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. 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 U.K. 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. A strong 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. Loades and 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 5. 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 2-year-old who had before COVID loved being with friends began clinging to her mother and being very cautious when seeing someone outside her home. A 5-year-old runs inside and hid when the doorbell rings.