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    Closing the education gap: Time to step up for refugee children

    During the COVID-19 pandemic, many children in the United States are struggling with remote learning and emotionally distressed by the absence of social interactions. But significant numbers of children in the world do not have access to the Internet or to any education during the pandemic.
    Children are our future. Yet about 33 million children worldwide are displaced and most of them are out of school. Refugee children are a case in point. More than 92% of refugee children live in developing countries. Lack of education during COVID-19 has the potential to become an even more destructive pandemic.
    Rohingya children are receiving no education during the pandemic
    In August 2017, more than 742,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar. More than 800,0000 Rohingya refugees now live in Cox’s Bazar in the largest and most crowded refugee camp in the world, and more than half are children and adolescents. Prior to the pandemic, children in Rohingya refugee camps were not allowed to receive education in local schools, barring them from opportunities to integrate into the local community in Bangladesh. As a result of the lockdown due to the pandemic, about 315,000 Rohingya children and adolescents lost access to education in the camps’ more than 6,000 learning institutions, which closed in mid-March 2020. In January 2020, the government of Bangladesh promised to give Rohingya children access to education and skills training, but we know little about the fine points of the pledge because the pandemic has stalled any progress.

    “They are neglected, lack proper nutrition and health care, do not have access to any education, and are caught in a limbo of an uncertain future, from which there seems no apparent escape. It is time to give these children a fair chance at life.”

    For many decades, Rohingya parents in the Rakhine state of Myanmar have seen their children being killed, maimed, violated, abducted, attacked in schools and hospitals, and denied a chance at a decent life. The situation was so bad for these and other refugee children worldwide that in 1999, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1261 to protect children in conflict regions for the first time. But Rohingyas in Bangladesh continue to live in danger. The lack of access to education is likely to result in parents marrying their children off at an early age or losing them to human trafficking. This means that generations of children will not realize their potential.
    Considering these issues, the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner of Bangladesh agreed that “it will definitely help” to educate children in the camp. Yet despite similar language from policymakers, a government directive in 2019 banned Internet access in the camp, so during the pandemic, even remote learning is not an option for children there.
    Photo: taken at a learning center by Fatima Zahra in October 2019 (before the lockdown). It shows two siblings – getting ready to go home after school. Location: Ukhiya, Cox’s Bazar.

    The violence against children affects not only the refugees in the camp but also the social architecture of the host community. Refugee children in Bangladesh are a big part of the future of the country’s political economy and national security. Many fear that the inequalities and violence in the camps already contribute to enhanced violence in the host communities surrounding the camps.
    How to right the wrong against refugee children: Three steps
    Sadly, the fate of Rohingya children in Bangladesh is similar to that of most refugee children in the world. They are neglected, lack proper nutrition and health care, lack access to any education, and are caught in a limbo of an uncertain future from which there seems no apparent escape. It is time to give these children a fair chance at life through three steps.
    First, children need access to high-quality education that is in both the children’s mother tongue and the language of the host country.
    Language of instruction determines the effectiveness of education. It also determines how children perceive their future (in the host country) and how they are accepted as people from another country (their home country). Rohingya children were allowed some form of education in the Rohingya language before the pandemic in the informal learning institutes in the camps, but the host community looks down on Rohingya culture and language so the children did not learn about their home country.

    “We often forget that refugee children are just like our children – and that they are in our space because they have nowhere to go. Governments,including the newly elected U.S. government, the private sector, and donors can step up their game and play a major role in supporting the future of refugee children.”

