New Jerseyans have been changed forever by the pandemic, and many programs and services have been created to help people in a variety of ways, but are we focusing enough attention on our youngest residents?

One of the state’s leading child experts doesn’t think so.

According to Cel Zalkind, the executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, the forgotten population is kids under the age of 5.

“Virtual school is not what works for them, they learn through play, they learn through interacting with other children, and the fact they have not been in school has had an impact,” she said.

She said many of these younger children were suddenly pulled out of daycare at the start of the pandemic, some have never even had the change to interact with kids their own age, and now they are being thrust into an environment where everyone is wearing a mask, which can make it harder to understand facial cues and socialize with their peers.

“Mental health services for young children and their families are in scarce supply, even before the pandemic, and it is a different kind of service because it is one that engages the parent and the child together,” she said.

“I think we really need to expand our vision of what mental health services are, and include our youngest children and families.”

Zalkind pointed out when people hear about mental health services for young children, they may have an image of a baby on a couch, but that is not what this is about.

“This is about support that families and caregivers need for a child’s healthy development, I think it takes a certain skill, because you have children who may not be able to communicate,” she said.

She noted New Jersey does offer a infant mental health specialist credential, but very few people have gotten that degree because there’s no real place to use it.

She said “I think it’s time to think differently about this, it’s about the development of our children.”

Zalkind said as kids come back to classes and different daycare programs, teachers and staff need to have support and some sensitivity to the fact that many youngsters have been isolated at home since the pandemic began.

“Perhaps their verbal skills have not developed the same way they would in school, there needs to be an awareness about this,” she said.

She said the ongoing labor shortage is taking a toll on many childcare facilities, which can lead to instability for children, so more support must found for these institutions.

Zalkind said we in New Jersey and the nation have not really thought through the impact of the pandemic on young children, including the ones now starting kindergarten.

She pointed out in many cases “they’ve never really interacted with another child, if they’ve been in a childcare program they have been distanced, they’ve been told not to touch, they haven’t shared toys, they haven’t played in the same way.”

You can contact reporter David Matthau at

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