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    Making arrangements for children during Christmas and COVID

    Child arrangements during Christmas and COVID
    As we approach the end of what has been a truly eventful year, most of us are hoping the Government will relax lockdown rules so we can spend Christmas with family and friends. 
    Time with loved ones has never felt so important, but, for separated parents, Christmas can be a time of tension, as plans need to be agreed about where and how children will spend the festive season.  
    Never mind the need to factor in the impact of COVID19 and, as yet unknown, lockdown restrictions.
    So, we asked our Regional Director for Yorkshire, Rachel Roberts, to share her advice on child arrangements during Christmas and COVID.
    COVID, child arrangements and Christmas 
    When Boris Johnson announced the first lockdown back in March, one of the things we noticed at Stowe was a sharp increase in enquiries from separated parents who were struggling to agree how to manage the impact of the pandemic on the current child arrangements in place. 
    This increase in enquiry levels continues as lockdown rules have become more complicated and there have been increased periods of self-isolation as children returned to school.  
    As we approach Christmas, we are seeing a flurry of clients getting in touch for help to try and resolve arrangements for the festive season. This happens every year, but this year, with the impact of Covid and parents often having different ideas around what degree of mingling with other households is likely to be acceptable, the number of concerned parents making enquiries is higher than ever. 
    Before I turn to my tips on how best to manage arrangements, there are a couple of key points from the Government and family law sector that are certainly at the forefront of my mind when advising clients.
    In September, a leading family judge made it clear that parties should only be bringing disputes over children to court where absolutely necessary. The judge went on to criticise parents for asking the court to micro-manage children arrangements. 

    The view from the court is clear – where possible you should be sorting these things out yourself.

    It is too early to tell what lockdown restrictions will be in place at Christmas. However, to date, the Government has been clear that none of the restrictions prevents children from moving between separated parents, provided they are not self-isolating. 
    It seems unlikely that this will change, and CAFCASS (the government body that advises the court on children disputes) has stressed the need for children to maintain their usual routine.
    All that said, it is naive to think that difficulties will not arise, and the following guidance may help avoid unhappiness at Christmas.
    Tips for making child arrangements this Christmas 
    Preparation is key

    With the added unknown of potential lockdown restrictions, trying to put in place arrangements for Christmas in advance is tricky.
    If you do not have plans in place now is the time to start. Talk to your ex-partner and agree on arrangements that work for you all.
    Some clients I have worked with agreed that the children would spend Christmas Eve at one home and then return to the other for lunch on Christmas Day through until the 27th.
    Other clients decided that they would spend the whole festive period with one parent and the next year spend it with the other, alternating between the two.
    It is a personal choice based on what works for your family, but also the age of the children, location and how amicable you are.
    And this year, more than any other, be prepared to be flexible as plans may need to change. 

    Focus on the children 

    First and foremost, put the children at the heart of the plans you make. A different type of Christmas can still be a good Christmas. Talk about the positive: two Christmas Days, two sets of presents etc.
    Make sure you share your plans with the children. Depending on the age of the children, ask them what they would like? Older children need to feel they have a voice. 
    Once in place, sharing plans with the children means they know where they will be throughout the holiday, and the routine will make them feel safe and secure.
    Creating a visual plan can help as dates can be difficult for a child to understand. One client created a Christmas themed wall planner for their younger children. A tech-savvy teenager may prefer a joint Google calendar.

    Be fair to the other parent

    If this is your first year as a separated parent, this will all feel very raw and difficult. It is likely that you will both be dreading not spending Christmas entirely with your children. 
    Even though it can be difficult, try to think about the impact of any plans on your former partner. Ask yourself if you would be happy with the proposed arrangements next year? If the answer is no, then maybe they should be reconsidered. 

    Stick to the plan

    This year will require a certain level of flexibility and last-minute changes as lockdown restrictions are not clear, but where possible, it is important that, whatever arrangements you come to, you both stick to the plan. 
    Last-minute changes can cause feelings of disruption and uncertainty for children. And, whilst flexibility is an essential part of positive child arrangements, it is important to maintain consistency and provide stability.

    Get advice early, if needed

    Christmas is chaotic and organising a co-parenting schedule on top of everything else is never going to be easy, especially if communication between you and your ex-partner is difficult. 
    If you are struggling this year, take advice from a family lawyer who can try to assist in negotiating an agreement. 
    If you cannot reach an agreement, mediation can help as the presence of a 3rd party often eases tensions and result in finding common ground. 
    Mediation is still taking place via video conferencing, and many of our clients have reported that it is easier than being in the same room as their former partner.
    Court proceedings are possible but should be used as a last resort, and, due to the current strain on courts from the pandemic, it is highly unlikely that you have any prospect of a contested hearing before Christmas. 

