The effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which has locked down everyone inside their home, are becoming more evident not only in terms of the number of direct cases of the disease, but also in other areas. The changed rhythm of life has significantly impacted psychological health and well-being, with a particularly strong impact of distance-learning on children. According to Roma Jusienė, a psychologist and professor at the Faculty of Philosophy of Vilnius University (VU), more than a third of the children has suffered a deterioration of their emotional state during the lockdown. Prof Jusienė discusses the results of a study on the distance education of children conducted with a team of psychologists, social workers and medical experts.
Research involved children, parents and teachers
The results of the research Distance Education of Children during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Threats and Opportunities from an Ecosystem Perspective funded by the Research Council of Lithuania show that the situation of forced distance learning, which has no analogues, causes changes in daily routines that are essential for teachers, parents and children. Prof Jusienė says that the main goal of the research was to determine in detail, but with a focus on children, what was the impact of this process on their emotional state and well-being.
“This research comprises two stages that cover research carried out in the summer and the autumn. The research allowed us to identify the impact of distance learning not only on children’s well-being, but also on learning outcomes, motivation to learn as well as to investigate protective and risk factors by examining which children suffer the most from forced distance learning. Alternatively, we sought to identify the advantages and possibilities of distance learning, which could be embraced in the future, not necessarily at the time of lockdown,” points out the professor presenting the aims of the research.
The first stage of the research, which took place in June, involved more than 300 families with children in the first to the eighth form that is why, according to Prof Jusienė, the findings of the study best reflect the emotional well-being of children in this age group. The second stage of the study, carried out in the autumn, saw the participation of just over 1,300 families, and respondents were not only parents and children, but also teachers.
“328 children in the fifth to the eighth form told about their emotional wellbeing; we can only rely on the answers of children of this age. The study also involved 300 teachers. The more comprehensive and much larger sample shows the same results – slightly more than a third of the children’s well-being deteriorated during the lockdown, with some suffering a severe impact,” Prof Jusienė says.
According to the teachers participating in the study, the emotional well-being of children performing well and moderately academically, who live in social risk families, deteriorated more than that of children performing poorly academically. As one of the reasons, Prof Jusienė identifies limited opportunities for teachers to reach all children during the lockdown and the teacher’s limited and individual attention.
“Obviously, there are many factors that affect emotional well-being, but those who have already experienced certain behavioural and emotional difficulties in addition to the challenges posed by the lockdown are at greater risk of impaired well-being. In addition, there were other disturbances – parents experienced tension and stress, which is undoubtedly a very strong risk factor,” Prof Jusienė assumes.
Vital problem – more time spent at the computer
Another very important risk factor, according to Prof Jusienė, contributing to poorer mental and even physical health is the much longer time spent looking at computer screens. While most of the leisure entertainment and activities have become inaccessible due to the lockdown, therefore, the time spent at the computer in some cases doubled or even tripled.
“An interesting aspect of the study is that children with better learning outcomes experience more physical health problems – abdominal aches and headaches of unknown origin, fatigue effects, while leisure and entertainment time is associated with behavioural and emotional problems. Parents trying to solve them lack recommendations and help, as they experience difficulties in limiting the time children are spending at the screen, especially for older schoolchildren, who find it difficult to separate leisure activities and computer learning,” Prof Jusienė emphasises.
According to the professor, previous research data allowed comparing the situation of some families before the lockdown and after its introduction. The results also show a higher risk of increased internet use, which may turn into internet addiction in time. Another finding of the study is a decreased desire to learn due to a lack of social context.
“I link decreased motivation to learn directly with the lack of social context. The relationship with teachers and peers is very significant for children; it also motivates children that perform well academically. Individual contact is very important for everyone, especially for children at risk. The relationship with parents is also vital – the better it is, the higher the quality of distance learning,” the professor suggests.
It is also important to see opportunities
According to Prof Jusienė, certain important decisions have not been made in Lithuania, because distance learning is not the most effective learning model. We should take into account the decision of some Western countries, such as the United Kingdom, to close shopping malls, which were the main centres of the virus, and to keep schools and educational establishments open for as long as possible.
“As children are not the most vulnerable group and the main carriers of the virus, the World Health Organization has proposed to close schools and educational establishments as a last resort measure. Studies carried out in other countries show negative consequences for children’s health and academic achievement. In some places, it has even been estimated how much the countries have suffered or will suffer in the long run due to the deteriorated education of children, and what economic and financial impact this will have in the future,” professor claims.
Therefore, she points out that to successfully survive the current situation, it is crucial to talk to each other and with children, to see opportunities and positive aspects. “In our country, there have been and is a lot of talking about threats, so it is not easy for parents to pass on important information to children, which is necessary to avoid unnecessary fears. It is important to speak about various experiences, such as cases of infection at school, to reassure children and explain to them that it is not the child’s fault,” the professor says.
Prof Jusienė encourages the parents to listen to the advice of psychologists and during the quarantine to create a daily routine, a certain agenda and follow it, not forgetting to separate work from leisure time. Following these principles makes it easier for both parents and children to cope with challenges.
“Children need a short but good time spent together. Regular working parents, who occasionally take a look at their child, do not give the necessary attention to their children which they could do by creating an agenda and system such as shutting off in another room and working, but then giving at least half an hour of undivided attention to children,” Prof Jusienė says.