How COVID-19 Stress Compromises Children’s Brains

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

By Jude O’Brien

It is a strange new world, and we are all doing the best we can to manage and minimize COVID-19. Top of the list: masks and social distancing. For most of us, these steps, and larger ones like self-quarantining and working and learning from home, all can understandably amplify fear and stress.

A recent OpEd in the Hechinger Report by Goldie Hawn, actress and founder of the Goldie Hawn Foundation, and Bruce Wexler, MD, professor at Yale School of Medicine and founder of C8 Sciences, explores this dilemma, and potential risks of COVID-related stress on children’s brain development.

Both contributors have spent decades building programs based on neuroscience that are designed to improve brain health in youth, and interventions that ameliorate the impacts of poverty, racial inequities, and/or behavioral health conditions such as ADHD. Their programs include evidence-based, in-school curricula that improve executive function (EF) in children’s brains—the higher-order brain functions critical to learning, planning, reasoning, problem-solving, goal-directed action and self-motivation. EF is linked to improved academic, social and long-term life outcomes.

Hawn and Wexler explain that the ever-present danger of COVID-19, the virus’ economic and emotional impact on families, and more visible race-related violence and unrest shown across media platforms, albeit imperative to know about and manage, all heighten stress levels that can be detrimental to brain development.  

“Stress…along with the disruption of home and school environments — is compromising the development of brain systems and cognitive skills needed for success in school and life,” they explain. “We know this from decades of neuroscience research on the effects of poverty, trauma and violence on brain development.”

The good news is that programs and interventions do exist that help children develop executive function and brain health, interrupt the achievement gap, and overcome the negative effects of stress and adverse experiences. The authors point to BrainFutures’ issue brief, Brain Fitness and Executive Function: Evidence-Based Interventions That Improve Student Outcomes, as a source for brain fitness solutions during this time of change and challenge. The report contains a guide to 10 evidence-based brain fitness programs for youth (K-12) that educators, and in many cases parents, can access to support children’s brain development and offset the emotional and psychological impacts of COVID-19 and other current stressors. The paper also includes suggested intervention strategies, an explanatory narrative about related brain health and brain science, as well as a list of additional promising programs that were proven effective at supporting brain health, many of which have digital applications for at-home use.

The authors note that even before COVID-19, there was an urgency to improve the brain fitness of school-aged children. “Now, it’s an imperative,” they declare. “Many of the report’s featured programs are web-based and can — and should be — used whether instruction is provided in school, at home or both.” In light of COVID-19, BrainFutures also released an at-home executive function guide that includes the virtual offerings from the main report’s 10 featured evidence-based programs. This makes it easier for families, educators and administrators to select programs that fit at-home, in-class, or hybrid school settings.

With so much uncertainty in the world today, intentional effort is needed to make changes and provide resources for our youth. The negative impacts and lifelong outcomes of neglecting brain health only increase with poverty, disadvantaged circumstances, violence and adverse experiences. Bringing EF programs to our nation’s youth is an equity issue, a mental health imperative, and an academic necessity.

Students simply cannot learn if they are overwhelmed by stress. Executive function skills help students manage stress, while also establishing a neural network foundational to learning. In this way, EF programs act as an effective universal prevention strategy in a Multi-Tiered System of Support approach.

As Hawn and Wexler conclude, “If we fail to take this action, our children may escape the immediate physical illnesses associated with Covid-19 but suffer a lifelong compromise of cognitive function and mental health.” They call on those who can help, to step forward. “We ask district leaders, government officials, foundations, corporations and philanthropists with bold visions and deep commitments to the well-being of our children and country: Are you willing and able to help?”

BrainFutures is here to support district leaders select evidence-based programs that best meet their needs, and to assist foundations and other grant-making entities in making sure their support goes to proven programs matched with districts committed to a brain-based 21-century approach to learning, teaching and thriving.

(District leaders, state education agencies, and interested funder can contact Holly McCormack, Chief Strategy Officer at for more information.)