The youngest children have been hit hardest by lockdowns and closures during the Covid pandemic, with new research showing that the educational progress and social development of four and five-year-olds has suffered badly in their first year of school.

Aggressive behavior such as biting and hitting, feeling like fighting in class, or being overwhelmed by large groups of children were among the difficulties reported by teachers in interviews.

Claudine Bowyer-Crane, from the National Institute for Economic and Social Research, said the results were worrying: “Not only does this suggest that children who started admissions in 2020 are struggling in the specific learning areas of literacy and math, but also a smaller proportion of these children achieve a good level of development.”

The study, published by the Education Endowment Foundation, found parents and teachers were concerned that children in England were struggling with their emotional well-being, as well as their ability to learn language and numeracy skills, after being in lockdown following the earlier spring lockdown Reception classes had started.

“For many children, the lockdown experience has been complicated by cramped living conditions, lack of access to green space, parental mental health issues and financial hardship. They had to cope with the restrictions imposed by Covid-19 at the start of school, only to go into another lockdown after just one school year,” the researchers concluded.

Teachers who spoke to the researchers said the disorder has left some infants with “low self-esteem and confidence” and more children than before are feeling “overwhelmed” with learning.

Others highlighted increased behavioral problems observed when children returned to school, with some “biting, hitting, unable to share” resulting in teachers having to focus more on helping the children to get back into school.

Ruth Coleman, Headteacher at Highfield School in Ipswich, said: “As children returned to our nursery following the pandemic, many struggled with important aspects of early childhood development, such as the personal touch or coping with larger groups of children.

“We also saw more children who were afraid of separation from their parents. Some children were further behind in speech and language development than we would expect.”

The study looked at more than 3,000 children who began their intake year in September 2020, with their school year interrupted by the second lockdown in November 2020 and the third from January to March 2021. Many of these children had previously missed out on attending daycare or other settings for the early years during the March 2020 lockdown.

Teachers reported that some parents have been unable to help their children study during the lockdown and have found it difficult to teach them to read and write. “Some parents have been very difficult to engage and perhaps we should have tried harder to get these children into school as they are now significantly behind,” commented one teacher.

The study found that more children completed the admissions year behind their expected goals than in the pre-pandemic years, with the equivalent of three fewer children in each classroom not achieving expected levels of academic, personal and physical development.

Prof Becky Francis, Executive Director of the EEF, said: “The early years are such a crucial time for children’s development, both in terms of their academic achievement and their social and emotional well-being. Therefore, it is of particular concern that by the end of the reception class, fewer children have reached the expected level of development.”

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