    Hopefully, these tips, combined with some careful planning, compromise and putting the children first,  will help you and your ex-partner move forward towards a harmonious Christmas.
    Get in touch 
    If you would like any advice on child arrangements during Christmas and COVID, or other family law issues, please do contact our Client Care Team to speak to one of our specialist divorce lawyers here. 
    This article was first published in 2018 and has since been updated.  More

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    Children’s play in the COVID-19 pandemic

    Why do children need play now more than ever, and how can parents engage their children in high-quality play activities?
    “While I am preparing dinner, I see my oldest daughter (Sefae, age 7) playing outside. She is wearing one of our face masks and pretends to be a shop owner. All the supplies are neatly placed on a picnic table. One of her friends, also wearing a face mask, joins her and helps with pricing the items. After a while, some other kids from the neighborhood join them in the role of guard or customer.”
    “During dinner, I ask my daughter what they were playing. Sefae: ‘We opened a new shop and we had a lot of customers. Yasmine and Max were the guards and made sure nobody was stealing and that all the customers kept some distance from one another. We had to wear face masks because of corona.’”

    “Join your child and play along!”

    So speaks one of the authors of this piece. For young children, play provides an important context to explore the world, gain new knowledge, and develop language and social abilities. In the example above, we can see how Sefae and her friends are playing as if they work in a shop. In this imitation of a real-world activity, they learn about different roles and the discourse associated with these roles. They also negotiate rules, communicate with one another, and practice their social skills. We also see how they incorporate elements of their new reality — wearing face masks and practicing physical distancing — as a way to deal with or understand the changes in their environment.
    In the current COVID-19 pandemic, play has become more important than ever before. First, children are increasingly confronted with insecurity and changes. For example, they see people wearing face masks, find that new rules apply in school, and might notice how their parents or caregivers struggle with issues like health or financial instability. Play can be an important activity for children to cope with, process, and understand these changes. Second, as schools close or teachers have to quarantine, there is less time for children to engage in high-quality play activities. Such play activities can provide a unique learning context for the development of different cognitive domains.
    What are high-quality play activities? One important aspect that contributes to high-quality play is the role of adults. Research shows that guided play activities in which adults play along, ask questions, follow-up on what their children say, and broaden the activity support children’s learning. This is not easy! Most parents are great as parents, but they might not be fully equipped to design meaningful play activities, connect these activities to learning, and participate in a responsive and sensitive manner.

    “For young children, play provides an important context to explore the world, gain new knowledge, and develop their language and social abilities.”

    How can we make sure children keep playing during this pandemic? Here are four evidence-informed suggestions:
    First, during role play, children reenact the world around them (as shown in the example of Sefae and her friends). The social roles of customer, shop owner, or guard were played out using different props. In research on play, props are one of the most critical elements of children’s play (Leong & Bodrova, 2012). But before you rush online to buy new toys and props, bear in mind that straightforward, realistic toys are not necessary for successful role play. Most realistic toys are suitable for only one type of play scenario, thus resulting in limited use. In contrast, using common household objects — combined with a young child’s imagination — opens a world of endless possibilities. The imagination of a child can transform a piece of cardboard, a broom, or a wooden stick into meaningful props. Parents should encourage children to use materials that offer open-ended opportunities for transformation and provide them with a variety of props.
    Second, besides role play, parents have numerous opportunities to engage their children in object-oriented play. Playing with objects is an accessible activity that benefits young children’s cognitive development. For example, research has shown that playing with blocks provides a unique context in which children learn spatial language (words like in, out, on top, and behind). To guide object-oriented play, parents can provide objects and materials (e.g., blocks, cars), play along, talk, give suggestions, and ask questions (e.g., “How can we make our building higher?” “Can you pass me that big block?” “What do we need to build a (…)?”). Furthermore, schools can support parents in increasing the quality of play activities at home, for example, by providing ideas for play scenarios. Some pictures that depict different stages of a building under construction can help parents guide their children and increase the level of quality of play activities.
    Third, parents are allowed to participate in their child’s play. In fact, young children often need some guidance from adults. Before starting a play activity, parents can discuss what cultural activity the children want to imitate or what materials they would like to play with. You can ask which roles are involved in this activity, who will play what role, and what kind of behaviors are suitable for these roles, as well as which props or materials are needed. Parents can also discuss different scenarios, for example, “What will happen?” or “What would you like to build?” During a play activity, parents can broaden or deepen the activity by introducing new props, materials, roles, language, and behaviors, thereby enriching children’s experience. However, before parents join children in play, they should observe what the children are doing, what is happening, and what the conversation is about. Then, they can decide how to raise the play activity to a higher level without disturbing the child’s play. In other words, look carefully, but don’t just stand on the side and watch: Join your child and play along! Occasionally, parents can take a picture during a play activity and send it to their child’s teacher. Teachers can use these pictures as a starting point for classroom talk or to connect play at home with play in school.
    Finally, as in the example of Sefae, during mealtimes, parents can have interesting and stimulating conversations with their children about their play activities. For example, they can ask: “What were you playing?” or say: “I noticed that you were talking about (…); is that correct?” or invite: “During your role play you were (…); can you say more about that?” These small conversations can give parents more insight in their children’s world, thoughts, knowledge, and concerns, and can support children’s language development (Snow & Beals, 2006). And children’s answers might provide parents with interesting leads for planning the next day’s play activity.
    Header photo: Henry Burrows. Creative Commons.  More

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    Ending the practice of spanking young children may require more individualized, belief-based dialogue with parents

