The goal of this study was to investigate changes in children's self-regulatory behavior before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Participants were parents of children aged 4 to 13 years (n = 45, mean 7.5, SD: 2.6) who participated in the Baltimore Generations Study before the pandemic. They reported on their child's self-regulation (SR) using the Parent Observation of Child Adaptation. During the pandemic, they were recontacted to report on child SR, disruptions to family life (Coronavirus Impact Scale), and parenting stress (Parenting Stress Index). Prepandemic to pandemic changes in SR were compared with repeated measures analysis of variance.
There were significant decreases in child SR (poorer concentration, attention, task engagement and persistence, and greater impulsivity) prepandemic to pandemic. During the pandemic, parenting stress was correlated with lower child SR (r range = −0.52 to −0.34, p < 0.05). Pandemic-related family disruptions were associated with changes in children's impulsivity (F [1, 42] = 5.28, p = 0.03); children with 4 or more disruptions (67%) showed less ability to wait their turn during the pandemic compared with prepandemic (M [SD] = 3.34 [0.93] vs. 4.41 [1.21], t  = 3.93, p < 0.001). There was no change in SR for children with fewer than 4 disruptions.
Results highlight modest pandemic-associated decreases in child attention, task persistence, and task engagement alongside increases in impulsivity. We did not find evidence of broad or severe impacts; however, children whose families have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic may need focused support in school and at home to avoid widening prepandemic health and educational disparities.