Sep 14, 2021 - Podcasts

How the pandemic might be changing young kids

The number of COVID cases in kids has skyrocketed with the Delta variant. For the week ending Sept. 9, children made up 28.9% of reported weekly cases, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

But contracting COVID is far from the only risk for young people during this pandemic. With the new school year upon us, and more data coming out all the time, we’re looking over the next few days at some of the ways COVID has affected kids: from language development to mental health, from toddlers to teens.

  • Plus, the group trying to get more Black Democrats elected to Washington.
  • And, getting to the bottom of hate crimes data.

Guests: Elizabeth Spencer Norton, assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders at Northwestern University, and Axios' Alexi McCammond and Worth Sparkman.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Dan Bobkoff, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Sabeena Singhani, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Michael Hanf and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected] You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Tuesday, September 14th. I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what we’re following: the group trying to get more Black Democrats elected to Washington. Plus, getting to the bottom of hate crimes data.

But first, today’s One Big Thing: what we actually know about young kids’ development in this pandemic.

NIALA: The number of COVID cases in kids has skyrocketed with the Delta variant. For the week ending September 9th, children made up 28.9% of reported weekly cases, that's according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. But contracting COVID-19, is far from the only risk for young people during this pandemic. With the new school year upon us and more data coming out all the time. We wanted to spend the next few days looking at some of the ways COVID has affected children. From language development to mental health, from toddlers to teens. To kick us off is Communication Sciences and Disorder professor Elizabeth Spencer Norton. She and her team at Northwestern University have been studying the effects of COVID on young kids’ development. Hi Elizabeth. Thanks for being with us.

ELIZABETH NORTON: Hi, my pleasure, thanks for having me.

NIALA: Elizabeth, let's start first with what data we do have about how COVID is especially affecting our youngest kids. When we think about language development, social skills, how they're doing in school.

ELIZABETH: We don't have a lot of data yet. There is one study that is a pre-print, meaning that it hasn't yet been peer reviewed, that has received some attention because it showed somewhat of a drop in scores of children who are already being studied during the course of COVID. And lower scores for children born during the pandemic than their peers born in previous years. So this could be really worrying. I think a lot of people were concerned that the pandemic might really have profound effects on children's language and social and cognitive development. However, this is one study, it's not yet peer reviewed. And the examiners were wearing masks, so it might've not been quite as easy to understand them. And children maybe weren't as comfortable going into a new environment to be assessed or things like that.

I think it's important that we wait to see lots more data. Many studies are being done around the world. And one of the things that makes me very optimistic is that children's brains are very plastic or malleable or changeable. And that gives us hope that children are going to be able to adapt. And we know that children growing up in cultures where parents wear a face covering, still learn language. So we have a lot of reasons to be optimistic and are curious about how the data will come in from more studies.

NIALA: What is your advice for parents and teachers or caregivers right now, when we're thinking about really young children and language development?

ELIZABETH: So my advice is to continue to support your child's language and social and cognitive development by engaging and playing with them and having high-quality language interactions. And by that, I mean, following your child's lead, playing with what they're interested in. When they gesture or talk, uh, or make, uh, you know, give you an object, respond to them with something on time, and you know, and relevant to what they're doing. So if they hand you the cup, you can say, “yes, that's a blue cup,” or things like that.

And those interactions where you follow your child's lead, you respond and you engage, are the really the important contexts where children learn language. We know that children don't learn as well when they're overhearing language from TV or from parents talking in the other room. So taking that time to engage with your young child and for your older children to really listen, when they're telling you about their worries and concerns and, and things like that and support them that way when they're getting older.

NIALA: In a previous life, I was a preschool teacher and I must say, this does not sound very different than what teachers are always told about, uh, particularly three, four, and five-year-olds in language development. It sounds like you're saying parents need, and teachers need to do the same things that they've always done.

ELIZABETH: Absolutely. There's no big change in strategy here. It's just, I think sometimes it can be tougher during the pandemic to make that time to have that really focused, present interaction. You know, we could be pulled in so many different directions and stressed, but the great news about this is it's the same thing that many parents are already doing. It doesn't cost a thing. The only thing it takes is a little bit of time.

