Child on a Laptop learning at home

UK Child Well-being in the Pandemic

It is no surprise to hear the recent news that the child well-being in the UK is of concern: nearly a year on from the first lock-down children have found themselves in a new world.

Since the day in March 2020 when the Prime Minister announced all of us – including school pupils – must stay at home, I have had serious worries regarding the changed environment children now find themselves in.  They have not been able to attend school or take part in external activities; not see their family, friends and teachers; they have remained mostly isolated at home.

My own research examined children’s perspectives on their own well-being in primary schools, and it highlighted how important it is that their voices need to be heard by all.  Their community including home and school are key players in activating the support required to ensure they have access to a life in which they can flourish.

Many children live with adults who have their own anxieties, difficulties and other commitments.  The social impact of the lack of physical contact with people, objects and activities outside the home has a detrimental effect on children’s well-being.

As there is now talk of a possible return to school, our attention is being directed to the priorities faced in the classroom.  Some children will be excited to return to their school routine, whereas for others, following months of home-schooling or just being at home, there will be anxiety and a lack of confidence facing learning and being around people again.  Schools face pressures from the Government to focus on core subjects and to catch up on learning with extra tuition.

Is this the way forward?  My own research reflects a need for children to be ready to learn and shows there should be a focus on supporting children’s transition back into the classroom and learning environment.

The research-based on children’s well-being in the primary school used creative tools such as the ‘feeling tree,’ in which children write their feelings on leaves to add to a drawing of a tree, and ‘OK and not OK mapping,’ to enable children to explore and share feelings.

There was also a small group scaffolding activity where the children took photographs in a Tour of the School.  They shared their own selection of photographs before working together to identify overlapping themes between themselves on issues of importance or significance to them.  Through these and other activities we can tap into children’s needs and understand relevant starting points as we begin to return to schooling.

What emerged from the research was that the most important themes for children – described in more detail in my journal article, tended to be around two key areas:

  • People – e.g. relationships with friends, siblings/relatives, members of staff
  • Place and the environment – e.g. parts of the playground, individual desk/seat, displays for learning or children’s work, different classrooms

I found that the relatively simple activities used in the research could make a big difference to children’s sense of wellbeing –and they could easily be facilitated within the school day. An example of this is from one of the participants, here identified as Philip, aged 8.

Before each research session, Philip was ‘delivered’ to the workshops under threat to behave or be sent back to class by his class teacher. After a short time in the small group environment and being able to express his feelings, Philip became notably calmer and more engaged. In drawing his facial expression chart, it was quickly evident that Philip disliked arriving at school and numeracy in particular (steam coming out of his ears). He drew his happiest face for home time, playtime, friends and art. Philip identified the classroom as a noisy, unhappy space and as a result, was distracting to others. He related more positively to smaller group activities or freer play spaces, such as the playground or hall for sports as evident through his Tour of the School images.

It is well known that prior to the pandemic, child well-being was already in crisis in the UK.  From 2004 to 2018  the growing number of children requiring additional support had been undocumented by the Government and can now only be growing more significantly.  Schools have been attempting to manage the situation in a severely under-resourced environment, and helplines are inundated with cries for help  – now, to an even greater extent.

The long term implications of low levels of well-being include poor physical and mental health, reduced educational outcomes and lower incomes as adults.  This is exaggerated for those living in poverty including consequences such as homelessness, incarceration and unemployment.

What does this teach us about life after Covid? Following the recent pause in learning, what children need is not so much support with maths and with English as support around their emotional intelligence, to maintain relationships with those close to them and to be creative.  All children should be supported in understanding themselves and others; developing their own interests to enhance motivation to help them re-engage with learning.

An emphasis on reconnecting with self and others is imperative at this time.  The sooner the better.  The lifelong implications of this lack of socialisation, relationship building, physical interaction and motivation are not to be taken lightly.  The outcomes of this will be seen for a long time to come, through our next generation –  who we want to encourage to take a lead and make a difference.

I consider until children are able to connect with those around them, there is little point in trying to teach core subjects – children need to be ready and able to learn.

Children are members of our community and their experiences and values count.  From those closest to them, teachers and parents/caregivers to local authorities and the government, children’s well-being needs to be a priority and supported by policyholders.

Moving forward, let’s welcome the children back into schools when it is safe but let them adjust and support them in understanding themselves and others.  Reflect on what is important and helpful to their development, engage in creative and playful tasks through a PSHE-focussed curriculum.  Children are resilient but let us help them thrive in this challenging time.

Written by Dr Anne Kellock, Senior Lecturer in Childhood and Children.

Children’s well-being in the primary school: a capability approach and community psychology perspectives

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