    Bangladesh should give refugee children access to the curriculum in public schools in the country. This will create a cultural bridge between refugee and host community children. The Bangladeshi government has been very clear from the start that they do not want to do this. While learning one’s first language has tremendous benefits, it also helps facilitate learning another language (such as Bangla and English) when the children are living in Bangladesh. Children who speak the Rohingya language can build on the language and literacy they know to acquire another language.
    Second, children in the camp need mental health support. Many children and adults in the camp are suffering from acute depression and anxiety. These children need teachers who are trained to support the learning of children who have experienced severe trauma, anxiety, and depression, and who continue to live with constant uncertainty. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the camps are invested in supporting children’s education – assistance from the local and national governments will mean they can scale their efforts in training teachers to extend high-quality education to the children.
    Finally, people in the camp need access to high-speed Internet. The first two steps that are needed to improve education are possible only if refugee children have access to the outside world.
    Using the Internet is crucial for children to access both education and mental health support. NGOs and companies can set up Wifi hotspots throughout the camp, as has been done in the past in other camps. Once that happens, children can access remote learning programs. Parents also need access to the relevant technologies (such as smartphones and the Internet) so they can oversee their children’s learning, which is instinctive for most parents.
    As leading post-colonial scholarHomi Bhabha said, “the refugee condition makes the most stringent and severe demands on the national community or the ‘world community’ to recognize the global right of hospitality which is at the heart of human survival itself … for a ‘good life lived with others.’” We often forget that refugee children are just like our children – and that they are in our space because they have nowhere to go. Governments (including the newly elected U.S. government), the private sector, and donors can step up their game and play a major role in supporting the future of refugee children.
    Closing the education gap for refugee children will move us one step closer to building a strong and diverse leadership for the world.
    Header photo: taken during a focused group discussion with Rohingya children and adolescents about their learning preferences and aspirations as part of a research study at the South Asia Institute at Harvard University. The picture shows a child solving some basic math problems to demonstrate what he learned back in his school in Myanmar. Location: Ukhiya, Cox’s Bazar. More

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    That’s a Good Question! Podcast: Episode 6

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    The gift of the COVID-19 pandemic: more playtime with dad

    More playtime with dad during the COVID-19 pandemic may turn out to be one of the few positives to emerge for children from the virus. It could also serve as some compensation for children’s considerable losses in school learning and access to friends.
    Many children may have benefited during this time from the special contribution of playing with fathers to their social, cognitive, and emotional development.
    That’s because many fathers have spent more time at home during the pandemic. They have also spent more time caring for their children. While that shift has been particularly pronounced during the pandemic, according to official data, it also reflects a longer-term trend, going back 40 years, of gradually increasing paternal involvement.
    On average, fathers spend a higher proportion of their time caring for children than mothers playfully interacting with their children. That share may have shifted during the pandemic, but the amount of time overall that dads spend playing is likely to have risen.

    “The pandemic reminds policymakers how jobs can be remodelled to help fathers participate more in their children’s lives.”

    Playing with dad helps children develop
    Children’s extra playtime with their fathers matters for several reasons. First, when parents spend more time with their children, they strengthen their skills in areas that are crucial to play – understanding what interests children, following their lead, and generally being more sensitive to them. In short, many fathers have become more closely attuned to their children’s play and to the pace at which they learn.
    Photo: Mikael Stenberg. Creative Commons.

     Learning to be patient and follow a child’s lead can be challenging. Some young children take a long time to learn a new skill for the first time and once they have learned it, may want to perform the new skill again and again. Unattuned adults may wish to rush them, do it for them, or move on to something else.
    Second, fathers’ play makes a measurable and considerable difference to outcomes for children. Playing with dad is consistently linked to children being able to learn better and make friendships. More playtime with dads is also associated with less anxiety and fewer behavioral problems for children, who are less likely to get in trouble at school or fight with their peers.
    The special quality of fathers’ play
    Third, fathers’ play has some special qualities. Typically, it exposes children to a second person who is important in their lives. It also allows children to experience styles of parenting that differ from those demonstrated by their mother. As a result, children are exposed to differences and surprises in a safe environment. This can help them build capacities to manage change and difficulties in relationships.
    Focusing too much on dads’ rough and tumble play with their children is unwise. We should avoid making it emblematic of fatherhood. Lots of moms engage in this type of play, too. And many dads can also spend quiet time with their children, sitting with them and cuddling them, and we should not think of this as “un-dad-like” behavior. Nevertheless, rough and tumble play has real value and is an area in which many fathers feel confident.

    “One take-home message for fathers is to get stuck in and try to make time to play with their children from the outset.”

