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New evidence shows how school closures hit children’s mental health hard

Emotional and behavioural problems increased significantly after the first round of school closures - prompting fears that the latest school closures will have caused further damage

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As school children in England prepare to go back to the classroom on Monday 8th March, new research provides the first evidence of the significant negative impact of school closures last summer on children’s mental health.

The study by researchers at the Universities of Essex, Surrey and Birmingham, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, found a significant rise in emotional and behavioural difficulties among primary school children following the 2020 spring and summer term school closures, a rise that was greater for children who were not prioritised to return to school for six weeks before the summer holiday.

The study found a slight improvement in wellbeing once schools reopened in September, but not to pre-pandemic levels, and the gap between those who missed out on more vs. less time in school during the summer term remained stubbornly wide. This suggests that the potentially negative impacts of the current round of school closures on children’s mental health are likely to continue after the Easter holidays and into next term, if not beyond.

Using a unique data set from Understanding Society and the associated COVID-19 study collected during the pandemic, the researchers were able to track how children’s mental health had changed over the past three years. To pinpoint the impact of school closures, they compared these changes for children who were invited to return to school earlier in the summer term (those in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6) with those who were not prioritised to return before the summer holidays (those in year groups 2, 3, 4 5 and 7), controlling for age and other factors to ensure they were comparing similar pupils.

Key findings

Mothers reported an increase in children’s behavioural and emotional difficulties during the pandemic. The rise was equivalent to a child newly exhibiting a particular negative behaviour or experiencing a new emotional difficulty some of the time, or around 14 per cent of the average pre-pandemic level of difficulties, as measured using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (see note 5 below).

This increase in difficulties was greater among children who were less likely to have returned to school during the summer term. Comparing the difficulties experienced by children in year groups who were and were not prioritised to return school over this period, the researchers found that negative behaviours increased more among those who were not prioritised to return. The gap is equivalent to around 27% of the average pre-pandemic level of difficulties, or to a child newly exhibiting a particular negative behaviour (or experiencing a particular emotional difficulty) very often. The differences are driven by a rise in conduct problems and hyperactivity.

While we do not have completely comparable evidence on the impact of school closures on learning loss, the available evidence suggests that these effects are at least as big as the impacts on learning loss.

Tracking children over time reveals that the return to school in September did not undo all of this damage. Looking across all children in the study, the researchers found that wellbeing was higher in September 2020 than in July 2020, but still much lower than pre-pandemic levels. The gap in wellbeing between children who were and were not prioritised to return to school during the summer term had also only closed a little. This suggests that any corresponding deterioration in wellbeing incurred as a result of the current round of school closures is likely to persist after the Easter holidays and possibly beyond.

These effects tell us about the difference in children’s wellbeing that comes from differences in the likelihood of being prioritised to return to school. Assuming the negative effects are concentrated among children who did not attend school at all suggests that the impact of missing six weeks of school could be roughly equivalent to children newly exhibiting three to four serious negative behaviours or emotional difficulties (a rise of up to 73% of the average pre-pandemic level of difficulties).

Dr Birgitta Rabe, Reader in Economics at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, leading the research 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.”

Dr Jo Blanden, Reader in Economics at the University of Surrey said: “There has been a lot of focus on children’s learning losses during the pandemic, with Government committing £1.7billion to help children catch up on the education they have missed. Given the strong links between children’s mental health and educational attainment, a focus on mental health will be an important strand of the educational ‘catch-up’ that is required.”

Read the authors’ report.

Notes for Editors

  1. This research report, School Closures and Children’s Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties, was published by the Institute for Social and Economics Research on 8 March 2021, and was written by Dr Jo Blanden (University of Surrey), Dr Claire Crawford (University of Birmingham), Dr Birgitta Rabe and Dr Laura Fumagalli (both at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex). The project leader is Dr Birgitta Rabe. DOI available on request.

  2. This research was funded by the Nuffield Foundation. The Nuffield Foundation is an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance social wellbeing. It funds research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare, and Justice. It also funds student programmes that provide opportunities for young people to develop skills in quantitative and scientific methods. The Nuffield Foundation is the founder and co-founder of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and the Ada Lovelace Institute. The Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. Visit www.nuffieldfoundation.org

  3. This research uses data from Understanding Society and the additional Understanding Society Covid-19 data sets. Understanding Society is the UK Household Longitudinal Study. It follows tens of thousands of households across the UK through yearly interviews that focus on social, economic, and health topics. The Study is based at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex. www.understandingsociety.ac.uk

  4. The Understanding Society Covid-19 study is a monthly survey on the experiences and reactions of the UK population to the Covid-19 pandemic, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Health Foundation. The first wave was carried out online in April 2020 and subsequent waves have been carried out at regular intervals. All Understanding Society adult sample members aged 16+ were invited to participate. ESRC is part of UK Research and Innovation. The Health Foundation is an independent charity committed to bringing about better health and health care for people in the UK.

  5. The Strength and Difficulties Questionnaire presents 25 statements describing children’s behaviour and asks the respondent if the description is “not true” (0 points), “somewhat true” (1 point) or “certainly true” (2 points). Five items are included for each of the following domains: conduct problems; emotional symptoms; hyperactivity; peer relationships and prosocial behaviour and the score for each domain is the sum over the five items. The scores on the first four domains are added together to form a ‘Total Difficulties’ score. In the table below the items in italics are reverse coded.

Conduct problems

  • Often has temper tantrums or hot tempers
  • Generally obedient, usually does what adults request
  • Often fights with other children or bullies them
  • Often lies or cheats
  • Steals from home, school or elsewhere.

Emotional symptoms

  • Often complains of headaches, stomach-ache or sickness
  • Many worries, often seems worried
  • Often unhappy, down-hearted or tearful
  • Nervous or clingy in new situations, easily loses confidence
  • Many fears, easily scared

Hyperactivity

  • Restless, overactive, cannot stay still for long
  • Constantly fidgeting or squirming
  • Easily distracted, concentration wanders
  • Thinks things out before acting
  • Sees tasks through to the end, good attention span

Peer relationships

  • Rather solitary, tends to play alone
  • Has at least one good friend
  • Generally liked by other children
  • Picked on or bullied by other children
  • Gets on better with adults than with other children.

Prosocial behaviour

  • Considerate of other people’s feelings
  • Shares readily with other children (treats, toys, pencils, etc.)
  • Helpful if someone is hurt, upset or feeling ill
  • Kind to younger children
  • Often volunteers to help others (parents, teachers, other children)

For an embargoed copy of the full report (published 8 March 2021) or interviews with the research team please contact Louise Cullen, Communications and Engagement Manager, Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex lcullen@essex.ac.uk