    Near-scientific consensus that physical punishment is damaging to children has led to interest in how to educate parents about its potential harms. Efforts to reduce parents’ use of physical punishment, often called spanking, with young children through on-line education are likely to succeed only if they directly address parents’ beliefs.
    This is what we learned from an experiment we undertook to examine how parents who approve of physical punishment remain committed to spanking even after being shown scientific evidence linking the practice to many negative outcomes for children, including aggression and mental health issues. The study, of parents of 2- to 8-year-olds from 41 U.S. states, was published in the Journal of Family Psychology.
    Discomfort makes parents mistrust science
    In our study, parents were given written scientific evidence about spanking in the form of an on-line news article, which included quotes from an expert on physical punishment. They also received written opinions from lay commentators who advocated for physical punishment. Parents who approved of physical punishment rated experts as less trustworthy than lay commentators, thereby avoiding the psychological challenge and discomfort – often called cognitive dissonance — that occurs when beliefs contradict scientific evidence. They may do this by questioning the trustworthiness of the science and preferring alternative perspectives that fit their views.

    “Parents do not discount all science related to parenting, just science that conflicts the views they hold.”

    However, in our study, parents who approved of physical punishment were not anti-science in principle. Their distrust of science was specific to this topic. For example, parents had no trouble valuing messages from experts on a neutral topic — the importance of car seats for children — even when they had discounted the expert on physical punishment. These findings suggest that parents do not discount all science related to parenting, just science that conflicts the views they hold.
    Photo: Average Joe. Creative Commons.

    Findings suggest more workable approaches
    The Internet has become a leading source of information for parents around the world. Our study helps us understand why efforts to significantly reduce spanking by disseminating information on-line about the dangers of physically punishing children may prove difficult without directly addressing common misperceptions about physical punishment. First, the on-line world makes it very easy for users to avoid information that contradicts what they already believe. Second, it gives users competing lay and pseudo-scientific commentary that can confirm existing views in what are often referred to as echo chambers.
    The good news is that parents who approve of physical punishment don’t distrust science per se — they are generally open to scientific findings, as the comparison involving child car seats showed. However, it is easy for parents to discount scientific findings when they can easily find others on-line who validate their support for practices such as physical punishment.
    Paediatricians can be influential
    Given the challenges of on-line parent education, a more productive way to educate parents about the harms of physical punishment may be to do so through experts they already trust, such as their children’s pediatricians. Pediatricians are widely trusted by parents. In the United States and Canada, they are encouraged to offer anticipatory guidance – a type of proactive counselling on childrearing topics such as children wearing bicycle helmets and ensuring that guns are stored safely — even if parents don’t raise the issue. The risks of physical punishment should be a subject that is frequently discussed with parents, along with suggestions for disciplinary methods to use instead of physical punishment. Pediatricians say the best time to discuss this is when children are infants so parents can reflect on the options available long before their children misbehave. However, pediatricians are not always trained for the task and may need advice on how best to raise these issues and participate in these discussions.
    Beliefs underpin parental resistance to science
    At some level, most parents who physically punish their young children believe in the practice. Some use this kind of punishment because their parents used it on them and they believe it worked. Some see it is as a last resort, when parents feel they have no other option. They may feel they need spanking in their toolbox to drive their message home on occasion. Simply telling parents not to hit their children without providing a realistic and credible toolbox of alternatives is unlikely to win over converts. Experts may seem to be taking away parents’ last resort without offering them something they know will work in what can be a stressful situation. Also, if experts offer parents alternatives that seem too difficult or time consuming, parents may display solution aversion: When a solution is regarded as unworkable or too scary, people recoil from it and stick with what they know.
    Tempting though it may be to simply rely on making scientific evidence about physical punishment widely available, to have a wider impact, we need more individualized approaches that address parents’ beliefs. Resistant parents are not intrinsically anti-science. But on the issue of spanking, they need workable options other than physical punishment. When the going gets tough, they need something they can really believe in.
    Header photo: Guian Bolisay. Creative Commons.  More

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    The Five Pillars of Home Education

    The five pillars of parenting, which I write about in Extraordinary Parenting: The Essential Guide to Parenting and Educating From Home, help all parents, whether they are educating their children at home full-time, homeschooling due to the current pandemic, caring for toddlers or preschool-age children, or simply want to support their children’s learning outside school hours.
    Pillar one: Relationships
     Much has already been written on this blog on the importance of parent-child relationships in nurturing children’s developing brains and supporting their health, happiness, and resilience into adulthood. This is doubly so with home education: A positive relationship based on collaboration, parental empathy, and playfulness forms a solid foundation for the highs and lows of educating at home. This type of relationship also creates an atmosphere in which children feel they can make mistakes and take risks, free from the comparison and competition that can be rife in school settings.
    Understanding that children’s challenging behavior is a form of communication and seeking to meet the needs behind that behavior are important for parents supporting their children through the rich terrain of home education. Marshall Rosenberg’s pioneering work on nonviolent communication is a good place to start. Parents who homeschool can build a relationship with their children that doesn’t rely on punishments, praise, or rewards, and instead seeks to develop children’s intrinsic motivation.
    Pillar two: Rhythm
    In his 2010 book, Simplicity Parenting, educator and school counselor Kim John Payne made a powerful case for simplifying children’s daily lives and reducing the number of activities – -and the sheer amount of stuff — in their lives for a slower, more balanced, and more psychologically healthy childhood. He advocated building a predictable but flexible rhythm, rather than a strict and brittle routine, which allows children to feel secure and thrive.

