The development of social behavior in children in the context of the pandemic is influenced by various factors, such as cultural differences between countries, differences in the pandemic course and socioeconomic status of the families, which are, taken all together, difficult to account for in one study. Thus, it is not surprising that previous studies examining differences in children's social behavior during the initial COVID-19 lockdown reached different conclusions. Complicating matters further, the study designs of most previous longitudinal studies differed, sometimes substantially; some examined rather short-term periods of one month, others had small sample sizes, and some studies conducted the baseline assessments during the lockdown14–18. To date, there is a lack of clear evidence of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the development of social behavior. The present study examined changes in developmental risk in social behavior among more than 700 preschool children after the first COVID-19 wave using a standardized and validated instrument in a longitudinal comparison from 2019 (before Corona) to 2020 (after the first Corona wave) in relation to results from assessments conducted in previous years.
Surprisingly, in our study the prevalence of developmental risks decreased from 2019 before the pandemic to 2020 after the first COVID-19 wave. Compared to the longitudinal analyses from the previous survey waves, it should be emphasized that across all comparisons, the proportion of children with improvement was greater than the proportion of children with deterioration (PRR < 1), and since the scales are age-adjusted, this can for the most part be explained by the targeted individual promotion of children with developmental risks. With regard to the first-time significant change in developmental risks in the comparison from before Corona to after the first Corona wave, it should be noted that all three longitudinal analyses each examined changes in the domain social behavior among 3- to 4-year-old children and, accordingly, different children are considered in all three comparisons. Thus, differences in the socioeconomic status of families, child promotion, or secular trends across years cannot be ruled out.
The key finding of our study, we would like to highlight, is that we could not detect any deterioration in the prevalence rate ratio after the first COVID-19 wave compared to previous survey waves, whereby several aspects must be considered:
With regard to the COVID-19 pandemic, only short-term effects can be described, since only 4.5 months passed from the start of the nationwide lockdown in mid-March to the first DESK assessment in early August. Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania was also the first German state to allow limited regular care and had one of the highest preschool return rates, so that from the beginning of May every third child was allowed to attend preschool and by the end of May three quarters were already able to attend preschool again1. Apart from Saxony, which had a preschool attendance rate of 78% of the children by end of May, all other German federal states ranged between 22% and 47%1. However, child care programs were still partially restricted after August 2020, so preschools with a number of more than 100 children could not continue open or partially open child care concepts as they used to before Corona. The pedagogical staff was urged to stay with the same children, if possible, and to place children in the same cohorts in fixed rooms so that COVID-19 outbreaks could be avoided. Regarding the development of social behavior, this may have made it easier for children to approach other children in the preschool, strengthening cohesion and creating a more familiar environment.
Due to the more favorable child-adult ratio during the lockdown, closer supervision was provided. Family cohesion may have increased, which may have created a more emotionally stabilizing home environment15. On the other hand, one could assume that the COVID-19-induced lockdown may have increased demands on family resources and sociodemographic risks18. In general, with regard to the social-emotional development it was found that higher levels of family resources and more sensitive parenting predicted lower levels of aggression, whereas higher sociodemographic risk and less sensitive, less involved parenting, assessed from infancy through third grade, predicted higher and more stable aggression38. Studies conducted so far in relation to the pandemic have shown a decreased quality of life of children, an increased stress experience of parents and a lockdown-related increase in mental health problems39–42. Furthermore, Sun et al. showed that parental distress significantly predicted both externalizing and internalizing child behavior problems in primary school aged children43. Since these studies did not include 3-4-year-old children, however, no clear conclusions can be drawn.
Two studies from the United Kingdom conducted by the same authors with a comparable design found no differences in emotional and behavioral problems in 2-5-year-old children over a one-month period starting during the first lockdown, whereas primary school aged children (4–10 years old) showed an increase in child emotional and behavioral difficulties16,17. For secondary school aged children (11–16 years old), emotional difficulties decreased and behavioral difficulties did not change. Therefore, it can be assumed that the lockdown affected the social-emotional development of children in different age groups to different degrees44. Accordingly, our findings support results from previous studies that found no deterioration in social behavior among preschool children during the first COVID-19 wave15,16.
So far studies in toddlers and preschoolers found, in terms of daily activities, that during early stages of the pandemic, time spent in physical activity decreased, recreational screen time, and sleep duration increased, and sleep quality declined8,45. However, Kurz et al. could not find substantial differences in sleep quality, physical activity, and time spent with books in 6-7-year-old children in South Germany during the first COVID-19 wave46. One study of 2-4-year-olds estimated that every additional hour per day that children watched TV or digital media is associated with a higher mean SDQ score for conduct problems47. Another study in primary school children found that playing and learning activities were linked to lower behavioral problems, active leisure was positively associated with physical well-being, and socialization and family activities were linked to better social well-being48.
Furthermore, the study included preschools from economically disadvantaged regions as part of the project. Data from previous studies have shown that economically disadvantaged children of mentally burdened parents are particularly affected by the negative consequences of the lockdown, for example due to cramped housing or lack of parental support and encouragement39–41, 49. Furthermore, studies found that a lower socioeconomic status was associated with higher media use and less outdoor activity48,50.
However, one limitation of this study is that the influence of the household on the change in developmental risks could not be considered, as these were not assessed. This includes social living conditions, families’ socioeconomic status but also the influence of siblings or the childcare situation during the lockdown. A major limitation of the DESK 3–6 R is that not all domains of competence are measured across all age groups, so that the domain social behavior is only determined for 3-4-year-old children. Social behavior is further differentiated in the 5-6-year-olds into social competence and social interaction, so for consistency of the outcome measure we have restricted this analysis to children of 3–4 years.
Furthermore, it should be noted that the categorization of the stanine values into two groups (developmental risk vs. no developmental risk) results from the fact that the DESK 3–6 R is rather designed to sensitively identify which children are at risk for developmental risks and need targeted, individualized support. The calculated stanine values are therefore not “performance points”, but primarily indicate whether support is needed or not.
One major strength of this study is that longitudinal data from a prospective cohort study from over 700 3-4-year-old children in the domain social behavior were assessed using a standardized, validated instrument contextualized with data from previous survey waves. To date, limited data of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on developmental risks in this domain are available for this age group. One further major strength of this study is that the instrument was administered by trained pedagogical staff who knew the children over a longer period of time and were therefore able to assess them well. The completion by parents bears the risk that the children are assessed more positively and, in addition, the perception might change during the lockdown due to the increased child-parent time or parental stress.
In conclusion, despite the first COVID-19 wave, no negative effects on developmental risks in the domain of social behavior were observed among 3-4-year-old preschool children in economically deprived regions in northeastern Germany. On the contrary, despite preschool closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, decreases in developmental risks were observed in the longitudinal comparison, although besides the individual, targeted promotion of children with developmental risks provided by preschools in the context of this project, secular trends cannot be completely ruled out. Further studies are needed to examine long-term effects of the pandemic on social behavior in preschool children.