The Covid pandemic (previous lockdowns in particular) has dampened pupil positivity and produced a significant malaise and negative impact on mental wellbeing.
During previous lockdowns, and ongoing periods of isolation, 52% of pupils reported a drop in motivation to learn – with lack of routine, lack of social interaction, distractions, and screen-time cited as the main contributors. Friendships – one of the biggest predictors of wellbeing – are also a potential casualty of home learning, with new research showing the number of children worried about their relationships with friends is up 22%.
This is a direct Covid impact. And it will have a continuing and material influence on well-being for the balance of this school year and most of next if not dealt with. It will be particularly felt by older children (years 10 – 13) because we know that anxiety peaks in these years as a result of schoolwork and exams. With more than half reporting a drop off in their learning, anxiety will be amplified. We need to encourage pupils to make small steps and lower expectations. This doesn’t mean they don’t aim up but unrealistic expectations will either cause them to shut down or further impact their confidence.
The findings are part of data collected from more than 250,000 pupils, both in the UK and around the world over the last 18 months, via Skodel – the mental wellbeing platform for children and schools.
Strong friendships and connections are fundamental to student well-being and resilience. Sadly, we have seen that this important foundation for wellbeing has been eroded during the Covid pandemic and lockdowns. Our data shows a significant spike in pupils feeling very worried about their friendships (up 22%). There are a vulnerable group of pupils right now who are fearing forced absence (via isolation periods and lockdowns) from school for this very reason. Schools need to be given the support to address this as a priority. And one of the best ways to do this is through group activities. Problem solving games and team sports where pupils work together will be critical for getting the social dynamics back and ensuring that pupils have that vital support network within the school through their friendships and a firm sense of belonging.
A major reported cause of anxiety and depression in pupils is caused by body image issues, especially in girls but now growing amongst boys. Our data shows a massive spike of 16% during the pandemic in body image concerns – being on screen constantly is confronting for pupils that are self-conscious. There is no back row to sit quietly in. We had already noticed that body image was a major contributor to student anxiety and dysmorphia and the constant image distortion and comparison via on-line education and social interaction has exacerbated many of the negative trends attributed to Instagram addiction. Clinical psychologist Andrew Fuller, who helped develop Skodel, said an increased amount of screentime during the pandemic may mean children would struggle to form meaningful bonds and be fully present when interacting with classmates.
Returning to school following isolation or lockdowns creates a very definite wave of heightened anxiety among vulnerable groups of pupils. The data shows that 55% of pupils are either very negative about returning or have quite mixed feelings. This means schools need to focus on the positives identified by some pupils about returning, such as seeing friends and engaging in activities again. These activities need to be structured in a way that supports pupils that are not as socially confident or feel untrusting about where they sit in the social landscape now. The social dynamics will play a critical role in whether children re-engage in school successfully and what school life will be like for the current cohort of pupils.
Teachers are vital in managing pupil wellbeing, but parents have a vital role as well. Parents should help take the pressure off teachers by not expecting them to write extensive reports (as per pre-Covid) on the relative performance of their children. During such exceptional times, these reports are not all that meaningful anyway. Teachers need to be given the time to focus on re-engaging the pupils because if we don’t, the long-term impacts will be much greater than not getting that report out. We can’t have both. Parents also need to manage their expectations of the child’s performance and keep an eye out for the tell-tale signs of increasing anxiety. Keep children informed about vaccinations and the progress of the whole community coming back to normality. Fear and anxiety are more contagious than any virus. Parents must be a pillar of strength for their children through actions and language. Parents should also encourage after school activities at home involving friends.
Skodel founder Ian Fagan said the platform has also helped alert teachers to serious issues while advising pupils how to bolster their own wellbeing. We have been informed of numerous instances of potential safeguarding concerns raised directly by pupils using Skodel, who have felt more able to communicate with their teachers in the ‘safe space’ that Skodel provides.
Jonathan Davies, Assistant Headteacher at Whitchurch High School in Wales, said the school leadership team regularly review the data provided by Skodel to inform wellbeing programmes and new initiatives. “We have used it to put together helpful answer sheets to questions that have been posed (on Skodel). For example, in KS5 last year, the pupils had loads of questions / worries about exams so we put together a FAQ sheet with answers and posted it back to them. This worked really well”.