Growing up fast in lockdown

Photo by Zoe Fernandez on Unsplash
Photo by Zoe Fernandez on Unsplash

Lockdown has been a time of immense change in many countries. Children are spending more time with their parents and siblings. Many are now learning at home, and as a result they are experiencing altered relationships with teachers and the loss of daily sustained interactions with school friends. Digital technology has taken on new purposes and value in many households. What are the consequences for children’s development?

If you thought at first that staying at home, in a familiar environment, might create a more stable environment for children to grow up in, you were probably mistaken. Lockdown has been a time of upheaval for all of us, and perhaps especially for children.

When children experience a sudden change in their lives, they can become more self-aware. Environmental transitions can trigger changes in perception, as children are forced to re-evaluate their position in the world and find new ways to interact with their social and physical surroundings.

“Suddenly, the influences on their development have narrowed to a handful of people.”

But what about the transition to staying at home? What does this mean for children? Might they develop more slowly when they are less exposed to the stimulating environments of their schools, towns, and cities?

Imagine what it means for a child to grow up confined to their home, with only their parents and siblings, and perhaps a few other relatives or family friends, to interact with. Suddenly, the influences on their development have narrowed to a handful of people, whereas previously they had contact with teachers, classmates, and other people in the community.

Forced to stay home, some children might become more vulnerable to daily stressors, especially when their relationships with their families are characterised by conflict and a lack of parental warmth. But other children might benefit from increased time with parents, unless those parents are on the front lines and working longer hours than usual. Parents and children might become more sensitive to each other’s needs, by spending more time together.

For parents who ‘over-parent’, lockdown might be the time to be less controlling, to find out what your children are capable of learning on their own. Parents who ‘under-parent’ may discover that their children really do need their attention; feedback on children’s actions helps children develop self-esteem.

For children with siblings, their relationships might take a new turn, perhaps for the worse, but more likely for the better. Together all day long, they have no choice but to deal with conflicts, invent new ways of spending time together, and help each other understand how others think and feel about things. In comparison, only children might experience an intensification of their parents’ financial and psychological resources.

“Can remote instruction replace, to some extent, the various components of schooling that are important for children’s learning and well-being?”

A major transition for children is the change to distance learning. Classroom routines have been disrupted. Markers of maturity and social status (such as being the classroom captain) have been lost in teachers’ struggles to teach some of the regular curriculum while using digital technology, with almost zero evidence-based guidance for remote schooling.

Many children will tell you that school is fun mainly because of their friends. Relationships with teachers and peers are central to children’s adjustment at school. Unfortunately, opportunities to cultivate those relationships have all but vanished during lockdown.

So is school fun anymore? Can remote instruction replace, to some extent, the various components of schooling that are important for children’s learning and well-being? Or are teachers focusing mainly on teaching the curriculum at the cost of the social interactions that children would normally experience at school?

Some children may be better able to focus on learning when they have less contact with classmates. Indeed, there is anecdotal evidence that certain adolescents concentrate better without classroom distractions, especially when they are used to being surrounded by classmates who are constantly interrupting their learning. Learning at home can benefit children who are well regulated and can study on their own, and who enjoy challenging themselves to learn new material.

“This is a time of significant developmental and educational transitions that could trigger different forms and trajectories of development for individual children.”

But what of younger children? What if they need constant monitoring to complete their schoolwork without becoming distracted? There is little chance that a 6-year-old will volunteer to sit and do two hours of maths, writing, and reading, without some adult guidance.

We might expect parents with more formal education will be better resourced for distance learning, but what about the demands on their time if they are working full time from home, or on the front lines? Younger children with better educated parents who are working full time may be missing out.

This is a time of significant developmental and educational transitions that could help some children and families consolidate their relational bonds, and trigger different forms and trajectories of development for individual children. Children are growing up fast during the rapid changes that are happening at home and in society. Let’s help them grow up healthy – physically, mentally, and emotionally.

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