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Education and

Early Childhood Development & Covid-19

Key message

Young children require nurturing care: good health, adequate nutrition, responsive caregiving, safety and security, and early learning opportunities.

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on all these five components of nurturing care, especially as families experienced massive income and health shocks. Early childhood is a time when the brain is most sensitive to changes, and adversities can have life-long consequences. The most vulnerable children from low-resourced families, children with disabilities, and those living with abuse, neglect, and domestic violence were most likely to fall through the cracks. Post-pandemic recovery must prioritise early childhood development to ensure that our children are able to reach their full potential for a strong and resilient future.
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Key challenges
  • Many families worldwide experienced a massive income shock as a result of Covid, that impacted on their children’s development potential. Children from poorer families and from workless households were most likely to miss out on childcare. These are the same families who stand to benefit the most from accessing high quality childcare.
    (Valle et al, 2022)
  • The pandemic pushed a larger number of children into poverty. Since the start of the pandemic, 76% of households with children across 35 developing countries reported experiencing total income loss. Before the pandemic, 1 in 6 children were in poverty. Covid-19 is projected to have pushed an additional 150 million children into multidimensional poverty at the height of the pandemic by the end of 2020.
    (World Bank, 2022)
  • The significant disruption to maternal care, especially in low- and middle-income countries, can lead to significant loss of life During the Ebola crisis, the drop in use of reproductive and maternal healthcare services was so large that there were more maternal and neonatal deaths and stillbirths than the number of deaths directly caused by the pandemic.
    (Sochas et al., 2017).
  • Children worldwide are missing out on critical early education. At least 40 million children worldwide are now missing out on early childhood education. The pandemic has caused an increase in global learning poverty to approximately 70%. This is most severe in South Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean.
    (Gromada et al., 2020).  (World Bank, 2022)
  • Children in developing countries had low levels of participation in education post-pandemic. In 35 developing countries, among households with children who attended school before school closure, around 53% of households reported children participating in any educational activities after the school closure due to the covid outbreak.
    (World Bank, 2022)
  • In a crisis, young children are more vulnerable to abuse, neglect, violence, exploitation, and stigma. Evidence from the previous Ebola crisis suggests that young children are more likely to experience violence, abuse and neglect during pandemics as families struggle to cope.
    (Devercelli, 2020).
  • Covid-19 prevention responses, especially social isolation and quarantine, will make children vulnerable to psychosocial stress. A recent rapid systematic review points out the moderate to large correlations between social isolation and depressive symptoms. In a study of previous infectious disease in the US, Canada, and Mexico, about 28% of children who experienced isolation/quarantine met the PTSD benchmark, compared with 5.8% of those who did not.
    Loades et al., 2020  Sprang & Silman, 2013
  • COVID worsened literacy levels in developing countries. Between 2019 and 2022, the percentage of 10 year-old children who cannot read increased from 57% to 70% in low-and-middle income countries.
    (UNICEF, 2024)
  • Young children struggled more with distance learning. As children spent less time outdoors, their physical development including their motor skills, were negatively affected by the pandemic. Speech and language delays were also reported, as children had fewer opportunities to socialise and develop self-regulation skills.
    (Valle et al, 2022)
  • Even prior to the crisis, early childhood education was struggling for visibility on donor agendas. From 2015 to 2017, aid for pre-primary education declined by 27% and accounted for just 0.5% of total education aid in 2017.
    (Zubairi & Rose, 2019).
  • Many people will not be able to return to work without childcare options and the childcare burden will without a doubt fall on mothers and female caregivers In 2018, 606 million working-age women were unavailable for employment because of their caregiving responsibility, compared with only 41 million men
    (Gromada et al., 2020).
  • Pre-primary aged learners were hit hardest by the pandemic. The youngest learners lost more days of school due to COVID-19 related closures compared to primary and secondary aged children, and were the least likely to have access to remote learning.
    (Nugroho et al., 2021)
  • The consequences of COVID-19 related early childhood education closures are significant. An estimated 11 million additional children will be pushed off track developmentally due to the pandemic. Many childcare providers have reported an increased wait for external services for children needing additional support, such as speech and language therapists.
    (McCoy et al., 2021) (Ofsted, 2022)
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Make the case
  • Home-based early childhood interventions can be an effective response. The impact of disruption can be limited by home-based early childhood development programmes such as distribution of books to families, TV programmes and radio learning, which have all been linked to improved developmental outcomes
    (Devercelli, 2020).
  • Early learning must be part of the recovery. Thus far, only nine out of 195 countries have childcare support as part of their pandemic response
    (Gromada et al., 2020);  (Gentilini et al., 2020).
  • Early childhood development is one of the best investments for recovery and future resilience. Each dollar invested in early childhood education can yield a return as high as US$17 for the most disadvantaged children
    (Theirworld, 2017).
  • Early childhood education may protect against learning lost during the pandemic. New data suggest that pre-primary education may be a safeguard against learning loss.
    (Kim et al., 2021)
  • As childcare services reopen, it is critical to protect the childcare workers on the frontline. In the US, childcare workers are twice as likely to live in poverty, and only 15% have health insurance from their job compared with 49.9% of other workers
    (Gould, 2015).
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Key infographic
Tw Infographics Early Childhood Years And Covid 18Sept2020
Only nine out of 195 countries have childcare support as part of their pandemic response.
Key opinions
Filippo Grandi Portrait
Filippo Grandi
UN High Commissioner for Refugees
For the 1% of the world’s population who are displaced, education is the key to unlocking a positive and resilient future. For children affected by crisis and conflict, education provides vital protection, and a sense of normalcy and safety. Covid-19 showed numerous examples of how refugees who had received support to harness their energy and complete their education were giving back to the communities which hosted them – as doctors, nurses, teachers and support workers. Access to a quality education prepares refugee students to take care of themselves and their communities, stepping up as leaders and role models and enabling rapid generational change which will in turn create a brighter future for their own children.
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Kevin Watkins Headshot 2020
Kevin Watkins
CEO of Save the Children
Access to safe, good-quality learning opportunities plays an important role in mitigating the harmful impact of conflict and displacement on children. Save the Children knows from our extensive work with children from fragile and conflict-affected states that when crises hit, children want to be able to continue their education. They tell us that education cannot be delayed because it is the key to their future, their protection, their happiness and their health. Unless action is taken now, the long-term legacies of the pandemic will be rising inequality, more children experiencing abuse and a devastating impact on children’s learning.
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Key talking points
  • Covid-19 has brought to the forefront the critical role of parenting and the tremendous influence the home environment has on children’s lives.
  • Children from lower-income families, children with disabilities and those in violent family environments are most impacted.
  • Prioritising early childhood education as a post-Covid recovery strategy will be essential to ensure children do not fall through the cracks.
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