What was the psychological impact of school lockdowns?

What was the psychological impact of school lockdowns?

Kyra Jenkins was in the thick of it. From the first documented case in late 2019, COVID-19 spread rapidly, with the World Health Organization declaring a global pandemic only four months later.

With no vaccine or effective treatment, many localities locked down, confining most people to their homes. Schools and non-essential employment transitioned online.

Jenkins, an Australian student whose family returned to Melbourne from living in the UK at the end of 2020, experienced more of these lockdowns than most.

“My schooling was so disrupted” she says. “I experienced two long lockdowns in London in 2020 and then again for three months in 2021 as a student at Ivanhoe Grammar.”

“Although one of my teachers used her iPad as a whiteboard, which made it easier to follow in Zoom lessons, in the first lockdown the teachers and students did not know how to use the technology systems we were meant to use for online learning. Many students did not attend the online Zoom calls or complete their work.”

For Kyra, whose assessments were also online, often open-book or to be completed outside of normal contact hours, her studies suffered.

“I did not study the content for each subject or aim to fully understand what I was learning,” she says.

These blurred lines also impacted her health: “I felt unproductive through the lockdowns because I did not have a lot of motivation to complete the work.”

“I would grab my laptop and sit in bed listening to the teacher. My bedroom essentially became my classroom and it was hard to escape the stress of school. I didn’t take enough breaks and I never slept very well.”

On a deeper level, Kyra also admits struggling emotionally and feeling lonely, despite having a very close family.

“I struggled with having a sense of purpose because there was not a lot to look forward to,” she says.

“To get me through a busy week at school I would normally be able to look forward to hanging out with my friends on the weekend. Even though Zoom breakout rooms were a good idea, many students did not turn on their microphones or cameras, making it hard to engage. I felt my connections weakening.”

Many will find Kyra’s experience familiar.

“My bedroom essentially became my classroom and it was hard to escape the stress of school. I didn’t take enough breaks and I never slept very well.”

Kyra Jenkins

Dr. Grace Skrzypiec, an expert in bullying, mental health and student wellbeing, from the School of Education, Psychology and Social Work at Flinders University, was interested in how pandemic lockdowns affected the wellbeing of adolescents.

Using a questionnaire distributed to more than 7,000 year 6-10 students across 15 countries, Skrzypiec led a team of Global Research Alliance researchers investigating the impacts of 2020’s lockdowns on adolescents.

They discovered a clear decline in aspects of wellbeing crucial to adolescent development over lockdowns. Surprisingly, a relationship between lockdown length and wellbeing also emerged.

Skrzypiec is careful to distinguish wellbeing from mental health.

Graceskrzypiec talkingatworldeducationresearchassociationin2019
Grace Skrzypiec (second from left) talking at a conference in 2019. Credit: Supplied

“We think of mental ill health as those diagnosed through the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition [DSM-5] such as schizophrenia, depression and anxiety,” she says.

“Wellbeing is separate from that. A person could have good mental health, but they could be ‘languishing’. They don’t have good wellbeing.”

So, what is meant by wellbeing, exactly?

Well, it depends on your perspective.

Most of us (including policy makers looking to allocate funding to certain areas) might conceptualise wellbeing in terms of specific domains such as relationships, income and housing situation. This is not helpful for researchers, according to Skrzypiec. “They can’t always agree on what the domains are or how many there should be.”

Wellbeing, to Skrzypiec, is more strictly defined and encompasses all domains, making it easier to make a more holistic assessment of an individual.

It consists of two main areas: hedonia and eudaimonia.

Hedonia or emotional wellbeing, “is the feeling of having your needs satisfied and being generally happy”, says Skrzypiec.

“It’s happiness obtained through things.

“Eudaimonia [or social and psychological wellbeing], is about functioning… achieving what you set out to achieve, having goals. It’s the sense of having a purpose and a reason to get up in the mornings.”

It is this second aspect – eudaimonia – that was most impacted through COVID-19 lockdowns.

“That makes sense,” says Skrzypiec. “Kids can’t go to drama or ballet classes, play football – all the things that make them feel good, help build self-esteem and give a sense of achievement and challenge in gaining skills.”

The length of the lockdown mattered, too. Students in lockdowns for three months or less, or more than six months, showed no significant difference to students who spent no time in lockdown.

This suggests “a stabilising sort of effect”, says Skrzypiec.