    Living in a society in which most children go through the school gates every day can leave us with a very specific idea of what learning looks like. It’s easy to forget that, at its best and most effective, learning — for adults and children alike — looks a lot like play and playful experimentation.

    Parents and children can work together to build a rhythm that ensures a predictable flow through the day and enough time for learning activities (for formal academic work at home, children need much shorter lessons than they do in school, so plan accordingly), time outdoors, play, rest, and time as a family. During each day, certain times can act as anchors — meals, a walk, time together in the morning to do project work or read as a family, time for everyone to pitch in with chores. This rhythm brings a reassuring pattern to each day without putting too many brakes on the creativity that can come from blank space on the calendar.
    Photo provided by the author.

    Pillar three: Home environment
    Many pedagogies speak of the importance of a prepared environment, from Maria Montessori’s insistence that the environment should facilitate maximum independent learning and exploration to the Reggio Emilia notion of the environment as the third teacher (alongside the child and the teacher), designed to suit the child’s needs and encourage collaboration, relationships, and exploration.
    At home, parents have the advantage of not teaching in a classroom — in fact, research suggests classrooms should be more like homes. A 2015 study by Barrett et al. on the impact of classroom design on students’ learning found that the aesthetics of the spaces significantly affected children’s ability to take in information: Classrooms with too much color and information had a negative impact, distracting children and making it hard to focus, and classrooms that were bare had similar effects. Natural light and fresh air were the most important ingredients for happy, focused students, as well as space to move around and furniture that fit their needs. These are all things parents can provide at home, meeting children’s needs for independence, creativity, movement, play, and rest in a comfortable space.
    Movement is especially important, with research showing that it is a key factor in how children integrate social and academic learning and transform it into memory. Parents can bring movement into their children’s daily rhythm with far more ease than schools.
    Pillar four: Encouraging natural learning
    Living in a society in which most children go through the school gates every day can leave us with a very specific idea of what learning looks like. It’s easy to forget that, at its best and most effective, learning — for adults and children alike — looks a lot like play and playful experimentation.
    Humans are born learning; all we need to do is look at a baby to see that this is true. In the first year or two of life, babies learn one or more languages; figure out how to crawl, walk, run, and climb; discern when something is funny and when something is unacceptable; determine how to respond empathetically to others’ emotions; and learn how to play. Home education can allow for a return to this more natural, playful style of learning, whether children are learning math through baking, studying a foreign language by playing Minecraft with a friend in another country, or chatting with a neighbor.
    Children have their own passions and interests that they want to explore, and home education provides the time and space for them to learn through hands-on experiences, as well as enabling far deeper exploration of different subjects than would be possible at school. Rather than trying to replicate a full school timetable of compartmentalized subjects, parents can facilitate multidisciplinary projects and investigations. They can also allow children the space to tinker, lead their own learning, and find the state of flow we know is conducive to happiness and positive self-worth.
    Pillar five: Self-care
    Stress can harm parents’ ability to respond to their children, and parents and educators alike have seen how children pick up on adult moods. We know that stress in teachers negatively affects class attainment, and stress in parents has been linked to poor behavioral outcomes in children. Home educating can be very fulfilling and enjoyable, but it can also be exhausting, especially when combined with other responsibilities, such as paid employment, housework, and caring for other children or elders. The importance of self-care for parents and caregivers cannot be overstated.
    Self-care can be broadly described as taking care of our own emotional, physical, and intellectual needs – for example, engaging in regular exercise (including taking a walk), taking time to enjoy a hobby (any activity that brings a state of flow is ideal), reading a good book, reducing time spent on social media or reading the news, having a phone conversation with a good friend, and practicing meditation. Self-care differs for each individual. If parents don’t have much or any time apart from their children, choosing activities that can be done alongside the children is most effective. Doing so also gives parents the opportunity to model self-care and show their children what it means to prioritize one’s own needs.
    Home Education Is Not Just For Pandemics
    Educating children at home can benefit both children and their families. Following the initial COVID-19 lockdowns over the spring and summer, many parents decided to remove their children from school permanently and take charge of their education themselves. In doing so, they noticed their children were less anxious and more interested in learning, and that sibling relationships once again blossomed with more time together. Evidence from families all over the world shows that children can learn perfectly well without school, and in many cases are happier, show more self-direction and intrinsic motivation in their learning, and develop a wide range of skills and interests.
    Header photo provided by the author.  More

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    Parental beliefs about online education: Reflections on the Italian experience during COVID-19 quarantine

    Italy was the first western country hit by COVID-19 and one of the countries in Europe with the highest death rates. National lockdown restrictions came into force in March 2020 and schools were closed until the end of the academic year. Now new lockdowns are feared. Teachers’ and parents’ engagement in online schooling and remote learning has emerged as one of the most significant challenges for the country.
    Children experiencing lockdown measures at home are likely to have accumulated multiple stresses related to their lack of or low engagement in school-based instructional and social activities. With schools closed, parents have become full-time child care providers and home-school teachers, responsible, more than ever, for supporting their children’s educational and developmental needs.
    Now Italian young people, their families, and their teachers are facing the challenge of in-person or blended (partly in-person, partly online) education.

