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Blog post Part of special issue: Covid-19, education and educational research

The impact of Covid-19 on children in early years settings

Joan Walton, Senior Lecturer at York St John University

In April 2020, senior managers from Kids Planet Day Nurseries[1] approached researchers at York St John University to explore the impact of Covid-19 on the young children in their care. Two surveys, six focus group meetings, and 64 in-depth qualitative interviews were undertaken over a period of 10 months.

The pandemic has been recognised as a global trauma, threatening lives and wellbeing across all communities (Woods, 2020), including children. Citing Freud, Smelser (2004, p. 33) warns that the traumas of childhood ‘are all the more momentous because they occur in times of incomplete development and are for that reason liable to have traumatic effects’.

Our findings (see Walton & Darkes-Sutcliffe, 2021) highlighted that awareness of the impact of Covid-19 on the mental health and learning of young children could not be separated from the emotions and behaviours of the adults responsible for their care.

‘Our findings highlighted that awareness of the impact of Covid-19 on the mental health and learning of young children could not be separated from the emotions and behaviours of the adults responsible for their care.’

The main relationship for a child, in an early years setting, is that of their ‘key person’. During Covid, the key person role was extensively disrupted, which had an impact on the child’s emotional security. Data gained from interviews with practitioners highlighted that there were differing perceptions concerning children’s resilience. Most assumed that the pandemic had not affected them. One practitioner summarised the views of many when she said: ‘As for the children, they just took it all in their stride.’ Some considered that resilience related to where the child had spent their time through the pandemic, as one room leader reflected: ‘I feel I can tell the different resilience between the children who were here throughout [the first lockdown] compared to the children who are returning from lockdown. I feel the children of key workers who have been here, have a higher resilience than children who are returning back.’

Only a few demonstrated an awareness of how difficult it is to know how children are feeling and responding. The centrality of relationships was discovered to be significant in this context too. Specifically, this meant paying attention to the ‘triangle of trust’ between key person, parent and child. However, the priority given to safeguarding physical health, including the establishing of small ‘bubbles’, and the absence of staff through sickness, meant that the triangle of trust was often not sustainable.

Our main conclusion is that there needs to be more research which explores in depth the nature of the intertwining relationship between unique lives and the diverse contexts in which those lives are lived. We found Bronfenbrenner’s (2005) ecological model of development supports an analysis of the intricate interconnection between the life of the individual child, and the micro-, meso- and macro-contexts in which that life is lived. Emphasis should be placed on the ‘processes’ involved in moment-by-moment relational interactions, rather than seeking to discover generalisable and replicable outcomes that can be applied to large groups of people, regardless of individual circumstances. We need more collaborative research projects where we can work together to learn and understand how children can be helped to deal with Covid-19 in ways that do not have a long-term impact on their mental health and learning.

[1] Kids Planet Day Nurseries is an independent provider of early years education for 7,500 children in the north of England.

This blog is based on the report, The Impact of Covid-19 on the Mental Health & Learning of Young Children, published by BERA as part of the research report series, Education & Covid-19: BERA Small Grants Fund research.


Bronfenbrenner, U. (2005). Making human beings human: Bioecological perspectives on human development. SAGE.

Smelser, N. (2004). Psychological trauma and cultural trauma. In Alexander, J. C., Eyerman, R., Giesen, B., Smelser, N., & Sztompka, P. (Eds), Cultural trauma and collective identity (pp. 31–59), University of California Press.

Taylor Woods, E., Schertzer, R., Greenfeld, L., Hughes. C., & Miller-Idriss, C. (2020). COVID-19, nationalism, and the politics of crisis: A scholarly exchange. Nations and Nationalism, 26(4), 807–825.