How the pandemic hurts childhood brain development

DANGER: Deadly coronavirus. Wear a face mask.

These stark words are spelled out in large letters to protect children as they enter a community playground. But the biggest danger to our children isn’t the possibility of contracting the virus on a playground. As we protect our children from becoming infected, and from infecting vulnerable family members, we are overlooking a far greater danger to the children themselves: stress.

Stress related to the coronavirus in both public and private spaces — along with the disruption of home and school environments — is compromising the development of brain systems and cognitive skills needed for success in school and life. We know this from decades of neuroscience research on the effects of poverty, trauma and violence on brain development.

But there is also some promising news: Neuroscience has provided us with programs to mitigate the stress effects of Covid-19.

We write from years of experience. One of us established the Goldie Hawn Foundation, which provides children around the world with neuroscience-based knowledge and tools to manage stress, regulate emotions and face the challenges of difficult circumstances. The other has done 25 years of neuroscience research at Yale University, evaluating and developing programs that harness the brain’s ability to increase cognitive function and reduce achievement gaps related to poverty, as well as help children handle Attention Deficit Disorders without medication.

We have learned about programs that protect brain and cognitive development, needed now more than ever because of the pandemic. But these programs are currently available to far too few children. We must do better.

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