March 8, 2021

COVID-19 and early childhood experiences

How the pandemic is impacting the long-term well-being and development of Albertan children

Photo supplied by Pieter de Vos.

A postdoctoral fellow with the Community University Partnership in the School of Public Health is helping to bridge a gap in knowledge on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected early childhood development in Alberta.

“Early childhood experiences play a critical role in shaping the learning behaviour, physical and mental health of children,” explains Pieter de Vos, a member of the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute. “A growth-promoting environment—one that includes adequate housing, nutrition, supportive caregiving, exposure to social and emotional experiences—is necessary for laying a solid foundation for children.”

In Alberta, de Vos says most children before the age of five spend a significant portion of their early years in some form of non-parental care. In 2019, for example, about 178,000 children were enrolled in child care programs.

Due to the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing, he explains many families with children are under significant social, psychological and financial stress.

In partnership with the Evaluation Capacity Network (ECN)—a collaboration between 22 partner organizations across Canada and the US—de Vos is exploring the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on both early childhood development service providers and the system as a whole.

“We know that the early childhood sector has been deeply impacted by COVID-19,” says de Vos. “A wide range of child services and programs—such as schooling, nutrition programs, maternal and newborn care, alternative care facilities and community-based child protection programs—have been partially or even completely suspended.”

He adds, families experiencing pre-existing vulnerabilities—such as poverty—may be pushed to the breaking point with these programs and services being suspended, which has direct implications on the long-term well-being and development of children.

“We need a deeper understanding of how these organizations have been impacted and what resources, supports, and capacity-building opportunities we should prioritize as a partnership moving forward,” he explains. 

By engaging the service providers that support children, de Vos is doing a deep dive to learn how organizations have adapted to disruptions and determine what kind of evaluative methods, tools and practices they are using in order to respond to these new realities and by extension, provide better support to children and families.

“Many organizations have radically shifted their service delivery models away from face-to-face, in-person support to virtual, online methods,” says de Vos. “But it’s not all that useful to just hear that people have shifted to delivering things remotely—what exactly does that mean? I want to understand what it really means to deliver something remotely and how do you balance that out with other ways of providing services.”

Some organizations have also reduced their staffing levels, notes de Vos, which has further impacted programs.

“Many early childhood development organizations in Alberta faced significant budget cuts in early 2020, and in addition to the impact of COVID-19, it’s likely that some non-profits will not survive,” says de Vos. “This means that the operating landscape may look different going forward with gaps in services and supports in the early years.”

By providing timely evidence about the realities faced by Edmonton’s early childhood development organizations, de Vos’ research will contribute to the ECN’s efforts to sustainably impact the ways in which practice, programs and policy are developed and implemented, ultimately leading to better outcomes for children and families across Canada.

Pieter de Vos is supervised by Rebecca Gokiert. His Patient and Community Engagement Training Award (PaCET) project is funded by the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation through WCHRI.

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