Tom Morehouse is a Melbourne-based high school mathematics teacher who is heavily involved in the athletics scene outside of school. In his experience teaching online during lockdowns, students who “expressed regrets over the online learning experience, generally focussed concerns over lost opportunities to participate in school sport, drama productions, musical ensembles, and year 12 experiences [such as formals, valedictory functions and increased freedoms and privileges]”.

In practice, he says, it’s hard to know exactly what was affecting students.

“It’s difficult to qualify as it was challenging to distinguish between the behaviour of a student whose wellbeing was impacted due to lockdowns and reduced social interactions, and one who was under stress due to tests, assignments, poor results or conflict in their relationships with parents,” he says.

“Generally, withdrawal from participation in class was a measure of effect, but obviously this is not unique to lockdowns.”

Some students actually enjoyed lockdowns.

“Many enjoyed greater freedom in the timing of lessons, time allocated to complete tasks, fewer interruptions to the learning environment [like the mute function on Zoom], reduced interactions with particular students, and, ironically, a greater sense of agency and control over how they could structure their days,” says Morehouse.

Hedonia was relatively unaffected by lockdown as most adolescents were emotionally supported by family and home environments.

“It was challenging to distinguish between the behaviour of a student whose wellbeing was impacted due to lockdowns and reduced social interactions, and one who was under stress due to tests, assignments, poor results or conflict in their relationships with parents.”

Tom Morehouse

“But we know that for adolescents that’s not sufficient for wellbeing to afford the development of identity. Peers seem to play a crucial role in that,” says Skrzypiec.

Some of that came from engagement in social media, with 90% of the survey participants reporting they had engaged in social media. “That’s why the social psychological aspect of it was relatively stable during lockdown,” Skrzypiec says.

Morehouse agrees.

“Students remained highly connected with each other via digital media and online gaming platforms,” he says.

Tom Morehouse. Credit: Supplied

“Some struggled with the online learning experience during lockdowns, but it was often more due to self-regulation and the reduced capacity to be held accountable by their teachers than a lack of interaction with their friends at school.”

Skrzypiec’s research identifies how the education community can be better prepared in the future, acknowledging that the pandemic’s onset caught many by surprise.

“We had to jump in too quickly. We need to be better prepared ahead of time,” she says. “We need templates in place to allow for differentiation that might be needed for future disruptions – an emergency folder.”

Skrzypiec has a point.

Emergency services, political parties and hospitals all have emergency protocols on standby.

We are currently “putting protocols in place for electric cars and driverless cars,” she says. “Why aren’t we risk averse in education – planning ahead?”

Any emergency lesson plans would need to ensure students continue receiving individualised attention from teachers.

“In an online environment,” says Skrzypiec, “we need to adjust how we give that positive reinforcement (which in-person could just be a smile or positive body language) to help maintain a sense of connection and purpose.”

The effect on eudaimonia seems to have lingered, with some students struggling upon returning to school. According to Skrzypiec, trends such as ‘quiet quitting’ and an increased focus on the nuclear family could indicate adults are experiencing similar consequences.

Post-lockdown, we need to focus on “getting kids back into sport, clubs and academic studies – back into their purpose”, she says.

For Morehouse, the support from his school was paramount.

“Professional development sessions prior to and throughout all lockdowns enhanced our online teaching and maintained a sense of connectedness with our colleagues and school community,” he says.

Teachers were encouraged to “build social and group interactions into lessons and recreate the normal learning environment as much as possible online, allowing students to adapt quite quickly on return”.

Nevertheless, some experienced issues readjusting to the school environment.

“In an online environment, we need to adjust how we give that positive reinforcement – which in-person could just be a smile or positive body language – to help maintain a sense of connection and purpose.”

Dr. Grace Skrzypiec

“Some younger secondary students struggled to meet expected standards of behaviour, given they had spent so much of their secondary experience online,” he says.

The school, which employs several psychologists to assist students, was also relatively well-equipped to deal with these problems upon the return of face-to-face teaching.

“Thankfully, those younger students have generally settled far better into the routine and expectations of their learning environments.”

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Morehouse is unsure whether schools will be better prepared in the future.

“Yes, but only if we consciously choose to acknowledge the impact and experiences as a society and are determined to learn from them,” he says.

“Given the political nature of the decisions to institute lockdowns, the ways that they are defended or criticised by various elements of the media, and the fact that the pandemic is ongoing, I am deeply sceptical.”

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