    Even very young babies benefit from fathers’ play
    The skills that fathers bring in playfully exciting young children can benefit not only toddlers but also young babies. In my studies on fathers’ playful interactions with 3-month-olds, fathers’ engagement predicted fewer behavioral problems at 12 months and higher cognitive scores at 2 years.
    It’s important that dads understand these findings because some may lack confidence in and feel reticent about caring for their babies. They – and others – may subscribe to the mistaken view that dads’ impact on children’s lives begins later. We also need to fight the mistaken cultural belief that very young babies don’t notice much about what’s happening around them. After 20 years doing child development research, I know that babies have a great capacity to notice and learn from very early in their lives.
    What should dads do?
    One take-home message for fathers is to get stuck in and try to make time to play with their children from the outset. Fathers can bring something important to their children, even and perhaps especially when they are very young. Dads might not feel confident at first, but they shouldn’t worry: They should just play and, with practice, they will get better at it. I advise fathers to try a range of activities beyond rough-and-tumble play. It’s also okay for fathers to sit quietly with a toy or a book and just snuggle up with their children. At least some of time, dads should slow down, follow their child’s lead, and play at their pace.
    Photo: Humphrey Muleba. Creative Commons.

    The pandemic has introduced stresses that can undermine play. When people are stressed, the focus of their attention narrows so they attend less well to their relationships. We have seen this shift in studies of the impact depression in fathers — there was a reduction in the surprises that fathers typically built into play with their children, who were subsequently exposed to a narrower range of play. So, as COVID-19’s effects continue, we should be mindful to protect parents’ mental health.
    Overall, the pandemic highlights the important role of fathers in child development. The past year should help policymakers recognize how jobs can be remodelled to help fathers participate more in their children’s lives. It also reminds family service practitioners to emphasize, facilitate, and capitalize on the assets that fathers, as well as mothers, can bring to their children from the earliest ages.
    Header photo: Jonnelle Yankovich. Creative Commons.  More

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    Fathers’ adverse childhood experiences are linked to their children’s development

    New research from Romania has demonstrated a clear correlation between adverse childhood experiences in fathers’ lives and their children’s development, including sleep disruption, inattention, anger, and anxiety. Fathers’ symptoms of depression partially accounted for the correlation between their early experiences and their children’s inattention and anger. Fathers’ negative parenting practices partially accounted for the link with children’s inattention.
    Adverse childhood experiences include growing up in poverty; absence or death of a parent; violence; caregivers’ drug or alcohol addiction; physical or emotional neglect; peer victimization; or physical, psychological, and sexual abuse.
    Based on the study, the researchers concluded that fathers should be involved in programs that support children with problems such as anxiety, anger, inattention, and sleep disturbance. Other studies have shown that parents with a reported history of prior maltreatment have the capacity for improving their parenting practices. Fathers should also receive direct support to address depression and negative parenting practices.
    The study featured 118 fathers of 6- to 17-year-olds. All fathers were in stable, committed relationships with the mother of their children. Fathers completed a series of psychological questionnaires and evaluations of their own children. They were asked about their own childhood experiences, their assessment of their children’s mental health (inattention, sleep disturbance, depression, anger, anxiety), their own parenting practices, and their relationship with their children’s mother.
    The correlations in this research do not imply causation, but they do correspond with earlier research, particularly on mothers. Mothers’ depression and negative parenting has been shown to explain the link between their own adverse childhood experiences and their children’s development – including communication, problem solving, motor skills at age 2, health, and hyperactivity. Many studies have confirmed that individuals who were maltreated in childhood are at risk of repeating these negative behaviors toward their own children.
    Fathers’ symptoms of depression have also been linked to their children’s anxiety, depression, substance addiction (for up to 20 years), psychiatric disorders, lower academic performance, hyperactivity, social problems, and emotional difficulties. The global socioeconomic changes that have been occurring for the last 40 years suggest that the traditional mother-focused models of developmental influence are old fashioned. The presence and involvement of fathers in their children’s lives is strongly associated with their offspring’s social well-being, academic achievement, and behavioral adjustment. Moreover, longitudinal studies have confirmed that, in child development, fathers matter in ways similar to mothers. More

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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

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    Children flourish in new forms of family, but some still suffer outsiders’ stigmatization

    People concerned about children growing up in new forms of families (e.g., LBGTQ families, families created by donor eggs) have worried unnecessarily. In the face of dire warnings about such families, studies consistently show that their children turn out just as well as – and sometimes better than – kids from traditional families with two heterosexual parents. Findings have been remarkably similar, whether studies have focused on families with lesbian mothers, gay fathers, transgender parents, or single mothers by choice. Findings on families created by donations of eggs, sperm, or embryos, as well as by surrogacy, reflect the same pattern.
    In studies of all these new forms of family, we, along with other research teams, have found that the quality of family relationships matters for children’s welfare far more than the number, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or biological relatedness of the parents.
    It has taken nearly 50 years of studies, many following children across decades, to establish the empirical evidence. And there has been plenty of heartache along the way, starting with lesbian mothers who lost custody of their children back in the 1970s. In the half century since then, public and expert fears about new forms of family have underpinned various legal barriers to parenthood, discriminatory practices, and widespread stigmatization.