    “How well both parents and their children believe they are capable of handling challenges associated with online education was associated with higher child autonomy around online education, better academic performance, and fewer child emotional difficulties.”

    Last summer in Italy, we conducted an anonymous survey of parents with 6- to 18-year-old children about their beliefs about online education. Here are some preliminary data:
    250 parents, 83% of whom were mothers, answered the survey.
    The average age of the children was 11 (SD = 3.84) and 53% were boys.
    The parents were from the center and south of Italy.
    48% lived in an independent house, while 52% lived in an apartment.
    90% said they had WIFI in their home during the lockdown.
    Our study was inspired by Albert Bandura‘s studies on self-efficacy beliefs, which showed that people’s actions are strongly influenced by how much they believe they are capable of reaching a goal or effectively handling a challenging situation. We conducted a pilot study to examine parents’ self-efficacy beliefs toward the challenges of online education during quarantine (we asked, for example, “During quarantine, how well did you believe you were capable of supporting your child doing homework during online education?”). We also examined parents’ perceptions of their children’s beliefs about feeling capable of handling the challenges (we asked, for example, “During quarantine, how well do you think your child felt capable of asking for support to do homework from you/a classmate/a teacher during online education?”). Hereafter I refer to those constructs as parents’ and children’s efficacy beliefs toward online education.
    First, both parents’ and children’s efficacy beliefs toward online education were associated with higher autonomy on the part of the children around online education (e.g., “During quarantine, how often did your child attend online education autonomously, without you having to remind him/her it was time to do so?”). Similarly higher parents’ and [children’s?] efficacy beliefs correlated with better academic performance and fewer emotional difficulties on the part of the children at the end of academic year.
    Second, parents’ support for their children’s academic activities before the COVID-19 pandemic started, as well as parents’ and children’s familiarity with online communication platforms before the pandemic, were associated with higher parental self-efficacy beliefs toward online education.
    Greater parental difficulty in supporting their children in respecting homework deadlines and understanding teachers’ instructions about homework, as well as an overall parental feeling of powerlessness in understanding how they could support their children’s learning, predicted lower parents’ and children’s efficacy beliefs.
    In addition, higher parents’ and children’s beliefs in understanding others’ needs (empathic self-efficacy), handling anger and sadness in challenging situations, and expressing positive emotions (regulatory emotional self-efficacy) were associated with higher parents’ and children’s efficacy beliefs toward online education, as well as with youth’s autonomy toward online education.
    Parents’ hostile rumination (e.g., “I will always remember the injustices I have suffered”) and irritability (e.g., “I often feel like a powder keg ready to explode”) were associated with lower parents’ self-efficacy and children’s autonomy toward online education.

    “Facilitating family-school communications in the time of COVID-19 might decrease parents’ sense of powerlessness when supporting their children’s learning development.”

    Children’s negative emotions (e.g., anger and sadness), low effortful control (e.g., the ability to inhibit an action when there is a strong tendency to perform it), and higher problematic behaviors (e.g., aggressive behaviors, anxiety and symptoms of depression) before the COVID-19 pandemic were also associated with lower parents’ and children’s efficacy beliefs toward online education.
    In conclusion, Bandura’s self-efficacy theory supports the importance of taking into account how well both parents and their children believe they are capable of handling challenges associated with online education. Our preliminary findings show a correlation between these beliefs and developmental outcomes for Italian children during the difficult months of the lockdown.
    Facilitating family-school communication in the time of COVID-19 might decrease parents’ sense of powerlessness when supporting their children’s learning development. It could also increase their sense of efficacy around the challenges typically associated with online education.
    If parents and teachers know which parents’ and children’s characteristics are associated with better child outcomes, they might be able to think more effectively about how to manage their own and their children’s behaviors to maximize the chances of success for the children.
    Header photo: Nenad Stojkovic. Creative Commons.  More

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    Poverty generates strengths and rational decisions, not just damage

