Young children are failing to understand some "basic facial expressions" due to the pandemic denying them the opportunity to develop social skills, Ofsted has said.

Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector of Ofsted, said it is clear the pandemic has created “some lingering challenges” and that she is “particularly worried” about young children’s development.

Ofsted published four briefings, the second in a set of reports exploring how learners have recovered from pandemic learning loss, on Monday (April 4).

In the briefing on early years, based on inspections of 70 early years providers in January and February 2022, it found some providers say children have “limited vocabulary” while “some babies have struggled to respond to basic facial expressions”.

Children have also missed out on having conversations or hearing stories, with one provider saying young children seem to have spent more time on screens and have started to use accents and voices from programmes they have watched.

Echo: Wearing face masks is said to not have helped in children's emotional development (PA)Wearing face masks is said to not have helped in children's emotional development (PA) (Image: PA)

A few providers said that wearing face masks is continuing to have a negative impact on young children’s language and communication skills.

“Children turning two years old will have been surrounded by adults wearing masks for their whole lives and have therefore been unable to see lip movements or mouth shapes as regularly,” the briefing said.

Speaking on the topic on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Ms Spielman added: "In the physical limitations of lockdown, the smaller your household, or if you lived in a flat and if you didn’t have a garden, those children were significantly more constrained in their opportunities to exercise than children who lived in houses with big gardens.

“We know that there have been differential effects and how important it is that we particularly put the effort into the children who’ve had the worst experience over the last few years to help them get where they need to.”

What can be done to help children's social skills develop?

Some staff at nurseries have come up with innovative new ways to help young children catch up, such as sharing learning between home and nursery through a “chatter group” with a diary to record activities.

Others have encouraged children to express their feelings through “emotion cards” with images of children displaying different facial expressions.

In schools, Ofsted found the pandemic is continuing to affect pupils’ knowledge, although its briefing noted that schools are using “effective strategies” to help children catch up on lost learning.

James Bowen, director of policy for school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “It is no surprise that the pandemic has had a major impact on some children. We know that repeated lockdowns have meant that most younger children have had reduced social interaction and it is perhaps unsurprising that this has affected their emotional development, social and speech and language skills.

“We’re pleased Ofsted’s report notes that schools are effectively helping children to catch up on these lost skills.