Coronavirus: Young children's mental health suffered in lockdown - study

Annette Rawstrone
Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Mental health difficulties in primary school-aged children increased during the first national lockdown, the latest Co-SPACE study highlights.

Parents in the study reported that their children have shown fewer emotional difficulties since schools reopened
Parents in the study reported that their children have shown fewer emotional difficulties since schools reopened

Between March and June 2020 behavioural and attention difficulties increased while most children were not attending school. These generally decreased from July when home schooling demands reduced for the summer holidays and as children returned to school in September.

Participating parents and carers reported that their children displayed increasing behaviour difficulties, including temper tantrums, arguments and not doing what they were being asked to do by adults during the first lockdown. They also became more fidgety and restless and had greater difficulty paying attention.

Since schools have reopened to all children, parents and carers have found that their children display fewer emotional difficulties, such as feeling unhappy, worried, being clingy and experiencing physical symptoms associated with worry.

While Professor Cathy Creswell, professor of developmental clinical psychology at the University of Oxford and co-lead of the study welcomed the findings she cautioned that we are yet to know the impact that continued disruption of schooling, with children needing to self-isolate, may have along with the economic impact of the pandemic on vulnerable families.

‘Our findings highlight the challenges that children and families faced during the first lockdown when most children were not able to attend school,’ she said.

‘We are pleased to see that things have generally improved for study families since the pressures of home learning have reduced, but our findings raise concerns about the impact of the ongoing disruption to schooling that many children are dealing with.

‘We don’t yet know the impact of this second lockdown, although children being able to attend school could make all the difference. High rates of mental health difficulties among children in low-income families also highlight the huge challenge faced as more and more families tackle the economic impacts of the pandemic.’

The study also highlighted that children with special education needs and those from lower income households, earning less than £16,000 a year,  displayed consistently elevated behavioural, emotional and attention difficulties over the course of the pandemic.

Professor Gordon Harold, professor of the psychology of education and mental health at the University of Cambridge, said that the report is a timely reminder of the importance of schools and education and associations with children’s mental health.

‘One of the most significant and under-reported impacts on children, adolescents families and society is the adverse effects that school closures have had on young people directly, and society generally,’ he said.

‘Schools provide an immensely important forum for children and young people and are an essential component of society’s infrastructure in promoting positive mental health, providing support and resources for those with additional educational needs and protecting young people and society from poor mental health outcomes and adverse impacts on long-term life chances.’

More than 12,300 parents have now taken part in the Co-SPACE (COVID-19 Supporting Parents, Adolescents, and Children in Epidemics) survey led by experts at the University of Oxford which is tracking children and young people’s mental health throughout the Covid-19 crisis.

The survey results are helping researchers identify what protects children and young people from deteriorating mental health, over time, and at particular stress points, and how this may vary according to child and family characteristics. This will help to identify what advice, support and help parents would find most useful.

The study is continuing to collect data in order to determine what has changed as schools have re-opened, as well as any impacts from subsequent lockdowns.

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