What do we mean by ‘catch up’?

Ella Rhodes hears from psychologists on the school return.

What might the future hold for children in the UK after lockdown? This question is at the forefront of the minds of parents, teachers, psychologists and many others – closing the attainment gap, helping children to get back on track with their educational and social development, and supporting children and young people’s mental health are major concerns as schools reopen their doors to all students.

In late February UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson laid out his plans for ending lockdown and announced that English schools would fully reopen their doors on 8 March. At around the same time early years and primary-aged children in Scotland went back to school as part of a phased reopening and all children under seven in Wales also returned.

The Covid pandemic has had a huge impact on children’s access to learning – both academic and social – and some have suggested that children should return to school during summer breaks to catch up on material they have missed. The British Psychological Society’s Division of Educational and Child Psychology, however, recently urged the government to move away from an emphasis on ‘catching up’ with education and think more about supporting children’s wellbeing and educational needs.

In a statement the division suggested a phased return to regular schooling with a quality over quantity approach to key learning, its members also suggested that if children will be attending school more there should be a focus on support through socialisation and play. Co-chair of the division Dr Dan O’Hare said that while it was understandable that parents and carers may be concerned that children had missed aspects of formal learning, the idea that children were ‘behind’ or needed to ‘catch up’ put children under more pressure to perform after a challenging time.

‘It’s important to celebrate the progress, learning and development children have made in the last year and ensure that they feel proud of what they’ve achieved so that they can build upon their strengths and continue their key learning moving forward. Together, parents, caregivers and teachers have done an amazing job of continuing children’s education outside the school environment, and its vital that this work isn’t diminished.’

O’Hare said that some children may well have had a positive experience during lockdown, but we should not lose sight of the fact that Covid had had a huge impact on children’s everyday lives. ‘Many children may have seen their families struggling with sudden unemployment, loss of earnings or grieving the death of a loved one. Vulnerable children and families from disadvantaged communities may have spent the lockdowns wondering where their next meal is going to come from, or how they’re going to keep a roof over their heads.

‘Whatever a child or young person’s circumstances, we can’t assume that the right thing to support their recovery and wellbeing is for them is to be in lessons for longer each day. The voice of children and young people has been noticeably missing from this debate and it’s essential that they are consulted and their thoughts and feelings considered as part of the decision-making process about the return to school.’

PlayFirstUK – a group of 15 child psychologists and education specialists led by Professor Helen Dodd (University of Reading) – recently wrote to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to warn that plans for intensive ‘catch up’ activity could harm children’s mental health and wellbeing. The group suggested this could lead to increased pressure on mental health services, would result in less time to play with friends, and could have a negative effect on children’s learning in the long term.

Dodd said in a statement that the group was concerned about the impact of the pandemic on children, with research showing increases in loneliness and mental health problems. ‘As part of the recovery process, children need time to reconnect and play with their friends, they need to be reminded how good it feels to be outdoors after so long inside and they need to get physically active again.

‘There is understandable concern about children’s education but the impact of mental health problems in childhood can be lifelong. This letter is really a plea from us that children’s mental health and their right to play and have fun with their friends are not forgotten in a rush to catch them up to educational targets that adults have set for them.’

It remains to be seen how well children and young people will recover from the effects of lockdowns as well as missing out on parts of their educational and social development – especially given the current struggles of CAMHS services. In her annual report on children’s mental health services in England Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield pointed out the low levels of access to mental health services, inadequate spending on such services, and the postcode lottery involved in accessing them.

In a statement Longfield said that it was widely accepted that lockdown and school closures had had a detrimental effect on children’s mental health, with one NHS study from July last year estimating that one in six children in England had a probable mental health condition.

‘In the longer term, the Government’s ‘building back better’ plans must include a rocket boost in funding for children’s mental health, to expand services and eliminate the postcode lottery. As an absolute minimum, all schools should be provided with an NHS-funded counsellor, either in school or online.

‘We have seen how the NHS has risen to the scale of the Covid crisis for adults. We owe children, who are suffering the secondary consequences of the pandemic, a mental health service that provides the help and support they need.’

However, writing for The Psychologist, Naomi Fisher – author of Changing Our Minds: How Children Can Take Control of their Learning and a clinical psychologist – encouraged a focus on narratives of resilience. Fisher pointed to press coverage of the Covid pandemic which has often focused on fears about children not being able to catch up, parents struggling to cope and wrote that she had been contacted by many parents who felt they were failing and falling behind.

While Fisher acknowledged that the pandemic will have had an impact on the younger generations’ experience of childhood, and that impact will vary from family to family, the way we talk about experiences, or the narratives we use to make sense of the world, matter. ‘Life isn’t just about what happens to you, it’s about how you make sense of what happens to you – and what explanations are offered to you to help you with that.’

The narratives of mental health post-covid suggest we are facing an enormous mental health crisis and that demand will outstrip supply. Children and young people certainly are experiencing depression, anxiety and anger thanks to Covid lockdowns but we could reconsider the way we frame these reactions, Fisher suggested.

‘When we call these emotional reactions mental health problems, we define them as a disorder, an illness or dysfunction. Does feeling anxious, depressed and angry after nearly a year of intermittent lockdown, social distancing and ongoing fear of Covid-19 mean that there’s anything actually wrong?’

In her own work Fisher focuses on encouraging narratives of resilience and reframing experiences – encouraging clients to reflect on the fact they have survived very difficult times. ‘This is hard to do. My own children are distressed by lockdown. They are bored and lonely, they frequently get angry and upset and I wish I could make it less difficult for them. But resilience isn’t about not feeling emotions or never getting angry. It’s about knowing that you can carry on even when things are tough.

‘It’s a belief in your capacity for recovery. This is what we need to give our children, and this is the narrative I think psychologists need to fight for. How we talk about things matters.’ 

To read the Division of Educational and Child Psychology’s full statement on the ‘catch-up’ narrative see: https://tinyurl.com/5fe4zp53

To read Fisher’s full article see: thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/weathering-storm

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