    “My brother and I knew people in our school that had gay and lesbian parents and that did get bullied quite a lot, and that scared us from telling people.”

    More new forms of family coming
    However, even though research on children’s outcomes is clear, the story does not end there, for two reasons. First, the diversity of new family forms seems likely only to expand as science advances and people seek new paths to parenthood. Artificial wombs, eggs, and sperm are just over the horizon. At the University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research, we are already examining children’s outcomes in co-parenting families in which couples are not romantically involved, children are parented by single fathers by choice, and transgender people give birth after they have transitioned.
    These developments pose fresh challenges to what has long been seen as the norm for children to flourish. Let’s hope people avoid repeating over-hasty judgments. We should await the evidence and be calmed by encouraging outcomes from other new forms of family.
    Children are asking for change
    Second, and perhaps more important, there is much more to say about children in these new forms of family, beyond simply logging their long-term outcomes. What is it like for them to grow up in such families? We should listen to their voices, and hear their thoughts and feelings. To that end, our team has conducted many studies gathering children’s stories.
    Through our work, we have found that schools, parents, and the wider society still have much to learn about supporting children in non-traditional families through their experiences, which can be upsetting. The distress is not related to the type of family children have, but because of stigmatization, inadequate communication, and lack of understanding, mainly from those on the periphery of home.
    So, for example, many children with LGBTQ parents have been stigmatized in school, by society, and sometimes by wider family. When we interviewed children of lesbian mothers born in the mid-1960s when they were young adults, almost half reported being teased or bullied as teenagers.
    Stigmatization burdens children
    “I wasn’t allowed to go to my friend’s house anymore,” said Anna. “Her mum and dad forbade me from going anywhere near, and that hurt me because she had been my best friend for a long, long time. I lost that friend. And then, of course, there was a chain reaction. Everybody found out. They said, ‘Don’t go near her, she’ll turn out like her mum.’”
    John was bullied when schoolmates found out about his lesbian mom. “School was one big nightmare really, because I got picked on so much,” he explained. “I had cigarettes stubbed out on the back of my neck, and high-heeled shoes thrown at me, and a bit of hair cut off, and my head chucked down the loo, and that sort of thing.”
    Children have felt the need to clam up about their families because of widespread prejudice. Stacey explained: “My brother and I knew some people in our school that had gay and lesbian parents and that did get bullied quite a lot, and that scared us from telling people. So, we never told anyone. It was hard keeping secrets.”

    “Schools, parents, and wider society still have a lot to learn about supporting children through their experiences.”

    Effective school challenges to prejudice
    Schools must create a positive, supportive environment for such children. It pays off. Carol, 14, highlighted helpful action by her school: “Basically, they spread the word how it’s not very good to say, ‘Oh this is so gay’ or ‘that’s so gay,’ even though it’s used as a different meaning. They tell them that’s wrong and why you shouldn’t say that.” Mike, 17, recalled how a new English teacher, who was gay, made a difference: “He has one of the Stonewall ‘Some People Are Gay, Get Over It’ posters in his classroom. Just seeing the poster in his room is really cool.” As part of our research project, the UK campaign for equality of LGBTQ people, Stonewall, published 10 recommendations from children on how schools can support them and their same-sex parents.
    Children of transgender parents have been bullied and teased in similar ways, and inclusive attitudes by schools can help them. Wendy explained: “I put my hand up and said, ‘I don’t have a dad because my dad’s transgender,’ and I got an award for it ‘cos it was actually really brave of me to say.”
    Tell children what’s happening
    Parents also should consider being more open about what is happening in their families. “It would have helped if he had explained things a bit better,” said Henry, 18, reflecting on when his father transitioned to being a woman. “It wasn’t so much him wearing dresses, but more him being a bit manic and doing strange things.” Chris, 18, advised other children in a similar situation: “Try to get them to communicate with you as much as possible because it’s worse if things are happening and you don’t know why.”
    Children tend to accept, in a matter of fact way, their father’s or mother’s change of gender if it happened while they were little or a long time ago. “Chloe’s always been Chloe,” said Susanna, 14, who was a toddler when her father transitioned. “I don’t remember when it actually happened, so it’s basically been for as long as I remember.”
    Experiencing transition can worry them
     But some children find it difficult when they experience a parent’s transition. They can have fears of loss, which typically pass, but which can be very real during gender transition. Jade, who was six when her father transitioned, was upset about losing her dad: “When she transitioned, I felt like there was a hole in my heart because I missed my dad and every time somebody talked about their dad, I got really upset.” But she grew more accepting. At age nine, Jade reflected: “When she transitioned, it made her a lot happier ‘cos, when she was a boy, she was really unhappy. Ever since she’s transitioned, she’s come home from work, hugged us, and been really happy. It’s changed a lot since she transitioned.”
    Another upset can be rejection of parents by their wider family, so children lose contact with some relatives. Theresa, whose father transitioned when she was six, explained: “People on my mum’s side of the family really struggle with it. Her parents and brothers, and basically everyone over there, cut us off. It made me sad and kind of angry because it’s really no reason to be horrible.”

