KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Wearing a tutu and a messy ponytail, CJ RainingBird, 4, sprawls out on her carpeted living room floor, scribbling on a notebook. She looks up eagerly after completing each pen stroke, her eyes widening and her mouth stretching into a grin when she notices her masterpiece is being admired.

CJ’s drawing indicates a child who’s on track, if not ahead, in her development. It’s of a horse-like figure with big, round eyes, a scruffy mane and a tail coming out of its belly. Children typically begin to draw body parts at age 4, according to developmental research, often starting with simple head-torso renderings and graduating into details such as facial features.

On other measures, CJ is struggling. She lacks a sense of personal boundaries and often clings to those around her. She doesn’t talk a lot and sometimes needs to be dragged into her new preschool. When she’s uncomfortable or upset, she screams at a pitch that pierces the ears. 

“She doesn’t know how to work through her emotions,” says Jillian RainingBird-Minme, CJ’s adoptive mom. 

Emerging evidence reveals an uptick in developmental delays and challenging behaviors in children belonging to the “COVID generation.” Born during or shortly before the pandemic, many of these children are talking, walking and interacting later and less frequently. They’re more prone to certain behaviors, such as outbursts, physical aggression and separation anxiety. 

It’s unclear how much the COVID-19 pandemic and related economic fallout are to blame. Experts note many children have had uneven access to health and child care and relatively little exposure to the outside world.

In many cases, the adults in their lives have suffered unrelenting and unprecedented levels of emotional or financial stress – stress pandemic babies have absorbed when their brains are developing at a faster rate than at any other point in the human experience.

“The infant-toddler brain is the best sponge you could ever buy,” says Rahil Briggs, who oversees HealthySteps, a national program that provides early childhood development support to families at their pediatric visits. “It sucks up everything really good and everything really bad.” 

Many early childhood experts say more children are not as good at playing with one another, or at any activities that involve sharing or paying attention. 

“We (adults) have the language to express what it is we’re feeling, what it is we’re thinking,” says Jamiylah Miller, an advocate in Norristown, Pennsylvania, who provides home-based education under Early Head Start, the federal learning program for families from pregnancy to age 3. “When we disagree, we can say we disagree.

“With children, it shows up primarily in their behavior.” …

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