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How can we use what we know about the brain’s plasticity to support children born during the COVID-19 pandemic?

I’ve read that children who were born during the pandemic faced developmental challenges. What does the brain science tell us? How should we be addressing this as early childhood educators?
— Curious Educator
A child care educator teaches young children. She has reads ZERO TO THREE's bestsellers and new releases.
See expert answers to common questions about brain development.

Children born during the COVID-19 pandemic faced unique challenges. During their crucial early months and years of development, they may not have had the same level of interactions, socialization, and (if needed) early interventions as children born before the pandemic. Some studies showed that babies born during the pandemic had a higher risk of delays in communication, gross motor skills, and social emotional development.  But there are good reasons to believe that any setbacks could be temporary, and that’s due to what we know about neuroplasticity.  

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to modify itself and respond to new experiences in the environment. This plasticity is greatest at the beginning of our lives and decreases as we age. Babies can learn so much so quickly because their brains are creating many new connections between neurons. Experience-dependent neuroplasticity refers to changes in the brain’s connections that happen only if the child receives the environmental stimuli to build those connections. The brain takes in new experiences and builds neural connections. Not everyone will have the same experiences and connections.  

A chart showing how many neural connections are made throughout the firs two years of life.


So how does the pandemic fit in? Children born during the pandemic had different early life experiences from those born prior to 2020.  

  • There was a lack of access to early childhood education programs. 
  • Babies had less interactions with people and saw fewer faces.  
  • There were fewer playdates and reduced physical activity.  
  • The quality of interactions in the home may also have been affected due to factors like economic insecurity, parental depression, and stress.  
  • Babies who needed early intervention services were limited to virtual visits.  

There are good reasons to believe that any setbacks could be temporary, and that’s due to what we know about neuroplasticity.  

With what we know about experience-dependent neuroplasticity, it’s easy to see how the lack of these experiences and stimuli could affect brain development. However, it’s that same plasticity that allows children to catch up and continue building neural connections. And your everyday interactions and routines make a big impact on strengthening their brain development! 

  • Be intentional in your interactions with children and consider their individual needs. Each child had a different experience during the pandemic. Speak to the family about any known disabilities or developmental delays.  
  • To support communication skills, create more opportunities in the day for talking. You can start by expanding on what a child says and offering more details. If the child says, “teddy bear” you can add more details, like “I like that fuzzy, brown teddy bear.” Model turn-taking in brief conversations.   
  • Provide plenty of opportunities for play that develops gross motor skills.  
  • Establish routines that allow children to make connections across multiple areas of the brain. For example, a naptime routine that involves playing soft music, dimming the lights, and providing a cozy space with a favorite stuffed animal engages the parts of the brain that control senses, feelings, and thoughts. The brain is being stimulated to make many neural connections from just one daily routine! 

The strategies above — which are recommended for all young children — are ones that you’re likely already using in your work. When you create enriching environments and tailor interactions to the individual needs of the children you work with, you’re helping them catch up to where they would have been pre-pandemic. 

Interested in learning more about neuroplasticity and brain development?

We offer evidence-based training programs that cover key concepts and research as well as practical strategies to foster brain development: 

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