    “When children found out later, as teenagers or adults, they felt more negatively about how they were conceived and their relationship with their parents.”

    Children should not have to explain their families
    Children may also feel responsible for explaining to the outside world issues such as gender transition. “My problem,” explained Susanna, “has been having to explain to other people constantly because no one really understands.” Josh reported: “Sometimes, random people ask me questions and I have to explain to them. That gets tiring for me.”
    Our research has highlighted issues for children born through assisted reproductive technologies, such as egg, sperm, and embryo donation, or surrogacy. Some children as young as two or three years might ask of a single mother by choice: “Do I have a daddy? Where is he?” Some – but by no means all – especially as they get into their teens, are eager to fill a gap in knowledge about themselves by finding out more about their donor, surrogate, and any half-siblings born to the same donor or surrogate.
    “It’s important to me now . . . I’m always thinking about what she looks like,” explained Sarah, 14, who was born through egg donation. Alex, 14, conceived by sperm donation, said: “I would like to know who he is . . . quite a lot . . . Recently a lot more than I used to.”
    Tell children early about their origins
    We have found that it is generally better to start talking to children early about how they were conceived and born. Children who find out later, as teenagers or adults, tend to feel more negatively about how they were conceived and in their relationships with their parents than children who have had the conversation about their beginnings early. Many parents hold off telling their children, fearing that the children will love them less. However, these fears are unfounded because children who are told early tend to be very accepting, often not particularly interested, and unshocked by learning more as they grow older.
    The risks of not disclosing this information to children have grown with the advent of ancestry sites offering DNA tests, which can suddenly lead unsuspecting children to discover half-siblings and relatives of whom they had no inkling. Children may find their identities destabilized, and learning about their beginnings in this way can undermine their trust in their parents.
    The story of new forms of family is largely good news, of children flourishing, much as we might expect them to do in traditional families, and sometimes doing even better. The composition of their family does not upset them. It is other factors, such as people’s reactions to their family or the lack of information about their origins, that cause them distress. The solutions lie in better understanding, greater societal acceptance of diverse families, swift challenges to prejudice, and openness within families about where their much-wanted children came from. More

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    Pandemic shows children’s well-being depends on parents staying in good mental shape

    The mental health of stressed young people was transformed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic: Many felt better. Anxiety and symptoms of depression dropped among older, high-achieving children in the United States. That was particularly true for students about to graduate from high school, our research in U.S. schools has found.
    Why? Children relaxed … for a bit. COVID-19 provided a full stop to the busyness of some teenage lives. The treadmill of pressure, activities, and commitments halted. Out went crisscrossing among band practice, sports clubs, social activities, and hours of homework into the small hours. Lockdowns brought that high-octane life to a sudden standstill.
    Children got more sleep – they weren’t leaving home at 7 am. Many schools had staggered hours and reduced the pressure, shifting from grading assignments to awarding a pass or fail. Social anxiety was reduced – a teenager didn’t need to worry about being left out of the lunch table or not being invited to parties that no longer happened. Missing out on a romantic relationship didn’t matter as much – kids were not seeing seemingly happy couples at school or at social gatherings.
    But this break didn’t last. As we worked with schools through the arrival of summer, we found that anxiety and depression had risen again among older high school students. Their initial relief morphed into feeling that life was unsettling, scary, and lonely — young people experienced grief about incomplete endings and fears about what might lie ahead.

