What do children need to flourish? Lessons learned from children’s experiences of schooling during lockdown

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 pandemicThis 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.

A child playing with bubbles outside
Photo credit: maxime-bhm-6cQHvjzmZOU-unsplash

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.

children at a table writing
Photo credit: jessica-lewis-zNFT3o8HWks-unsplash

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.

Nazanin: We’ll keep singing until you’re free

With one week to go until Nazanin’s five year sentence comes to an end, Nazanin’s supporters are doing everything we can to amplify our voices across the world to help ensure the UK government is doing all that it can to bring her home.   

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is now well-known across the world as the British-Iranian mother who has been wrongly detained in Iran on false charges for almost 5 years. Her sentence comes to an end on 7th March and she should be flying home to her husband Richard and daughter Gabriella on the 8th. But as yet there has been no confirmation from the Iranian government of the details of her release and at this point Richard is holding out little hope. As part of the public countdown to Nazanin’s release date, the best way I can express my support is through the lyrics of a song I wrote for Nazanin and Richard during their hunger strike in 2019: 

Song for Nazanin

     Your pain we cannot know     
 As you look up to the skies
       And your mind goes where it goes       
 In the long and lonely nights
    But many people around the world    
Are joined in solidarity
And we’ll keep singing
We’ll keep singing
Until you’re free
 There’s a light on in a window
 On a dark and stormy night
 We’re standing up for justice 
 And we won’t give up the fight
 So hear our voices singing
 In spirit with you, we will remain
          Until you’re free, until you’re free          
 Safe home again
 For all who are unfree   
 Imprisoned without fair trial
 Robbed of so many things     
 So much laughter, so many smiles
 But we won’t forget your pain    
 And we join in solidarity
 And we’ll keep singing
 We’ll keep singing
 Until you’re free   
 There’s a light on in a window
 On a dark and stormy night
 We’re standing up for justice 
 And we won’t give up the fight
 So hear our voices singing
 In spirit with you, we will remain
           Until you’re free, until you’re free          
 Safe home again

My friend Polly Shepperdson played the just-finished song to Richard who was camped outside the Iranian Embassy in London. It formed one gesture amongst the many heart-felt cards and flowers and the chain of care through which thousands showed their solidarity with Nazanin and Richard during their hunger strike. Within a couple of weeks, Polly and I had gathered together a big group of friends and local choir members to do a live recording of the song at a church in Nailsea, under the name Solidarity Sisters:

Our singing for Nazanin was covered by the BBC and is now being used as the background in a series of poignant recordings of Nazanin’s letters and poems released by Howell Productions in the countdown to Nazanin’s release date:

It is truly impossible to imagine what this family is going through right now. As a mother, thinking of little Gabriella waiting for her mummy to come home, and the pain Nazanin must feel being separated from her child, resonates with my whole being. She should have just one more week to hold on, but after the ups and downs that Nazanin and her family have faced in the past five years, this appears to be the most precarious of times. The Free Nazanin campaign and Amnesty International are leading the countdown to what should be a day of unimaginable relief and celebration for Nazanin and her family, who have suffered far too much injustice already. As the world waits to see if the Iranian government will allow Nazanin to come home, let’s join together to will her release with our whole hearts: 

In spirit with you, Nazanin, Richard and Gabriella, we will remain. Until she’s free, safe home again. 

Children’s mental health in the pandemic: An opportunity to water the roots not just tend to the garden

It’s great that children and young people’s mental health is being brought into the spotlight with the appointment of a new Youth Mental Health Ambassador. But let’s not allow the Government to use lockdown and school closures as a scapegoat for the rise in mental health problems we’ve seen as a direct consequence of a decade of austerity.

It’s great news that Dr Alex George has been appointed Youth Mental Health Ambassador by the UK Government. Alex is clearly someone who is passionate and knowledgeable on the subject and who sadly has first-hand insight into the impacts of poor mental health on people’s lives with the death of his brother to suicide last year.