NIALA: Elizabeth Spencer Norton is an assistant professor of Communication Sciences, and disorders at Northwestern University. Thanks Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH: My pleasure, thank you.

NIALA: And we want to hear from you if your parents or caregivers, how have you tried to support your children during the pandemic? Can you share what's worked? Record a voice memo on your phone. You can email it, or you can text it to me at 202-918-4893.

NIALA: We’ll be back in 15 seconds with how one new political PAC is focusing on Black Democrats to unseat House Republicans across the country.

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo. A PAC called The Collective is on a mission to ensure equal Black representation in government. And to do that, it's endorsing nine Black Democrats who are trying to unseat House Republicans in states across the country. Axios’ Alexi McCammond reports that nine is just the start, and we may see more of The Collective’s candidates cropping up. Hey, Alexi.


NIALA: Is the collective endorsing career politicians? Who are these nine so far?

ALEXI: There are a couple of folks who have run at least once before. But these are really people who just have local ties to the community. So that's of course, folks like doctors and educators, but it's also meaning community organizers and pastors, people who are-are politicians in their own right, without actually ever holding office.

NIALA: And so are they recruiting these people, or are they looking for people [Alexi: Mhm.] who've already launched campaigns?

ALEXI: They have been working hand-in-hand with these nine that they have represented across California, Georgia, Arizona, North Carolina and Illinois. But it's a little bit of both ways. They look for these people and encourage them to run. As you know, research shows that both women and people of color usually need a little bit more nudging to actually make the decision to run for office. There are also financial barriers. And that's a big part of where the collective comes in.

NIALA: And, are there any plans for them to get involved in races against sitting Democrats?

ALEXI: There's an interesting race happening in Illinois, where there's a Black woman, Kina Collins, challenging a sitting Democrat, who's a Black man, Congressman Danny Davis. And so I asked them, are you going endorse, or get into a race like that, and support someone like Kina Collins. And they told me flat out that they will not be getting involved in racist like that because they don't think the way, they said, to build Black political power in Congress is to remove one of their members and add another person. But simply to add to those numbers. They did say though, that they're not ruling out getting into or involved in Dem-on-Dem primaries. So perhaps if there's a Black challenger to a white sitting Democrat, they could get involved in a race like that.

NIALA: Axios’ political reporter, Alexi McCammond. Thanks for being with us, Alexi.

ALEXI: Good to be with you guys.

NIALA: Hate crimes have soared across the U.S. to their highest levels since 2008. In states like Arkansas, those numbers are particularly striking - between 2019 and 2020, there was a 256% increase in reported incidents. But, those data points may not tell the full story. We've talked on the show in the past about how hard it is to capture data around hate crimes, so I asked Axios’ Northwest Arkansas reporter, Worth Sparkman, to come on to talk about these numbers in his state. Hey, Worth.


NIALA: First, can we talk about this 256% increase? How many crimes are we talking about here?

WORTH: Yeah, in Arkansas, what was reported for the calendar year 2020 was 50 hate crimes, which was up from, I believe, 19 from 2019.

NIALA: But experts are warning you that this data is flawed. How so?

WORTH: In several different ways. The FBI's uniform crime report is voluntary. So not all law agencies, in every state, report. Another issue is kind of, the disparity between what is classified as a hate crime. So it could be anything between vandalism, like we had here in Fayetteville where Black Lives Matter murals were vandalized last year, to a murder.

NIALA: What are you hearing about how the FBI is trying to create better data at the local level?

WORTH: Yeah, so uh, they are planning to launch a national campaign targeted at the victims of hate crimes. This has already kicked off in New Mexico and Oregon. It's not a silver bullet, but having good data and good facts will eventually lead to better action.

NIALA: Worth Sparkman is an Axios local reporter in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Thanks, Worth.

WORTH: Thank you, Niala.

NIALA: That’s it for us today! You can always get in touch with us by emailing [email protected] - or message me directly on Twitter.

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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