Research Report

Impacts of the Pandemic on Young Children and Their Parents

Initial Findings from NIEER’s May-June 2021 Preschool Learning Activities Survey

child and parent reading at home

Key Lessons from the Spring 2021 Preschool Learning Activities Survey

  1. Important parental supports for early learning continued to decline. From pre-pandemic to Spring 2021 reading three or more times a week declined from 85% to 66%. Teaching letters, words and numbers three or more times a week declined from 73% to 60%. Reading frequency declined for all ethnic groups. Hispanic children were particularly hard hit; less than half of Hispanic parents reported conducting these activities three or more times a week by Spring 2021.
  2. Parents reported a higher frequency of their child reading or being read to by someone, 69% at least once per day in Spring 2021. Parents also reported relatively high frequencies of passive screen time. Indoor play everyday was reported for 86% and outdoor play everyday for 72%.
  3. Preschool participation rates had not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels, though the percentage of children in remote preschool programs had decreased substantially. Participation rates for Hispanic children appeared to be particularly low in Spring 2021.
  4. Preschool special education services rebounded, with a substantial increase the percentage of children with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), though they also are older which may have contributed to the rise. The percentage of Black children with an IEP was unexpectedly high in Spring 2021. About 1 in 10 young children with an IEP were still reported to receive no services.
  5. Rates of social-emotional problems reported by parents on a standardized scale, continued to rise. Conduct problems, peer problems, and prosocial behavior problems were all reported at levels twice or more the 10% normally expected. Elevated rates of problems were reported by parents from all backgrounds.
  6. Parents are more concerned about their children’s social and emotional development and well-being than they were prior to the pandemic. They also are more concerned about excessive screen time and lack of access to extracurricular activities. They are less concerned about the child’s language development than prior to the pandemic.
  7. About 1/3 of parents planned to send their child to a summer program in-person.
  8. Most parents reported they were very likely or somewhat likely (82%) to send their child to a preschool or kindergarten in-person in the fall despite concerns about Covid-19. Black and Hispanic parents less often reported they were very likely to send their child in the fall and expressed much greater concerns about Covid-19 related issues in deciding about in-person attendance in the fall compared to White Non-Hispanic parents.
  9. For age eligible children, 81% of parents said they would likely use a free, universal pre-K program if it became available. Black and Hispanic parents more often reported they were highly likely to participate in such a program than did White Non-Hispanic parents. Parents with annual incomes below $25,000 also more often reported being very likely to participate than those with higher incomes (70% v. 59%). Nearly two-thirds of parents said such a program would save them money while about a third said their child would attend for free anyway.
  10. Fewer children were participating in remote preschool and their parents reported lower levels of frustration with supporting this activity.
  11. Parent reports of problems due to the pandemic declined, but 22% still reported they were out of work or had reduced hours, 9% reported a pay reduction, and 28% reported difficulties getting their work done because of the child’s care and education. Covid-19 concerns were given as a reason for not participating in preschool by almost half of parents of children not in preschool.

The Authors

Kwanghee Jung, an assistant research professor, brings to NIEER expertise in quantitative data analysis and is working on studies that analyze the effect of participation in state-funded preschool on children’s learning and development.

W. Steven (Steve) Barnett is a Board of Governors Professor and the founder and Senior Co-Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University. Dr. Barnett’s work primarily focuses on public policies regarding early childhood education, child care, and child development.