The blog of the Urban Institute
June 21, 2021

Using a Consensus-Style Approach to Synthesize the Evidence on the Effects of the COVID-19 Crisis on Young Children and Early Care and Education Programs

June 21, 2021

The COVID-19 crisis upended life for both young children and the early care and education (ECE) programs that serve them. Expert consensus suggests a need for urgent action at all levels of government.

With colleagues from seven other universities and research organizations, we synthesized the evidence (PDF) on the pandemic’s impact on young children’s learning and on ECE programs and teachers. We focused on 76 high-quality studies and collaborated with ECE policy and practice leaders from multiple states to identify actionable, evidence-backed, and equity-centered solutions for addressing young children’s immediate needs, stabilizing hard-hit ECE programs, supporting early educators, and mitigating longer-term ramifications of the crisis.

Our findings show that young children (ages 8 and younger), especially children from families with low incomes, dual-language learners, children of color, and children with disabilities, were negatively affected by the pandemic. ECE programs and the early educators who have an essential role in young children’s development suffered too, especially in the child care sector, which historically has received far fewer public supports than Head Start or public preschool.

The power of a consensus-style synthesis

Researchers around the country have written more than 300 reports about the experiences of children, ECE program operators, and early educators during the pandemic. Though intended to inform policy responses and system recovery, the sheer volume of research findings has been overwhelming, especially for leaders inundated with urgent demands.

To synthesize the evidence on the pandemic’s effects on young children and ECE programs, we assembled a team of 16 leading ECE scholars and 10 ECE policy and practice leaders from around the country. Scholars drew on their methodological and substantive expertise as well as insights from research-practice partnerships with states and school districts. Policy and practice partners drew on more than 15 months of experience making high-stakes decisions during the crisis, along with years of experience leading ECE systems nationwide. Such consensus among the field is rare but critical in developing timely, actionable, equity-centered recommendations that can support the recovery and resilience of ECE programs and the young children and families who depend on them.   

From historic crisis to historic opportunity

Our results paint a concerning picture (PDF) of the effects of the pandemic on young children, particularly the most marginalized, and on the programs that serve them. But, with our team of researchers and policy and practice partners, we identified evidence-backed, equity-centered policy responses that can be implemented with American Rescue Plan Act funding and continued through Biden-Harris administration proposals for the American Families Plan and American Jobs Plan.

  • Accelerate children’s learning. Young children will be entering ECE programs and elementary schools in the fall with a wider range of skills than teachers are used to. The best science of teaching and learning suggests that to address this variability, schools should implement effective curriculum, coaching, and professional development for teachers; make the most of the next several summers; tutor as early as kindergarten; and hire assistant teachers to ensure children have time in small groups and experience instruction that meets them where they are.
  • Support the whole child. Young children are resilient, but educators have expressed concerns about their socio-emotional development in particular. As children return to ECE, educators can place extra weight on socio-emotional development and consider trauma-informed approaches. Further, in anticipation of a wide range of children’s behaviors and pandemic experiences, training and policy changes across ECE can ban the use of harsh discipline. Together, these changes can help accelerate learning and address long-standing racial disparities.
  • Partner with families. Online and virtual ECE posed real challenges for children, families, and early educators. One silver lining, however, was the expanded use of technology to support closer home-school connections. Maintaining virtual options will strengthen home-school connections, just as offering free, technology-based learning supports will strengthen teaching and learning well beyond the pandemic.
  • Increase support to the workforce. ECE, especially child care, has long been underfunded and undervalued. To honor essential workers’ contributions and aid recovery, public investments must be sufficient to pay all ECE workers a living wage and establish pay parity with K–12 for educators with matching qualifications. Additional healthcare subsidies for ECE workers can ensure fair compensation and support physical and mental well-being. If vaccine boosters are necessary, prioritizing early educators alongside K–12 teachers will serve the ECE workforce and reduce disruptions to teaching and learning.
  • Accelerate the creation of a coherent ECE system. Publicly funded ECE programs fared better during the crisis than private-pay programs. Expanding public funding can strengthen ECE in the short and long term, especially for programs serving infants and toddlers. Promising child care policy solutions include shared business services alliances, expanded use of contracts, and modifications to subsidy reimbursement systems. Leaders can also anticipate and stave off future cuts to Head Start and public schools as federal relief expires. Investing in data systems and analytic capacity can support an equitable recovery along with continuous quality improvement.

Our consensus-style synthesis confirmed how critical ECE is to children’s healthy development and families’ work lives and well-being, as well as how siloed and underresourced our ECE system is. In the short term, recovery requires evidence-backed choices about how to leverage new resources. In the long term, bold policymaking can build a stronger ECE system that meets the needs of all children and families and supports all ECE programs and teachers to provide the high-quality learning opportunities young children need to thrive.


The following people also contributed to this post:

Christina Weiland, associate professor and faculty codirector, Education Policy Initiative, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan

Daphna Bassok, Batten Bicentennial Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education, University of Virginia

Anna Markowitz, assistant professor, Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles

Paola Guerrero Rosada, graduate student, Combined Program in Education and Psychology, University of Michigan

Grace Luetmer, research analyst, Urban Institute


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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.