Primary schools have played a vital role in supporting children through the significant mental health challenges caused by COVID-19, according to a report from Cardiff University.
Over a quarter of 10- to 11-year-olds reported elevated or clinically significant emotional difficulties during the pandemic, up from 17% in 2019, the data reveals.
Despite the heavy emotional toll caused by lockdowns and home learning, most children remained well connected to their primary schools, rating relationships with staff positively, the report concludes.
Responding to an online survey, 90% of children said they feel cared for and accepted by their teachers, while 80% trusted their teachers and agreed that there was at least one adult in school they can talk to about things that worry them.
The team, from the Centre for Development, Evaluation, Complexity and Implementation in Public Health Improvement (DECIPHer), found that not seeing friends or family and family members becoming unwell with COVID were among the most persistent worries experienced by 10- to 11-year-olds during the pandemic.
Children from poorer backgrounds were approximately twice as likely to report elevated emotional and behavioural difficulties compared to those from the most affluent families, according to the survey data.
Study lead Professor Graham Moore, Deputy Director of DECIPHer, said: “Consistent with growing international evidence, we found a large increase in the proportion of children reporting elevated or clinically significant emotional difficulties since COVID-19 began.
“But what also came through in our data was the relationships between teachers and their pupils. These connections remained consistently strong among the children we surveyed, demonstrating the vital role education professionals have played for young people during the pandemic.
“It’s plausible that if teachers and support staff hadn’t done such a good job of connecting with their pupils in this way, we would be dealing with an even greater mental health crisis among our children.”
The Year 6 pupils responded to a health and wellbeing survey between April and July this year designed by the School Health Research Network (SHRN) team within DECIPHer.
In order to comply with COVID-safety restrictions in schools, the research team switched from pen and paper to online surveys and provided teachers with protocols based on existing online surveys to supervise the process, which was completed across 76 schools from 19 out of the 22 local authorities in Wales.
Jointly commissioned by Welsh Government Ministers for Health and Social Services and for Education, the report is part of a project to expand the existing Wales-wide School Health Research Network into primary schools. The new data were compared with a survey conducted by the team before the pandemic, funded by Cancer Research UK, to understand change over time.
The work was also supported by the Wolfson Centre for Young People’s Mental Health, established with a grant from the Wolfson Foundation.
Researchers say this work will enable them to identify earlier intervention points to understand and support events affecting student health and wellbeing in Wales.
Professor Moore, who is based at Cardiff University’s School of Social Sciences, added: “While people often say ‘children are resilient,” our data demonstrate the significant impact the pandemic has had on children’s mental health. Many children will recover once the current circumstances improve. However, for many, experiences of the pandemic will have lasting effects on their mental health without appropriate support for their emotional recovery. While we can’t expect schools to do everything, they will play a major role in supporting children’s emotional recovery from the pandemic going forward.”
The Minister for Education and Welsh Language Jeremy Miles said: “Our teachers and support workers have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to support learners. This report is a testament to their hard work to maintain those strong relationships in difficult circumstances.
“The pandemic has had a significant impact on the mental health of people of all ages. Getting support at the right time can often prevent longer-term issues, so I want to ensure our successful work in schools is extended right across the whole education system as well as into communities so that all young people are able to access support when and where they need it.”