    “Anxiety and depression dropped initially for older, high-achieving children in the United States.”

    Middle school children less relieved
    Children in middle school did not have even the initial relief – in our survey, anxiety and depression stayed at previous levels for them. That’s probably because virtual communication is more challenging for children of this age. Their peer groups are less well formed and less stable than those of 16- to 18-year-olds. If you are an awkward, insecure 12-year-old with few social connections, it can be easier to casually share confidences with friends at soccer practice or while walking around than to do so from home via Zoom. Self-consciousness kicks in: “Will they like my room?” “Will they see my family?”
    We’ve learned a lot about what helps children of all ages feel good in a period characterized by prolonged uncertainty, with no end in sight. Two predictors of their well-being stand out: the well-being of parents and the supportiveness of teachers.
    Photo: kris krüg. Creative Commons.

    Parents and teachers vital for resilience
    First, we found strong, unique links between adolescents’ depression and anxiety and whether they felt their parents were coping well. When children felt their parents maintained a calm, stable home and were in good enough shape to provide emotional support, they were likely to be doing well. This was true across ages, genders, and races. Our finding is in sync with a major report published last year on children’s well-being by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Its take-home message: If you want children to do well, the single most important step is to ensure that the parents are doing well themselves.

    “When children felt their parents maintained a calm, stable home and were in good enough shape to provide emotional support, they were likely to be doing well.”

    Second, our research found that the support of key adults – and teachers in particular – was vital to children in maintaining their well-being. In open-ended questions on what was going well in their schools, children and youth responded most often with answers such as, “My teacher cares about me and reaches out to me,” and ‘I really like that my teachers check in on how I’m feeling and not just my school work.”
    Parents need proper care 
    These two observations should inform practice and policy. The first highlights that we need to expand the focus of policy and practice beyond just styles of parenting. Children’s well-being depends not simply on quality of care but is linked directly to parents’ own well-being. During the pandemic, adults – just like children – also require love, gentleness, comfort, and stability. This helps the adults ensure that their children feel well looked after.
    “Burned out” teachers need help, too
    Teachers’ welfare is also important, not just for its own sake, but also because these adults provide valuable care and support for students. During the pandemic, we surveyed U.S. teachers’ well-being. Stress rates stayed steady, but clinically significant burnout has risen sharply among educators since March 2020. The risk factors seem to be lack of clarity about what they are required to do and blurry boundaries between work and recreation. These findings reflect how many teachers have worked long hours and had few breaks over the summer. Their needs should also be supported, especially if they are to play their role in bolstering children’s resilience.
    Which aspects of home life were most helpful?
    Our research about children during the COVID-19 pandemic identified three factors, , that reliably predicted anxiety and depression in children. By far the most important was having a low-quality relationship with parents. Following this was lack of structure to the day (separating time for leisure or fun), and high levels of distraction or inability to focus on schoolwork.
    Parents and schools can help address each of these factors. For parents, the challenge in these very difficult circumstances is to stay well themselves. Stress levels have risen for all and it is important that parents share their burdens with others and, where necessary – and if they can – seek professional help.
    Manage technology, expectations, and assignments
    For schools, an important task is to support their teachers well. Professional development programs must address directly the psychological burdens educators take on as they support their students through the pandemic. For students, schools should ensure that their days are well-structured and that lessons are not too long. Online technology should be streamlined so children are not juggling between different platforms. Educators should scale back expectations and focus on the core skills children need, letting go of much of the rest. Teachers should coordinate with other teachers when making assignments and scheduling due dates. It doesn’t take much figuring out to ensure, for example, that Monday is science homework day, Tuesday is math homework day, and so on. This helps children have a predictable and manageable week.
    None of us should forget, if life begins to return to how it once was, that there was something wrong with the overly busy schedules of many children’s lives. The figures for serious anxiety and depression tell the story. COVID-19 has brought its own problems, but the temporary sense of relaxation it has offered some children shows that life was not that healthy beforehand. Children deserve better than the old normal.
    Header photo: Unsplash.  More

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    Parents are the greatest influence on children’s learning, but how can this influence be harnessed?

