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For Young Children, a RAPID Response to the Pandemic

The Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development, or RAPID project, gathers essential information on unmet needs and health-promoting behaviors for the well-being of children and families, and distributes that information immediately to key stakeholders, advocacy groups, family facing organizations and families.


Dr. Phil Fisher studies the brains of young children in real life, not the laboratory. “Brains develop in the context of the world they grow up in,” he says. And that world has been turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Phil Fisher

Initially, pandemic stress was an equal-opportunity phenomenon, afflicting virtually all Americans up and down the socioeconomic ladder. What concerns Dr. Fisher—Philip H. Knight Chair and Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon—is that while parents and caregivers in middle- and upper-income households are generally regaining their equilibrium, mental health difficulties in lower-income households’ persist and, indeed, continue to rise.

Dr. Fisher’s concern derives from data based on voices of households with children five years and younger. “They’re telling us directly,” Dr. Fisher says.

“Our nation wasn’t prepared. We didn’t have actionable scientific data. RAPID is making up for lost time.” — Dr. Phil Fisher, Philip H. Knight Chair and Professor of Psychology, University of Oregon
A partnership with Parents Together, an online community and news source for parents, enables Fisher’s team to reach a thousand households per week who live at 150% of the federal poverty level or below. Each week, a survey goes out to potential new participants, and a follow-up survey goes to participants who indicated interest in continuing to respond.

Families are grateful to take part, he says. “They recognize that this is an opportunity for them to share their voice and their story.”

The data point to an ever-widening gap in well-being between lower-income households and others, which Dr. Fisher says may stem from a lack of food and a loss of school meals. He also sees alarming deficits in health care, child care and social supports. “For the youngest kids, direct in-person services in home or at a center have become impossible,” he says. The short- and long-term hazards are not hard to envision.

Zeroing in on households that include young children with disabilities, the data show significantly higher rates of stress, depression and anxiety in adults and children alike.

“We need more adequate supports,” Fisher summarizes, “and they need to be targeted and precise. The data show us who needs what, in order to increase prosperity for us all.”

True to its acronym, the Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development (RAPID) came together rapidly, with funders and researchers acting with urgency appropriate to the crisis. “Our nation wasn’t prepared,” Dr. Fisher says. “We didn’t have actionable scientific data.” RAPID is making up for lost time.

👉 Read more about the RAPID project.

Whereas much of the research in his field is “siloed, technical and inaccessible,” Dr. Fisher and team designed this project to generate recommendations that shared widely to inform local, state and national decisions. Stay tuned for the policy briefs, which will start coming out in a few weeks.

He wants policy makers to feel his urgency. “If young children get off track,” he says, “It’s hard to get them back on.” He describes the stress that’s going around as a disease not just of the brain but the whole body. Long-term chronic stress can overwhelm the immune system and other functions.

We face a danger of what Dr. Fisher calls an extended second curve—that is, a pandemic of mental health crises over and above the COVID-19 infection rates, charting closely with associated variables such as inadequate nutrition.

👉 Follow RAPID on Medium

He points out that harm can be mitigated if action is taken swiftly. “The presence of supportive, responsive adults brings systems back into balance,” he says. Social supports for parents and caregivers benefit those young brains.

He believes that RAPID exemplifies how his field can have an impact on decision making during this crisis and in the future. “This is the best of what science and data can do—amplifying issues that aren’t receiving enough attention.”

Sample Questions from the RAPID Survey
  • Have you missed a well-baby/well-child checkup since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic began?
  • Stress means a situation in which a person feels tense, restless, nervous or anxious or is unable to sleep at night because his/her mind is troubled all the time. Did you feel this kind of stress before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic began? Have you felt this kind of stress in the past week?
  • Prior to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, did you use any non-parental care for your child(ren) under the age of 5? This week, have you used any non-parental care for your child(ren) under the age of 5?
  • Do you currently have access to free food for your household? Examples of free food include food pantries and programs, SNAP etc. Prior to coronavirus (COVID-19), did you get free or reduced lunches for your child(ren)?

Learn more:

Video: Dr. Phil Fisher discusses “the Realities of Stress on Children” with Early Learning Nation Studio host Chris Riback at the 2019 Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development in Baltimore.

Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. He lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.

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