Co-written with Dr Ioanna Bakopoulou (Senior Lecturer in Psychology in Education, School of Education, University of Bristol)
We are delighted to see the publication of our article, What children need to flourish: Insights from a qualitative study of children’s mental health and wellbeing in the pandemic. This forms part of a collection of articles in a Special Issue of Education 3-13, which draw on educational research during the pandemic for the project of reimagining primary school education in the post pandemic world.
The experiences of children and young people during the pandemic clearly varied greatly and the full impacts are only now beginning to unfold. Much focus has been placed on the impacts on children’s mental health and social and emotional wellbeing. While this is to be welcomed, the framing of children’s poor mental health and wellbeing in terms of the effects of the pandemic can serve to obscure rather than clarify the bigger picture. Not only was there an upward trend in poor childhood mental health prior to the pandemic, in many cases negative impacts can be understood as the exacerbation of already existing vulnerabilities.
Lessons from the pandemic
What lessons, then, might be learned from children’s experiences of education in the pandemic? Much of the burden of supporting children’s mental health in the “recovery period” has fallen on to education settings. Given that schools were already overburdened with competing demands prior to the pandemic, what should supporting children’s mental health and wellbeing look like in the school setting?
Our research suggests that looking at children’s experiences of education during the lockdowns can provide important insights into the relationship between children’s experiences of schooling, their mental health and wellbeing, and their ability to learn. It suggests that the “quick fixes” favoured by government policy, focused on counselling and mental health interventions, fail to get to the heart of what’s needed in supporting children’s positive wellbeing and mental health more widely.
The article outlines the results of a research project carried out in 2021 which explored impacts of the changes to schooling during the lockdown on the mental health and wellbeing of primary aged children in the UK through interviews and an on-line survey with teachers and parents.
Whilst the results of the study highlighted the negative impacts for many children’s wellbeing and social development linked to the loss of social interaction and stressful situation many families found themselves in, there were also less anticipated findings that were highlighted. Study participants provided an insight into the issues with education in pre-pandemic times, against which the changes to schooling (in the first lockdown especially) were experienced as a relief by many children.
Time for relationships and engagement
The time out of the “school as usual” system was seen to have brought benefits for many children, both those learning at home and in smaller class sizes within school. Many parents in our survey saw their children as having thrived at home during the lockdowns, away from the pressures and stresses of normal school.
My son thrived being at home when he was really struggling in school… made huge gains academically being at home having 1:1 tuition in an environment he felt safe in – home – compared to school where he is often sad and overwhelmed and not getting the support he needs in a class of 30 children.
Parents whose children were able to play out in gardens and outdoor spaces also emphasised the positive changes they saw in their children’s wellbeing. The flipside of this was that it was the lack of social interaction and play with other children which was most harmful in the view of many parents.
For their part, despite all the Covid restrictions they had to navigate in the classroom, the teachers we interviewed reported some benefits both for their pupils and themselves. Those who had taught in smaller class sizes during lockdowns (rather than in big hubs) talked about how there was actually time for conversations. As one teacher commented, there was space for the voices of the usually “invisible children” to be heard.
Teachers described having more time to develop stronger relationships with the children and to give them one to one attention with their work. Unsurprisingly, pupils found the work easier because they had more support with it. Teachers noted immediate benefits, particularly for those children who were often seen as disruptive. An important point is that many teachers saw improvements in children’s behaviour as well as in their academic progress.
Teachers also stressed the benefits of the reduced curriculum pressure and the increased time it allowed for play and learning which followed children’s interests, particularly in the first lockdown. Not only were experiences like outdoor learning seen as good for children’s wellbeing, but they were also seen as good for their learning and self-confidence.
“So once we’d had the experience outside and listened to the birds and smelt the wood and felt the grass and then we could come back in and do some beautiful writing. And the children had the vocabulary to write down or had ideas to write down.”
The stresses of “normal” school
School as usual was presented by many parents and teachers in our study as detrimental and not necessarily healthy for children (or themselves). One described the level of scrutiny they were constantly under in normal pre-pandemic times and the expectations of what the children were supposed to achieve as “dehumanising”. Another described the amount that needed to be covered in the curriculum as a “conveyor belt of stuff” that left little time “to even have a pleasant conversation with a child”.
Since many of the children who were learning in school were from lower socio-economic backgrounds this has clear social justice implications.
The need for change
This does not paint the whole picture and many parents indicated that the pandemic made them realise what an important role their teacher and school played in their child’s life. Others noted just what a difference teachers and schools made in helping to keep some sort of normalcy for the children, which was often underappreciated in media narratives. It was telling that parents and teacher participants in our study who felt that the school had a strong wellbeing ethos which was supported by senior management teams, described the wellbeing of pupils and themselves in much more positive terms, both before and during the pandemic.
Taken together, the findings of our study point to important implications for supporting children’s positive mental health in school settings and beyond. Our intention is not in any way to underplay the difficulties that were faced by many, the impacts of which were disproportionately felt by children who were already struggling prior to the pandemic. But what our research does highlight is the crucial need for greater resources and an easing of curriculum pressure if schools are able to fully support children to flourish.
We argue that a lack of wellbeing is not primarily addressed through adding further mental health interventions and initiatives to the existing system. While these may be needed to address immediate concerns, the deeper need is for a transformation of the current results-driven system.
Priority needs to be given to time for building strong relationships, and for engaging in non-academic activities. Teachers spoke passionately about this but felt constrained in their capacity to bring this into being by too large classes, lack of resources and teaching staff and too much curriculum pressure.
Changing this requires listening to the voices of educators themselves in how to create learning conditions which support the flourishing of pupils, as well as teachers. As one teacher commented,
“[T]his is the best time to take a stop, stop gap and think, ok what’s working, they need to listen to the voices of the Teaching Assistants, the teachers and the parents because this is, it’s way too stressful being a primary teacher. It’s just horrendous…because we have to, you know, jump through these stupid hoops, these, these hoops to get these kids up to a level which they don’t need to be”.
That the wider conditions in which children learn impact on their abilities to do so has been thrown into stark relief by the Covid-19 pandemic. Our hope is that lessons learned during the pandemic can be taken on board in order to support the flourishing of all children, as well as teachers.
This blog was c0-written with my colleague Dr Ioanna Bakopoulou and is also published on the School of Education website:
Dr Ioanna Bakopoulou is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology in Education at the School of Education. She is an Educational Psychologist by background with more than 20 years of applied EP practice. Ioanna’s research focuses on language inequalities, parenting support and education, and early intervention. Her latest projects have explored the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Children’s Centres, early years transition to school and children’s first year at school as well as their mental health and wellbeing.