COVID-19 and children

Child taking lessons on a laptop

Credit: Halfpoint/GettyImages

Children around the world were locked out of schools during COVID-19 lockdowns, and risked missing out on vital parts of their education.

Understanding the impact lockdown had on children, particularly on their education, will help inform policy to mitigate any long-term impacts.

Babies and younger children in lockdown

Dr Nayeli Gonzalez-Gomez from the Oxford Brookes Babylab was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to investigate the effects of lockdown on 18 to 36 month old children.

Her group gathered data on 600 children in the UK, looking at:

  • language
  • sleep
  • the mental health of children and parents
  • types and levels of activity
  • executive function, the mental processes that enable us to:
    • plan
    • focus attention
    • remember instructions
    • juggle multiple tasks.

Her team and collaborators continued to publish policy briefings that highlight their findings. Read more on the Babylab’s website.

Helping fill nurseries’ shoes

In normal years, nurseries across the country help hundreds of thousands of four-year-olds prepare for the transition to school.

Lockdown meant nurseries were closed and young children missed out on training in the practical aspects of starting school, like washing hands, or skills like sharing and asking for help.

Specialist mental health nurse consultant Emma Selby came up with a digital platform to fill in for nurseries’ vital role. Innovate UK provided support.

Fun animations and resources

Embers the Dragon was a series of fun animations and resources for parents and teachers to support children’s:

  • development
  • emotional wellbeing
  • school readiness.

The business won funding from Innovate UK’s COVID-19 support programme to help develop an episode on school readiness (YouTube). The animation features fun characters and voiceovers from the likes of comedian Jo Brand.

A total of 480,000 people either watched the animation or downloaded the parent resources within the first three weeks of its launch.

Embers the Dragon is based on clinical best practice. The company hopes it will become both an effective alternative to current NHS therapies like parenting groups, which are expensive to run and suffer high drop-out rates.

Older children and teenagers in lockdown

ESRC also funded a group at Bangor University to develop an intensive reading and spelling course during lockdown.

The focus was pupils aged 8 to 11. While children of this age can generally read, their skills are still being consolidated and may slip back.

The Welsh government awarded the group funds to train teachers to use this approach across Wales from September 2020.

Helping kids be their happiest selves

The HappySelf Journal promotes happiness and wellbeing through simple science-backed practices within a daily journaling format. It helps children build positive habits shown to boost their:

  • mental wellbeing
  • happiness
  • resilience
  • mindset.

Funding from Innovate UK meant thousands of HappySelf journals were given free to children across the UK that receive free school meals.

Founder Francesca Geens said:

The demand and the feedback from teachers encouraged us to apply for a second round of funding, which meant we could distribute more journals.

Teachers and parents provided glowing report cards for the HappySelf journal, saying it created a real change in children struggling with lockdown.

Long COVID in children

A study on long COVID in children suggests up to one in seven (14%) children and young people who caught SARS-CoV-2 may have symptoms linked to the virus 15 weeks later.

Find out more by reading the first findings of world’s largest study on long COVID in children.

School closures and children’s mental health

Professor Birgitta Rabe from the University of Essex used data from the ESRC-funded Understanding Society survey to investigate the impact of school closures on children’s mental health.

She worked with colleagues at the universities of Surrey and Birmingham on the project, which was funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

The team used data from Understanding Society and its special COVID-19 Survey, which ran between April 2020 and September 2021.

They tracked how children’s mental health had changed over three years and, to pinpoint the impact of school closures, compared the changes for children who were invited to return to school earlier in the summer term.

Key findings included:

  • mothers reported an increase in children’s behavioural and emotional difficulties during the pandemic
  • this increase in difficulties was greater among children who were less likely to have returned to school during the summer term. The researchers found that negative behaviours increased more among those who were not prioritised to return.

Dr Birgitta Rabe said:

Taken together, our results suggest that the effects of school closures on children’s wellbeing are large, and that they may take some time to mend.

Going back to school in itself does not appear to be sufficient for children to ‘bounce back’.

Additional support for children’s mental health and wellbeing is likely to be required for some time and justifies the focus that many schools have been placing on pupil wellbeing.

Last updated: 4 January 2024

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