What’s the impact on a child’s neurological development where half-covered faces and social distancing are becoming the norm?

Children learn their social cues by mirroring {1}. Just as language is learned through constant exposure, so too is nonverbal communication.  We learn to shake hands or smile when someone opens a door for us because it’s what we’ve seen ourselves. Our children are growing up in a new reality where the only full faces they see are those they live with. Strangers are kept at a distance.

In the first four years of development, the human brain is in its greatest growth phase. At two years old there’s a significant increase in brain activity {2}. The impact of coronavirus, although only a year or two of disruption, may potentially leave small children with gaps in their neurological development. 

The core of the brain contains the limbic system; where our emotions and fight/flight/freeze responses are triggered from. Small children who can’t see what “normal interaction” looks like; hugging extended family, attending baby and toddler or singing groups, seeing strangers smile at one another as they hold a door open, seeing people shake hands upon meeting, hugging or greeting - even for a few months, are missing out on a significant proportion of their development. Without visual and emotional learning they are missing out on key markers that are crucial in preparation for adult life.  For adults these things are frustrating and even fear-instilling yet, for small children, this may prove to be a fundamental loss to their development.

Hugs bring comfort because healthy physical touch sends signals, via the vagal nervous system, to inform the brain that we are safe. Social distancing rules dictate that physical touch, even in Reception classes, is to be avoided. A class of 30 four-year-olds who aren’t allowed to climb onto the lap of the teaching assistant won’t understand why they can’t receive a hug when they are upset. At four their emotional verbal articulation is very limited and so without physical touch comfort is much harder to give. Subconsciously they are more on edge which makes them more likely to emotionally disconnect. We know that emotionally engaged children are the most effective learners {3} which highlights another gap in development.

We live in a world where we can only see the eyes of others in public and sometimes even private settings. How much can you tell by just seeing someone’s eyes? Teenagers are trying to work out who they are. The challenge of societal changes, social media and growing social anxiety mean many will be battling negative filters. When they see a passing glance from a stranger who is simply concentrating, their already anxious brains could perceive it as a judgemental look. As a result that teen could spend the rest of their day feeling there is something wrong with them, thus increasing social anxiety. 

Covid guidelines require us to keep six feet away from others. The lack of physical connection is hard enough. Add in the lack of heart connection we get from being near each other and isolation can increase over time. Isolation can adversely affect our immune systems, lead to depression and other mental health challenges. Not being able to ‘read’ friends, family and colleagues due to the semi-connection that comes with life online, working from home, messaging (which we know can be misunderstood) causes stress, fear and questioning how we are being perceived. 

So the interruption to non-verbal communication is affecting all of us. But for those whose brains are still developing, some key neural pathways are at risk of being underdeveloped, or worse, missed altogether.  

There’s so much more that we could go into, but the most powerful thing we can do is to recognise the impact this has on our children and young people. The question we need to ask ourselves is what can we do about it?



  1. C Hooven, JM Gottman, LF Katz (1995) Parental meta-emotion structure predicts family and child outcomes Cognition & Emotion
  2. Corel, JL. (1975) The postnatal development of the human cerebral cortex. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
  3. Raver, C. C., Garner, P. W., & Smith-Donald, R. (2007). The roles of emotion regulation and emotion knowledge for children's academic readiness: Are the links causal? In R. C. Pianta, M. J. Cox, & K. L. Snow (Eds.), School readiness and the transition to kindergarten in the era of accountability (p. 121–147). Paul H Brookes Publishing.

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