Covid has brought schoolchildren terrible stress – but they’ve also seen society at its best | Children

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Anxiety about the current cohort of schoolchildren is now at the forefront of concerns about the legacy of the pandemic. Recent changes of policy on school opening and exams has focused attention on their mental health, the lack of formal learning and qualifications, and the long-term damage to social mobility. But, along with these difficult experiences, the pandemic may also be delivering another kind of education: an informal education in social connectedness and compassion.

What’s happening to schoolchildren at the moment, particularly teens affected by the exam shambles, is as tough as it gets. Their social interaction has been drastically curtailed. Any freedoms they might have been gradually trying to negotiate with their parents have come to an abrupt halt. They are now mainly confined at home. Terrible stresses have been created by uncertainties and sudden reversals. One minute they are preparing for the new term. Next minute, school is out. One minute exams will “definitely happen”. Next minute, they are cancelled. If that wasn’t enough to create major anxiety, there’s the background threat of the disease, becoming ever more real as they personally encounter more cases.

A friend gave me a picture of what this has been like for her sixth-former son who has studied hard for his exams for the last few weeks and now feels all his work is wasted and his motivation hard to recapture. Not only is his schooling disrupted but “normal” socialising is too. Just before Christmas he spent his birthday outdoors with five other friends and then a family meal at home. Christmas, normally a lively occasion, was just the family again. Her children, says my friend, “feel angry and frustrated”. However, she adds, “there aren’t tantrums. They do understand the wider implications. They are responsible and realise the consequences of their actions.”

It’s striking that, along with disappointment and fear, this generation is also articulating thoughtfulness, wisdom even, about their situation. One 16-year-old girl from Huddersfield was asked on a radio news report what she felt about exam cancellations. She said she was personally hugely disappointed, having done so much work and believing she could do well. But she knew many children in the school didn’t have access to wifi and iPads at home so would be disadvantaged by exams. Cancelling them was therefore the only fair decision. In other interviews, schoolchildren have been asked what they most want when lockdown is over. Time and again the answer is “to see my grandparents”.

The potential consequences of disruption to children’s education and socialisation are very serious indeed. Divine Charura, professor of counselling psychotherapy at York St John University, says Covid has resulted in much existential angst for schoolchildren, who are experiencing disconnection from their friends and family. In addition, “their normal process and rituals have been disrupted – rituals like exams, results, celebrations – which often have positive outcomes on development”. The interruption to these normal experiences and processes can affect them like loss and bereavement. Yet Charura has also noticed that children are showing “resilience”. “There’s a development of their awareness which is quite stark,” he says. “Children are demonstrating a real capacity for empathy with others. Love and compassion for others has been evident.”

The discourse of the pandemic, with its instructions to stay at home and save lives, to protect the vulnerable and the elderly, and to save the NHS, has developed an awareness, says Charura, “that we are interconnected, that my actions impact on others and others’ actions are not without impact on me”. Children have also become aware of others’ circumstances. They realise others don’t have access to technology, or have parents who are vulnerable. Nor is it unusual for children to spontaneously reinforce social bubbles, to remind adults to wear masks, or to express indignation at those who, like Dominic Cummings, break the rules.

In dark moments of the pandemic, it’s been easy to imagine that social collapse induced by extreme selfishness is imminent. So far that hasn’t happened. Instead, this generation of schoolchildren have witnessed, in real time, a society moving as one, where most people are acting in the interests of the common good. In other words they are seeing the glue that holds society together but which, at best, is often invisible and, at worst, is undermined by extreme individualism. Successive Conservative governments, especially this one, take this social glue for granted while doing everything they can to undermine it – for example, cutting back on citizenship classes and public information campaigns.

Whether children strongly espouse it or wearily accept it, they now have an awareness of this common good based on empathic understanding of others. This offers the possibility that an emotionally wise and public-spirited generation might emerge from these hardest of possible circumstances. But how this generation turns out will depend on the way the stresses and anxieties of their current distressing situation are managed.

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