It is especially welcome that Dr George wants to see mental health prioritised on the curriculum alongside core subjects, a call that many education and mental health charities have been making for some time. Given the onset of many mental health disorders in childhood, with up to half of adult cases beginning during the school years, tackling this issue couldn’t be more important. Schools and colleges have a crucial role to play in recognising and supporting children’s mental health and well-being. They can promote the social and emotional skills which help children manage their emotions and develop positive relationships. And they act as an important buffer to the potential risk factors resulting from childhood adversity. All reasons why in the current lockdown situation it’s so important that children and young people get back to school and college as soon as possible.

We’ve come a long way – as someone who felt so desperate at school that I finally stood in front of my school office counter, crying and asking for help, only to be given the number of a counsellor, with no follow up whatsoever (let alone a call to my parents), I am relieved for this generation that children’s mental health is finally being taken seriously. The emphasis on mental health we’re now seeing in schools is a huge leap forward and is sure to not only change many children and young people’s lives, but to save many too.

But let’s ensure that the Government can’t get away with using the pandemic and school closures as a scapegoat for the rising mental health crisis we are now witnessing. Yes the impact on children and young people is huge but this was a crisis long before Covid-19 hit. We need to shine a light on why there is such a growing prevalence of mental health problems in the first place.

The causes of mental health difficulties are of course multiple and complex. But whilst they include hereditary and biological factors, just as important are psychological and environmental factors such as trauma and stressful living conditions. Neuroscientists and psychologists are now able to tell us so much about how early adversity impacts on mental health in childhood and throughout people’s lives and about the delicate interplay between risks and protective factors in children and adolescent mental health.

While the goal of putting an educational psychologist in every school is to be welcomed, really addressing mental health issues in children and young people requires unravelling a decade of austerity (not to mention the years of ever-growing individualism and meritocratic striving which preceded it – see for example Michael Sandel’s brilliant The Tyranny of Merit).

Addressing children’s poor mental health means tackling the underfunding of the health system and CAMHS, the underfunding of youth work, and the underfunding of schools. It means supporting teachers’ own social-emotional well-being, those expected to do so much but who are under so much pressure to improve attainment that they often have little time to focus on social and emotional development. It means supporting parents, relieving stress brought about by unstable job situations, insecure housing and lack of money to pay for food.

This requires far reaching measures to address inequalities in society and makes creating an Ambassador for Youth Mental Health position look a little like a PR stunt. The scientific evidence is there and the Government must not gloss over the fact that, as studies such as the Millennium Cohort Study have demonstrated, the prevalence of severe mental health problems in children is strongly related to social inequalities, which is sadly being thrown into stark relief by the current situation. 

While steps have been taken in moving away from a biomedical understanding of mental health and towards much more cognisance of social and psychological factors, there remains too much resort to medication and addressing the symptoms rather than the causes of poor mental health. We know that the first few years are key to an individual’s mental and physical health. If the science of early childhood development were really to be taken seriously, what would this say for policy around maternity and paternity care, addressing social disadvantage and the conditions under which people live, quality early childcare, support for parents’ well-being and so on?

There is a desperate need to implement a long-term preventative approach which actively promotes social and emotional health in children and doesn’t wait until mental health problems emerge. It is shocking that we have a system where kids can’t be seen by mental health services because their self-harm didn’t meet the levels needed for it to be taken seriously. Let’s put much more focus on promoting positive mental health – what do children need to thrive and lead happy lives? As well as understanding and responding to the impacts of the pandemic, this perfect storm is a prime time to make supporting the social and emotional health of our children and young people a national priority and bring into being some thorough-going changes.

The Government needs to stop offering quick fixes to deep and complex problems and deal with issues at the root. Their strategy towards mental health mirrors their approach to every social issue; they tackle racism through pouring money into anti-bias training for example but fail to address the structural inequalities which are responsible for people developing prejudiced attitudes in the first place.

I wish Dr Alex the best of luck in his important new role. Let’s hope that the flattery and bluff of the Prime Minister and the small PR-friendly gestures they will concede will not deter him from using this as an opportunity for a deep critique of the status quo. We have got to highlight the part that Government policies have played in worsening mental health conditions over the past decade and more, well before the fall out we are now witnessing in mental health due to the pandemic. On behalf of this generation of youth who are suffering the consequences of so many failings of those who’ve gone before, my plea to the new Ambassador is to make sure that the Government’s response to the crises in our children and young people’s mental health is more than just a sticking plaster over a gaping wound.

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