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Parents are concerned about the mental wellbeing of children returning to school – and they want schools to help

Published

18 Sep 2020

EIF chief executive Dr Jo Casebourne looks at the data from our recent survey of parents, conducted by Ipsos MORI, which highlights ongoing concerns about children's mental health and wellbeing. Providing high-quality, effective support for wellbeing, Jo says, should be a national priority right now, in the same way supporting children’s learning is.

While the path through this Covid-19 crisis, from response towards recovery, might be less clear today than it has been for some time, one thing which is clear is the importance of keeping schools open and safe, and supporting pupils to gain as much as possible from their time back in school.

This is not straightforward. Children have been spending much longer than usual at home, away from their friends and from the school environment. Some will have experienced high levels of family stress. So our efforts cannot focus on academic attainment alone. An equal focus on supporting children’s emotional wellbeing and relationship skills will be critical to ensuring they are able to re-engage and learn as they try to settle back in to school.

A new survey of over 600 parents, conducted by Ipsos MORI for EIF just as schools started to reopen in England, underlines the urgency of this need.

Half of parents surveyed said they had concerns about their children’s mental wellbeing as they were returning to school or entering reception, including one in six who said they were very concerned. These are eye-opening numbers, pointing to a huge number of school pupils who, in their parents’ view, are at risk of not coping, failing to re-engage with learning, or going on to develop more serious mental health problems. Supporting children’s social and emotional skills must be a key part of our ongoing recovery plan, alongside and equal to catching up on classroom learning.

Half of parents surveyed said they had concerns about their children’s mental wellbeing as they were returning to school or entering reception, including one in six who said they were very concerned.

Lower-income parents, in particular, are more likely than better-off parents to be concerned about their children’s mental wellbeing as they return to school. In our survey, 58% of those earning up to £20,000 were concerned, compared with 44% of those earning over £55,000.

This disparity is worrying. Recent reports have highlighted that the Covid crisis is likely to widen the gap in academic attainment between children from low-income families and their peers – a gap which is already too wide and frustratingly slow to close. Given the crucial role that mental wellbeing plays in effective learning, this new data underlines how important it is that pupils’ wellbeing is supported and strengthened, to prevent this gap widening even further. Providing effective support for all these children is essential if we are going to avoid the harmful long-term impacts of the pandemic falling most heavily on the shoulders of the least well-off.

What can schools do to help? Schools already provide a range of support and education designed to bolster wellbeing and develop vital personal skills, under the umbrella of social and emotional learning. This learning happens through a mix of dedicated classroom time, integration into normal day-to-day teaching, and a wide range of programmes and initiatives to support individual children or provide additional help and guidance around a particular issue.

The good news from our survey is that seven in 10 parents support schools doing more to provide help on mental wellbeing. We know that schools take social and emotional learning very seriously: when we surveyed primary school head teachers last year, 380 out of 400 respondents said it was a priority for their school. Now we know that it’s a priority for parents too.

The good news from our survey is that seven in 10 parents support schools doing more to provide help on mental wellbeing.

When we asked parents why they were concerned about their children’s mental wellbeing, they highlighted their children needing to adjust to changes in the school environment, maintain focus and concentration on school work, reintegrate socially with other pupils and teachers, and cope with worries about the virus. All of these are areas where high-quality, evidence-based social and emotional learning can help children, by bolstering their skills to deal with uncertainty and new situations, to manage distractions, to build positive relationships and solve social problems, and to identify, talk about and manage their emotions, particularly strong emotions such as sadness, anger and anxiety.

There is work to be done. When it comes to adopting an approach to social and emotional learning, or selecting a programme or intervention to bring in, schools face a dizzying array of options. For every problem, there are interventions or techniques that are more likely to work better than others. When time is short and resources are squeezed, it is vital that schools are choosing the options that have been tested and demonstrated some positive outcomes in the past, to stack the odds that they will produce similar benefits again.

These are unprecedented times. We need a national effort to ensure schools have the funding and support from government that they need to make pupils’ wellbeing a priority. Providing high-quality, effective support to enhance children’s mental health and wellbeing should be a national priority right now, in the same way supporting children’s learning is. This new data paints a picture of a generation of children and young people, seen through their parents’ eyes, who are facing extra barriers to getting the most out of school. With the stakes so high, it is vital that schools are supported to make the best possible decisions for the present and future wellbeing of their pupils.

These are unprecedented times. We need a national effort to ensure schools have the funding and support from government that they need to make pupils’ wellbeing a priority.

About the author

Dr Jo Casebourne

Jo is chief executive at EIF.