    Is adolescent parenthood amid poverty always poorly thought out – the irrational miscalculation of youthful short-sightedness? It depends. Some studies of teenage parenting show worse outcomes for both mothers and children, but others indicate better outcomes, once social disadvantages are accounted for. Starting a family early may make sense, even in the long term. To understand why, we should step down from our ivory towers and into the shoes of people from disadvantaged backgrounds who are making these decisions.
    Damaging decisions can be rational
    A disadvantaged young woman –  like her relatives – can expect a shorter, unhealthier life than a more affluent young woman. Her unconscious calculations, formed under the effects of poverty, might also vary from her better-off contemporaries. For example, decisions about whether to delay pregnancy for further education might involve a different cost-benefit matrix for a low-income woman than for someone who has more resources. If she waits, then her parents – their health probably already declining under the chronic stress of poverty — might be unable to help her raise the kids. She’ll want those children to reach adulthood before her parents’ advancing health issues compete for her attention. When is a good time to begin a family if a woman wants to be well at least until her oldest grandchild is five? Answers to this question have anticipated childbearing choices across socioeconomic groups; they have also accurately predicted an eight-year gap between the first birth for an average woman and for women living in poverty. Therefore, an early start can be rational, given the circumstances.
    This example begins to show why we need well-rounded ways to capture the diverse impacts of living in poverty. For understandable reasons, a conventional deficit approach concentrates on the damage that disadvantage causes for long-term physical and mental health. But this focus can be too narrow. It may not recognize that some actions –  irrational within privileged contexts –  are reasonable for someone in poverty, even if these actions might also harm health and well-being.
    “Hidden talents” spring from poverty
    Focusing solely on damage caused by living in poverty can also obscure mental strengths – what are called “hidden talents” – developed by the experience. For example, adversity may enhance abilities to address challenges relevant to disadvantaged environments. People may develop specific abilities to deal with harsh and unpredictable situations where threat looms large and potential rewards are sparse and short-lived.

    “We should step down from our ivory towers and into the shoes of people from disadvantaged backgrounds who are making decisions.”

    Cognitive tests of young British homeless people showed that, predictably, they performed less well on many activities than did peers from more affluent backgrounds. The deficit process – linked to sleep deprivation, poor nutrition, chronic stress or neglect –  damaged their performance on most tests. However, on the creativity test, the homeless scored on par with others. Surviving on the streets may put a premium on creativity –  being able to solve problems imaginatively – leading to homeless people scoring within the typical range.
    Research has revealed other allied skills. Studies by Seth Pollak at the University of Wisconsin-Madison show that people who have been physically abused may develop an enhanced ability to detect threat. This can help them spot danger early and avoid it.
    Other studies suggest that, in unpredictable circumstances, it is valuable to be able to shift attention  and form memories quickly and efficiently. Cognitive studies show that people who have recently experienced violence may do as well as – or even better than – people who have not experienced violence on tests of remembering information relevant to social dominance. However, such findings are difficult to accommodate if we rely solely on a deficit model that highlights the undoubtedly widespread damage that poverty and adversity can inflict on brain and body.
    A “strengths-based” model complements the deficit approach
    An approach that combines the deficit model with models of reasoned responses and hidden talents is vital for many reasons. It can help fine tune policy and interventions. It can encourage the development of learning and work environments that capitalize on strengths that arise from adversity. It can help explain apparently anomalous research findings where enhanced performance among people in poverty might otherwise be dismissed as a fluke or mistake. Finally, it challenges researchers, who typically come from privileged backgrounds and who may overlook strengths developed through poverty: A broader, more complex model makes us question our assumptions of what is “normal.”
    In terms of policy interventions, a broader model might make parenting programs more effective. In general, authoritative parenting is regarded as the gold standard. Characterized by high demands and high responsiveness, and by giving children choices and flexibility, this approach is believed to secure the best academic and mental health outcomes for children. Experts advocate it and prefer it to authoritarian parenting styles that brook no discussion or dissent.
    Better parenting programs
     But maybe parenting that provides children with choices and flexibility is not always the most rational or even effective approach to raising children. African American children typically face a much harsher reality than affluent White contemporaries whose parents are more likely to favor an authoritative, more liberal style. African American children are much more at risk if they make a single mistake — such as saying something a police officer dislikes, shoplifting once, or misbehaving in ways a teacher finds threatening; when done by a White child, these actions might be dismissed or explained as exploring boundaries. The costs to African American children of slipping up – involvement in the judicial system and tougher punishment – are high. This helps explain why some African American parents are harsher and more authoritarian. Are they making a mistake? It’s unclear: There is some evidence that children who experience strict, no-discussion, but non-abusive upbringings have better outcomes in these contexts than more permissive parenting.

    “A broader model might make parenting programs more effective … Educational practice also could gain insights.”

    Perhaps advocates of a simple deficit approach should get closer to the realities of disadvantaged lives and gain a broadened perspective. For example, it is tempting to conclude that hypervigilant behavior — checking for potential dangers – developed in an abusive childhood offers no benefit and only damage as a working model for a more typical adult life. But this may ignore an asymmetry in the costs of trusting someone you cannot trust compared with trusting someone who can be trusted. Erring on the side of caution may be reasonable, and not merely a mark of impairment caused by stressful early experiences that we should work to reverse.
    Social workers recognize such subtleties. Such behavior makes sense to them and matches their experiences. They see that it can be reasonable (if damaging and not desirable) for young people who are raised in adversity to use aggression to acquire social status or to engage in delinquent behavior to secure resources when they are deprived of opportunities. In contrast, developmental scientists who study youth behavior are often not focused sufficiently on the context; they may concentrate more on the shortcomings of the individual and on interventions that can improve that person’s outcomes.
    Insights into the impact of poverty on learning 
    Educational practice could gain insights and accrue benefits from broadening the deficit approach. Studies suggest that adversity impairs a variety of cognitive abilities. However, research also suggests that, in some conditions, adversity may improve abilities to switch between tasks. Particularly in stressful settings, this skill seems to come to the surface, whereas it may not be apparent in neutral settings.
    Working memory – keeping track of changes in the environment – also seems to be enhanced by some experiences of adversity. These hidden talents could help inform the design of learning environments where the optimal set-up for a disadvantaged child might differ from that for a more affluent peer.
    These insights might also help us design more equitable testing environments for children. Exams with problems that require hours of focused activity may be harder for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who are used to more dynamic situations where their attention is more distributed. Pencil-and-paper problems might be harder than hands-on calculations. Problems about money – a pressing need for children from low-income families – might be more difficult than more abstract problems. We should recognize that children in poverty or from working-class backgrounds may be skilled at – and particularly benefit from – solving problems collaboratively.
    No one believes that poverty is good. The damage it causes far outweighs any marginal benefits. However, a strengths-based approach, combined with a better understanding of reasonable behavior, can complement the perspectives and tools already available to us, even if this approach comes with its own set of challenges. This endeavor can help us understand how contexts of adversity shape people’s strengths and weaknesses. It may swing the pendulum more toward intervening to improve those contexts and away from simply trying to change the individuals who live in them.
    Header photo: Rolls-Royce plc. Creative Commons. More

