A study of 1400 preschool children in Canada has found that those tested during the covid-19 pandemic did better on several cognitive measures than those assessed before the outbreak began. The team behind these results thinks this is because these children have parents with a relatively high income who may have spent more time with them during the height of the pandemic.
Most of the other studies looking at how the pandemic has affected children concluded that it has been overwhelmingly negative. However, these studies almost all looked at social and emotional skills rather than cognitive abilities and at school-age children rather than preschool children, says Mark Wade at the University of Toronto, who was involved in the latest Canadian research.
“It isn’t necessarily the case that the pandemic has been totally and irreversibly bad for kids,” he says. “We need to understand under what conditions, or for whom or when, do we see these positive and negative effects?”
To learn more, Wade and his colleagues analysed data from the Ontario Birth Study, which began in 2018, to compare how different children performed on tests when assessed at the same age.
As part of this study, 700 children did a number of performance tests on iPads when they were around 4-and-a-half years old and their parents filled in a questionnaire.
Of the 700 children, those tested between March 2020 and June 2022 scored slightly higher on measures of vocabulary, visual memory and overall cognitive performance than those tested before March 2020. For instance, the pandemic children scored around 4 units higher in overall cognitive performance on a scale where 100 is the average score. There were no differences in socioemotional measures between the two groups.
The study also assessed 700 2-year-olds, just by asking their parents to fill in a questionnaire. Those assessed during the pandemic appeared to be better at problem-solving, but more likely to have personal-social difficulties.
“It was a little bit surprising to us that in some areas kids were doing better during the pandemic compared to before the pandemic,” says team member Katherine Finegold.
The families involved in the study had relatively high incomes, with more than half reporting a household income over CAN$150,000 (US$ 109,000) a year and around 40 per cent of the mothers having a university degree.
These parents may have been more likely to spend more time with their children during the height of the pandemic if they weren’t commuting to work during lockdowns, the researchers write in their paper. There is lots of evidence of the benefits that one-on-one time with parents has for children, says Finegold. “So within our sample, [the results] make sense, but may not generalise to other populations or other groups.”
“I agree that there can be both positive and negative effects in children from the pandemic,” says Sarah Mulkey at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington DC. “Certainly, some families found increased togetherness, time for each other, and for parents of young children, they were more often in the home together throughout the day, especially when parents had jobs in which they could remotely work.”