of white Americans who said the same.
This combined with other “pain points” shows the “tremendous stress fractures that the pandemic has created”, said Leslie Boissiere, the Annie E Casey Foundation’s vice president for external affairs. “And it’s impacting parents’ ability to provide for the basic needs of their children.”
I think what we can anticipate is a significant impact on learning loss.
The report also revealed that 31 percent of African Americans with at least one child in the household and 26 percent of Latinos surveyed by the United States Census Bureau during the pandemic felt they are on the verge of failing to pay their mortgage or rent, compared with the 12 percent of white Americans who felt that way.
Additionally, 23 percent of African Americans and 19 percent of Latinos said their household sometimes or always did not have enough food to eat during a recent week of the pandemic. Ten percent of white Americans said the same.
These stresses come at a time when resources for addressing children’s mental health have been altered or eliminated altogether.
“Children are not as connected with their teachers or with their counsellors as they would have been in the past and this is at a time when many families are experiencing mental health challenges like depression,” Boissiere told Al Jazeera. “And I think what we can anticipate is a significant impact on learning loss that kids are not going to learn in the manner that they normally would have because of the disruption.”
‘Simulated’ student-teacher relationships
It is an issue that teachers are hyper-aware of as they contend with the challenges of remote teaching themselves.
Patty Abrams, a 3rd and 4th-grade special education teacher in Louisville, Kentucky, said for some of her new students, connecting through a computer screen has been particularly hard.
Typically, Abrams is able to build strong relationships with her students by the second or third week of a school year, but during the pandemic, some of those relationships have taken months to forge.
It has also been hard to recreate the social situations that are especially important for students with special needs. “You could talk about a conversation, but you can’t really talk about the body language” through a video lesson, Abrams told Al Jazeera.
“It’s almost like we have to really simulate those situations between the teacher and the student, which isn’t as fun,” she added. “You just have to try to stay creative, and I feel like I’m always trying to find something different for them because I feel like they don’t really enjoy it and I don’t either. It’s not the ideal situation.”
Child psychologists and other experts encourage teachers, parents and other caregivers to learn how to “go with the flow” when possible. The most important thing for children during this time is that they are excited and engaged in the material they are learning and the activities they are doing, Sonoma State University’s Ostroff said.
“As parents and as teachers, our tendency is to make it all kind of a script … but we know that top-down isn’t the best for kids that they need to have agency in order to learn that they need to have a lot of trial and error and make mistakes,” she said.
She also cautions against conflating social risks with health risks. If a child interacts with another child while walking down the street, Ostroff encourages parents not to step in and discourage them. She hopes that if any positives come out of this pandemic, it would be learning to take the lead from children during this time.
“Kids know how to learn and they’re the best at it right, so if they’re totally engaged and excited about something. Let them go.”