The government recently announced expectations for all children to return to school in September. By this time, the majority will have been absent from the classroom for a staggering six months. Naturally, it is not just the teaching and learning time the students have missed out on; UNICEF claiming that children will have missed out on some 700 million days of teacher contact time. For some, school is a place of safety, a place of routine, a place where they can learn a whole host of life skills outside the pressures of receiving good grades and results. The period of lockdown has seen our school children miss out on all these things and more.
Some may have been fortunate enough to have a strong supportive network around them, others the means to partake in many different activities in lockdown, or their own space to get away from things for a while. On the flip side of the coin, some children will have faced difficulty at home, perhaps having no space for some quiet contemplation, or space to exercise or get fresh air. Some may have been exposed to horrors linked with isolation or suffered loss or bereavement for the first time.
When schools do return, the landscape of children’s mental health and well being may have significantly shifted, even for those children who schools generally may not have concerns about in more normal times or those who have given no indication of struggles whilst being away from school.
Here, we investigate the impacts of lockdown on our children.
Strains at home:
At the onset of lockdown, children were unable to attend school and in a lot of cases, parents were instructed to stay at home or unfortunately lost employment. All this has led to families spending much more time with each other in very different circumstances to the norm. For those with larger families or limited space, the impact may well have been more significant.
Spending much more time together, certainly more than usual pre-lockdown, has seen the potential for conflict and stress to increase, according to the NSPCC. These conflicts in some cases may have led to situations becoming more heated, to arguments and children perhaps seeing more strained relations between their parents or with their siblings.
There is a genuine fear that many children may be more vulnerable to abuse or domestic violence. More time spent at home and online also gives rise to fears that children are more susceptible to online threats such as abuse and grooming which brings its own concerns.
A traumatic time:
Having to work at home and having lockdown imposed may be complicated enough for children. Other experiences may have led to some suffering trauma which our children would need time and space to process.
Some children may have experienced things for the first time. Dealing with the emotions which follow these first-time experiences has allowed feelings of worry, stress, anxiety or feelings of depression to manifest. The Mental Health Foundation suggest that typical first-time feelings our children may have experienced include worry arising from loss – whether this be parents losing employment or being bereaved from losing a family member, whether through coronavirus or another illness. Some children have also had to deal with the feelings of concern for their key-worker parents or family members attending work and thus putting their own health and safety at risk in uncertain times.
The loss of everyday routine:
School has been the norm for most children across the country. The relatively swift announcement of lockdown saw children’s routine and norms impacted without time for adjustment or preparation akin to having the rug pulled from beneath their feet.
Gone was the safe structure and routine of the school day, the daily meet-up with friends and a space to share concerns with adults outside the home or family environment. Almost suddenly, our children were forced to deal with an entirely different routine amidst the beginning of a pandemic.
As lockdown progressed, our children have found it difficult to remain motivated, to have good, regular sleep patterns in some cases and suffered feelings of isolation having not been able to see their friends outside an online environment or at the end of a phone call. Some children have even dealt with the disappointment of rejection by those who they considered friends and have not made contact during lockdown.
A pressing engagement:
Whereas many children up and down the country have consistently strong school attendance, not all have actively engaged with school in more normal times. The prolonged period of school absence – where a report for the National Foundation of Educational Research (NFER) claimed 40% of children have not had meaningful contact with their school teachers during lockdown – may significantly affect engagement when the time comes for children to return to school.
For some, the time spent away from school at home may feel more of a norm; spending so long at home may have led to a changed perspective and affected their views of attending school. Psychologically, another change in routine – that of going back to school – will be another huge adjustment to contend with. Some already fear the return to school based on safety, others will be highly anxious about it or have other worries about returning, unrelated to school, based on their experiences at home.
A lost voice:
Sometimes, children just want their voice to be heard. The onset of the coronavirus pandemic saw demands placed on young people in a short period of time. Whereas before lockdown children may have had more autonomy over what they can do and have some semblance of control over their futures, now they have had to quickly adapt to everyone from central government to parents or carers telling them what to do, what they can and can’t do, and having decisions made on their behalf.
Alongside having the ability to make decisions for themselves seemingly taken away, children have also had their sounding board of school taken from them too, with greater emphasis placed on sharing conversations with parents or family – something a lot of children find difficult – the feelings of isolation and not having a voice in decisions which affect their life have increased.
Health and nutrition:
It is long established that a balanced and nutritious diet has many health benefits. Since lockdown however, millions of children have been left suffering food insecurity. A YouGov poll for the Food Foundation found that 17% of children are living in homes where there is not enough food. According to the same poll, around two million children have had reduced portion sizes or less nutritious food.
Up to 31% of children eligible for free school meals have not benefited from a substitute meal during the lockdown period while 130,000 children have been stuck with online codes for vouchers which they have been unable to access.
Some may argue that millions of children across the UK regularly go without enough food. It is telling however that a Trussell Trust report found an 81% increase in families accessing food banks at the onset of lockdown in comparison to the same time in 2019.
Even for families fortunate to have enough food, the chances of meals being regular, balanced and nutritious has been significantly reduced. In fact, some children have reported skipping meals and to a lesser extent, not eating all day.
An uncertain future:
A lack of clarity and certainty about the future has left children concerned about the future. A survey by Save The Children, published in May, found that 20% of children interviewed in the UK were worried about their futures owing to school closures. According to UNICEF UK, 60% of children taking part in their survey reported they were concerned about how the coronavirus has affected their lives.
The unpredictable nature of the situation has led to concern about what will happen next. Our children have been left wondering whether the threat of a second wave of infections is a real possibility or whether it is even safe to partake in some of the activities they may have done before without as much as a second thought.
Things which may have felt safe and predictable, things which children may have relied on before may not be viewed in the same way now. Equally, as children may have seen adults disagreeing on the best course of action during the pandemic, their sense of being able to rely on adults could also have been diminished, according to the World Health Foundation.
It is undoubted that this period of lockdown has affected our children’s mental health and well being in many ways. The challenge of reintegrating children back into school, in what is likely to be a very different environment and supporting a potentially high number of children suffering the effects of a long lockdown period, is very real. Although it is a real challenge, the scale of it is so far unclear. By mid-March, the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in the UK, Childline reported over 900 calls from worried children regarding Covid-19. At the same time, domestic violence charity Refuge reported a 700% increase in call volume to their services. These figures, over four months old now, have only increased further. The NSPCC has reported over 1500 calls about concerns regarding children since lockdown began though it is feared this is just the tip of the iceberg. It is likely that pastoral resources will be needed in great supply when children return to school and perhaps for a significantly longer period afterwards.