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    Adolescent motherhood in crisis

    The COVID-19 pandemic has reignited concerns about the effects of crises on the development of children globally. Within this realm of concern is an area that continues to be overlooked: the particular vulnerability of adolescent mothers and mothers to be, and by proxy, their children. Countries with high rates of adolescent childbearing also tend to struggle with reaching education goals and reducing poverty. It’s not that adolescent motherhood is rare; in many parts of the world, marriage and childbearing under age 18 is very common. An estimated 12 million girls aged 15 to 19, and nearly 777,000 girls younger than 15, give birth each year – and most of their pregnancies are unintended. But the particular risks for this subdemographic often go overlooked because governments and the development community prefer to think about preventing adolescent pregnancies than supporting adolescent mothers. Our research addresses this gap, noting that, around the world, shocks like a global pandemic make adolescent mothers and their offspring exponentially more vulnerable.
    Adolescent mothers are already among some of the most vulnerable, even in the best of times and regardless of cultural perceptions (in some contexts, adolescent pregnancies are stigmatized; in others they are celebrated). Most teenage pregnancies occur in low- and middle-income countries and are often concentrated among the parts of society of the lowest incomes. Pregnancy at an early age often means mothers leave school and transition to domestic roles, resulting in lower levels of education, fewer economic resources, and less bargaining power in the home; these outcomes coincide with restricted access to sexual and reproductive health services. Adolescent childbearing is also associated with higher risks to maternal health. In fact, pregnancy and birth complications are the leading causes of death among 15- to 19-year-old girls worldwide.

    “Adolescent mothers are already among some of the most vulnerable, even in the best of times and regardless of cultural perceptions (in some contexts, adolescent pregnancies are stigmatized; in others they are celebrated).”

    However, not all of the risk is contextual. At least some of it lies “below the skin.” We argue in a forthcoming article that part of the risk adolescent mothers and their offspring face stems from neurobiological processes specific to adolescent development, for instance, heightened sensitivity to reward and stress. This becomes particularly salient when exploring how these processes interconnect with stressful life events. In short, adolescents’ heightened sensitivity to stressful events leads to higher levels of physiological stress, which has been demonstrated to affect adolescent development as well as pregnancy outcomes (e.g., preterm labor and low birthweight) and child development. Stress is transmitted to children prenatally through neuroendocrine pathways and postnatally through caregiving. In fact, recent studies link stress related to COVID-19 to pregnancy outcomes and early caregiving. Ultimately, we argue that the physiological stress response is a key factor in why adolescent moms and their offspring, on average, have worse developmental outcomes later in life, a fact that is supported by abundant evidence.
    Given the scale and urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are asking questions about the impact of the pandemic on early child development broadly, and adolescent motherhood more specifically. We already know that large shocks, such as financial crises, pandemics, natural disasters, and armed conflict, are accompanied by massive social and institutional disruptions and cause substantial stress in individuals, families, and communities; we also know that these often lead to widespread displacement and insecurities in housing and livelihood. Higher rates of adolescent pregnancies have been observed in contexts of displacement, often due to inadequate availability of sexual and reproductive health and family planning services for adolescent girls. By mid-2020, more than 15 million people were newly displaced internally due to conflict or disaster. Their situations are made even more precarious by the fact that, in response to the pandemic, in many places, non-essential services and programs closed their doors or refocused to respond to the pandemic. Moreover, stigma associated with COVID-19 has drastically reduced clinic visits for prenatal care.
    Pregnant adolescents and adolescent mothers are even more at risk when sexual and reproductive health services become scarcer. In contexts of displacement, high rates of gender-based violence and poverty-driven transactional sex contribute to the increase in adolescent pregnancies. With lockdowns, there is the added risk of increased domestic violence and abuse in the home. For instance, both Kenya and Paraguay have reported increasing adolescent pregnancy rates during COVID-19 lockdowns. High rates of and increases in adolescent pregnancies during such stressful times should sound alarm bells.

