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An estimated 1.6 billion children in 190 countries – approximately 90% of the world’s children – have been affected by school closings during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, according to UNICEF. The pandemic altered daily life in countless observable ways. Stores and restaurants stood empty; employment layoffs proliferated; lines at food banks stretched; Zoom use soared; and in addition to being out of school, many children were on lockdown, confined to their homes for extended periods of time. 

Dismantling the routines that are a stabilizing force for kids, school closings also deprived children of the basic supports that schools provide, including organized recreation, face-to-face contact with teachers and friends and the mental health resources 57% of the kids who need care rely on.

Tests will tell how severe the impact on academic learning has been. But currently, there is more concern about a less tangible outcome: the disruption to children’s socio-emotional development. Social and emotional learning (SEL) refers to how children think, feel and act. Around the globe, researchers have looked at children’s mental health as they react to the adversities they experienced in the year of COVID-19. 

Study after study conducted during the pandemic found signs of psychological distress in young children and adolescents. In May 2020, Save the Children reported that phone-based and online surveys of more than 6,000 children and parents in the U.S., Germany, Finland, Spain and the United Kingdom showed children dealing with anxiety, boredom and fear. Statistics revealed that 49% of children interviewed in the U.S. said they were worried; 34% admitted to feeling scared; 27% felt anxious. Findings from 60 children in Nicaragua and 68 in Indonesia were similar. 

An online questionnaire administered to 359 children and 3,254 adolescents in China found nearly a fifth had scores indicative of clinical depression compared with just 13.2% before the pandemic. In Spain and Italy, researchers questioned 1,143 parents to assess the emotional effects of the quarantine on children. Some 85% saw changes in their children’s emotions and behaviors. From most to least frequent, they saw difficulty concentrating, boredom, irritability, restlessness, nervousness, loneliness, uneasiness, and worries. 

The isolation necessitated by the pandemic deprived many children of the social interactions through which they learn to connect, share, negotiate, resolve conflicts and build resilience and coping skills. Dr. Maria Elizabeth Loades and her colleagues reviewed past studies and concluded that social isolation and loneliness can increase the risk of depression up to nine years later.

A paper published in the Early Childhood Education Journal in April 2021 explored the impact of the pandemic on children below the age of five. The findings were consistent with those from Save the Children. Parents noted the behaviors their children exhibited during COVID that differed from their usual conduct. A formerly outgoing two-year-old who before COVID had loved being with friends began clinging to her mother and being very cautious when seeing someone outside her home. A five-year-old runs inside and hides when the doorbell rings.

Researchers diverge on what age group is most negatively affected. 

The virus interrupted the social and emotional education of many young children, says developmental psychologist Amy Learmonth. But attachment specialist Wendy Walsh says that since much social development occurs within the family, some young children can flourish “just having mom and dad home to attach with 24/7.”

The situation is more complicated for adolescents. Teen peer groups become more important to their social development than their immediate family, Ms. Learmonth says. Teens are getting to know themselves and learning what they can give to and ask from friends. She says they are “developing the skills for building trust and dealing with betrayal,” as they meet new people, explore interests and relate to authority figures.

Predicting that “the long-term effects of prolonged isolation will be more substantial for teens,” Dr. Learmonth explains that human brains are the most malleable at two times: infancy and adolescence. When denied adequate time and opportunity for both introspection and interaction with others, she says, teens are likely to feel a greater impact than other children.

Specialists may disagree about who has fared the worst, but Dr. Sara M. Bode of the American Academy of Pediatrics says, “I actually think this is incredibly hard on all children for different reasons. Elementary school children don’t do well being on Zoom all day. They learn best when they can connect with their teachers and peers and have hands-on experience. Older kids may have other challenges like caring for family members.”

While the pandemic compromised the social and emotional wellbeing of many children, the damage is not equitably distributed. Race, ethnicity and income play a role. Poor people of color contracted the virus more often and died from it more frequently. They also lost their jobs, forfeited their homes and ran out of food and money more often than their white peers.

Experts agree that a stressful home environment amplifies pre-existing psychological issues. The children most at risk are those in poorer households with less educated parents and fewer socio-emotional skills to begin with. CNN contributor Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez says, “Now is the time to bring true financial relief to the many households in this country that are economically affected by this crisis. Until basic shelter and food needs are met, it is unfair to ask parents to prioritize the mental health of their children.”

The statistics gathered during the pandemic can become predictable, but a survey conducted in Evanston’s backyard held some surprises. Dr. Tali Raviv, associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University, developed an online survey for Chicago public schools. It went out to 300 households last June and July to determine what families needed for re-entry to schools in September.

Dr. Tali Raviv (Photo from Northwestern University website)

Some 32,000 caregivers rated the children they were looking after on how they exhibited 12 traits before and after Chicago schools closed on March 21, 2020. Scores went down on all the positive traits, like “hopeful or positive” and “relaxed,” and up on every negative trait, like “lonely” and “agitated or angry.” The study shows 7% of the children improving with remote learning, which may mean they were stressed in school, Dr. Raviv says. 

Some 32,000 caregivers rated the children they were looking after on how they exhibited 12 traits before and after Chicago schools closed on March 21, 2020. Scores went down on all the positive traits, like “hopeful or positive” and “relaxed,” and up on every negative trait, like “lonely” and “agitated or angry.” The study shows 7% of the children improving with remote learning, which may mean they were stressed in school, Ms. Raviv says. 

The finding that Black and Latinx students fared better than white students in some areas was unexpected. Children of color scored just 22.9% and 17.9%, respectively, on “loneliness,” while white students scored 48.9%.  A similar reversal of expectations occurred in the “hopeful or positive” category. Dr. Raviv speculates that COVID cutbacks might have been more of a change for privileged white kids than for lower income Black and Latinx children more accustomed to deprivation. Another possibility, she says, is that the most disadvantaged families did not respond to the survey.

Dr. Raviv speculates that COVID cutbacks might have been more of a change for privileged white kids than for lower income Black and Latinx children more accustomed to deprivation. Another possibility, she says, is that the most disadvantaged families did not respond to the survey.

Dr. Raviv and other researchers see a silver lining to the harm inflicted on children by the pandemic. There is widespread agreement that, in Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez’s words, “As a country, we have struggled to adequately diagnose, treat and support children with mental health conditions.” It appears that, having experienced the ravages of COVID-19, educators and policymakers and legislators may be ready to prioritize SEL for all children.

It appears that, having experienced the ravages of COVID-19, educators and policymakers and legislators may be ready to prioritize social and emotional learning for all children.

The often-grim statistics compiled by researchers do not guarantee a troubled future for kids impacted by lockdown. Schools continue to seek ways to mitigate the damage wreaked by the pandemic.

Dr. Raviv, whose field is childhood trauma and who is affiliated with The Center for Childhood Resilience at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, is familiar with the ability of children to bounce back from mental health problems. But, she says, we do not want them to have to recover by themselves. She advocates for better mental health care for all kids, so “we can all move forward together, all thrive.” 

 

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