The pandemic and children’s long term emotional and social development

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

NatCen researcher Bea Taylor looks at the findings from a follow-up to the SEED longterm study, which examines children's experiences during the pandemic.

Bea Taylor. NatCen
Bea Taylor. NatCen

Covid-19 has impacted the schooling, social lives, and overall wellbeing of almost every child in the UK.

Stuck at home isolating, in many ways each child has lived through their own version of the pandemic, mediated by their family situation, living conditions, economic disadvantage, access to technology, safe playing space and special educational needs (SEN).

The longitudinal Study of Early Education and Development (SEED) has been collecting data on the lives and experiences of children and their families since 2013, when children were two-years-old. In 2020, when children were aged eight-to 10, it collected data on many of these children’s experiences during the pandemic, including asking about their schooling during the lockdown and the following months. Children included in SEED are currently in Year 5 or Year 6. In their short time in primary school, they have already experienced two interrupted years of schooling due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

SEED was established to evaluate the effect of early education on children’s outcomes, based on a representative sample of children in 2013. The Covid-19 follow-up on SEED was not designed to assess the impact of the pandemic on the children. However, the SEED findings do allow us to look in detail at just how individualised childhood experiences of Covid-19 have been, particularly for children with SEN and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. By comparing the data with findings from a previous wave of the study, we can also look at changes in children’s socio-emotional development since the age of four. 

Home and social life during the pandemic

Children’s home learning environment played a crucial role in their ability to complete schoolwork during the pandemic. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found children with the strongest home learning environment were significantly more likely to complete all their schoolwork than those with the poorest home learning environment.

For the purposes of our research, families were placed in three disadvantage groups based on their household income and receipt of benefits – either the least, moderately or most disadvantaged group. Disadvantage had a clear impact on children’s digital learning environment, with 22 per cent of children from the most disadvantaged families having no access to a computer (shared or exclusive), compared to just 5 per cent in the least disadvantaged families. Similarly, children with SEN were significantly more likely to have no access to a computer (21 per cent) than children with no special needs (11 per cent).

However, the relationship between disadvantage and having a quiet place to study was less clear-cut. It was children in the moderately disadvantaged group who were significantly less likely to have access to a quiet place to study.

Most children exercised at least four times a week during the pandemic, regardless of their economic situation, and most either saw or video-called their family at least once a week and saw friends as least once a week. However, children with SEN were significantly more likely to never exercise, even when we took having to shield or having a disability into account, and significantly less likely to see their family and friends regularly.

Social and emotional development since the early years

The SEED findings found increases in children’s socio-emotional difficulties between the ages of four and eight-to 10. This is broadly in line with previous research on changes in socio-emotional difficulties as children get older. However, these increases were significantly higher for children with SEN, who showed acute rises in hyperactivity and emotional difficulties over this period.

While we saw the gap in difficulties between children with and without SEN increase from age four to ages eight-to 10, the disadvantage gap remained broadly the same between both age groups. In other words, while disadvantage was already strongly linked to socio-emotional difficulties when children were four-years-old, we did not see a significant widening of the gap between the most and least disadvantaged children between ages four and ages eight-to 10.

Children’s educational attainment was found to be strongly tied to their socio-emotional development. Children who made slower academic progress between the end of their reception year and the end of Key Stage 1 also experienced, on average, a greater increase in socio-emotional difficulties of various kinds than those who met expected levels at both the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile and Key Stage 1.

While this data itself did not allow us to uncover any direct relationship between socio-emotional difficulties and experiences of the pandemic in this wave of the study, SEED will continue to monitor the pandemic’s effects on children’s socio-emotional difficulties in upcoming waves.

Bea Taylor is a Researcher at the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen). The SEED COVID-19 study was commissioned by the Department for Education and carried out by NatCen, in partnership with the University of Oxford.

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