    “High rates of and increases in adolescent pregnancies during such stressful times should sound alarm bells.”

    There is little evidence on how to best support adolescent mothers and mothers-to-be effectively, but some innovative interventions are pioneering the way. Countries such as Zimbabwe have started to change laws around school attendance for pregnant adolescent girls, allowing them to continue their education and ensuring that pregnant and mothering girls stay in school. A program in Ethiopia, “Meseret Hiwott,” used community women as mentors to facilitate group discussions for married adolescent mothers, focusing on increasing voluntary counselling and testing for HIV, as well as sexual and reproductive health awareness, family planning, motherhood, gender and power dynamics, and financial literacy. And a recent experimental evaluation of a home visiting program for low-income adolescent moms in São Paulo, Brazil, demonstrated positive effects on caregiving and maternal well-being. Such programs are promising, but more rigorous research is needed to better understand their impact and how to take them to scale successfully.
    Unfortunately, most efforts in this area have focused on preventing adolescent pregnancies. Many of these initiatives have largely failed to produce substantial change, and can contribute to stigmatization and drive underage marriage practices underground, increasing the risks to adolescent mothers and their offspring. They also fail to acknowledge that adolescent motherhood will not be going away in many parts of the world anytime soon. We need more investigation and inquiry into the most effective ways to support adolescent mothers and their children – particularly in contexts of acute stress. The effects of the current pandemic are likely to be felt for a while to come and new crises are inevitable. Understanding how crises affect adolescent girls and how to effectively support their development, education, and reproductive health, with or without children, will likely yield long-term returns, not just to them and their families, but to society at large and generations to come.
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    How to support parents with home learning during COVID-19 lockdowns

    The COVID-19 pandemic takes a toll on all of us, but particularly on families with young children. In an effort to slow the spread of the virus, Germany – among many other countries – closed child care centers, prohibited the use of playgrounds, and implemented social distancing measures in spring 2020. This put parents of young children in a tight spot. They had to provide education and care at home while juggling other demands, including jobs and household chores. How did the lockdown affect parents’ ability to provide home learning activities for their children?
    Parents engaged in more home learning activities with their children during the lockdown than they did before the lockdown. This was the general trend in our survey (see Cohen, Oppermann, & Anders, 2020) of 7,048 German parents of 1- to 6-year-olds, conducted during the lockdown in Germany in April and May 2020. For instance, parents read more books with their children, spent more time together in nature, and played more (board) games or did more puzzles.

    “The largest predictor of parents’ ability to provide home learning activities was stress: Parents who said they were the most stressed provided the least amount of learning activities for their children.”

    Our study also showed that providing home learning activities during the lockdown worked better for some parents than for others. Parents with more than one child under age 6 and parents who were employed full time provided fewer activities than parents with only one child 6 and under and parents with part-time jobs.
    The largest predictor of parents’ ability to provide home learning activities was stress: Parents who said they were the most stressed provided the least amount of learning activities for their children. This finding is intuitive: Parents who are overwhelmed by all the demands have fewer resources to engage with their children. And the COVID-19 pandemic certainly did not make life easier for parents. Many were juggling working at home with caring for children (54% in our survey), and some had to deal with sudden unemployment (1%) or short-time leave (7%), which often led to financial strain (41%). Moreover, playgrounds were closed and families were stuck at home, often in apartments and houses that were too small (27%).
    These problematic situations caused stress, which impaired parents’ ability to provide learning activities for their children. This is not a new finding. Studies have shown that parents are better at supporting their children’s learning and development when they feel good themselves. However, the special measures taken to contain the spread of COVID-19 led to cumulative stress situations for many families. The implications are clear: If we want to ensure that parents provide a rich home learning environment during difficult times such as the COVID-19 lockdown, we need to support parents.
    How can we support parents in helping their children learn?
    As a parent, it is important to acknowledge your stress and take care of yourself. Take breaks, delegate tasks where possible, and seek support. Also, when it comes to supporting your children’s learning, keep in mind that everyday interactions make a difference. You don’t need to prepare learning sessions with your child. Rather, try to engage your child in an in-depth dialogue about everyday situations (e.g., by asking questions and helping children refine their thought process). Plenty of websites provide materials, ideas, and guidelines for parents to facilitate learning at home.

    “If we want to ensure that parents provide a rich home learning environment during difficult times such as the COVID-19 lockdown, we need to support parents.”

    As friends, relatives, or neighbors, you can provide emotional support by asking parents how they are doing or even offering hands-on help, e.g. with shopping.
    As teachers, you can help parents support their children when child care centers are closed by keeping in contact with the children and proving parents with ideas or materials fit for children’s individual developmental stages. In fact, 51% of the parents in our study said they wished preschool teachers gave them ideas and materials to foster their children’s learning at home.
    As policymakers, it is important to keep in mind that closures of child care centers are extreme measures that deprive children of the education and social contact they need while putting parents under immense stress. This can be particularly harmful for families living in disadvantageous circumstances. Thus, even though such closures may have less short-term impact on the economy and may be easier to implement than other restrictions, they potentially have the worst long-term outcomes for the future of our children.
    Header photo: Nenad Stojkovic. Creative Commons.  More