    Demonstrate to your children the value of education – that’s one of the most important ways a parent can encourage their learning. This is true the world over, although parents have various ways to highlight this value. If parents succeed in convincing their children of the importance of education and can mobilize the resources to provide support, children typically stay in school and do well.
    Many of the important contributions from parents do not require money or qualifications. Support can begin with a simple question: “What are you learning about at school?” Parents can bring an extra perspective to what children are studying: “I don’t know if you have heard about this…?” can open a discussion. For example, parents might mention climate change and ask how it fits in with, say, science at school. They can extend what the child is doing in class and bring it home: “What do you think we can do? Can we recycle?” These conversations express that parents value education and support their children.

    “Parental involvement in children’s education is important in every country. However, the way that involvement takes place varies greatly.”

    Parents also set an example. They can let children see them reading for themselves, so parents are not always on their phones and do not leave a television on constantly in the background. Reading with children, especially in the early years, is highly beneficial. But if parents have low literacy skills, just talking with children and telling them stories, even if not from a book, help build language skills.
    Parental involvement varies globally
    Parental involvement in children’s education is important in every country. However, the way that involvement takes place varies greatly. In some low-income countries, where even low school fees for uniforms, books, or transport can break the family budget, parents show their commitment to their children’s learning by making considerable sacrifices to meet the costs. Sometimes, they manage it only for some members of the family: Perhaps the younger siblings are sent to school while the older ones work to pay the expenses. In Kenya, the best schools tend to be boarding, with children living away from home for many months. If they can, parents show how they value education by paying the fees even though that means losing out on face-to-face childrearing.
    In the United States, one of the most important parental contributions to children’s learning is choosing where the family lives. There are thousands of individual school systems, with different books, curricula, and pedagogical strategies; Americans with financial resources often decide where to make their homes based on the school system they want for their children. The location of a school matters much less in China, where schools are more standardized, and where there is a national curriculum and national pedagogical strategies and textbooks. Parents in China and other Asian countries such as the Philippines and Thailand tend to focus more on home support, helping with homework and making sure that children have a designated time and place to study.
    Photo: Pass the Torch. Creative Commons.

    Mobilizing parents’ educational input
    How can formal education use parents effectively – harness their social capital – for learning? Cultural norms vary. In some places, such as the United States, parents are  expected to volunteer in their children’s classrooms, work at book fairs or other events, or help with fundraising. Jordan has mandatory parents’ councils, which involve parents directly with administrators and teachers. Many countries have variations of this concept. Sometimes the goal is for teachers to communicate what is happening in the classroom and guide parents on how they can support their children’s learning. These initiatives generally work better if they are universally available and non-stigmatizing, rather than focusing solely on parents of children who are struggling. However, some countries (e.g., China) have eschewed these models and generally, parents are not seen in classrooms or at schools there.
    Few models harness the support fathers can bring to their children’s education – in fact, much of the research and practice related to parental involvement focuses on mothers. But some countries have recognized the potential of involving fathers. In Jordan, when organizers of a parenting program saw that success mainly involved mothers, imams were recruited to spread messages about parenting to dads at Friday prayers.
    The greatest influence is at home 
    Home is typically where parents make the most difference in their children’s education. Parents often ask how much help they should give with homework. It is good to lend a hand if children are struggling at school, with the parent acting like a tutor to help children understand or practice reading with text support. But some parents go too far and take over, making children feel that they cannot do it on their own. Children need to feel efficacious.
    School learning systems can clash with family and cultural systems. This is true where schools adopt, for example, English or French as the language of instruction, when children are fluent in different mother tongues and much less able to communicate in these other languages. In the Philippines, for example, new laws require instruction during primary school in mother tongue languages because many parents were uncomfortable with the main languages being English or Filipino, which prevented them from being involved in their children’s education. In many countries, language policy has disconnected learning at school from interactions at home and hindered parents’ ability to be involved in their children’s education.

    “A major issue in education – which parents can influence considerably – is maintaining children’s mental health and well-being.”

    Parents can support mental health
    A major issue in education – which parents can influence considerably – is maintaining children’s mental health and well-being. Placing a high emphasis on academic achievement can lead to anxiety and symptoms of depression in children. This often occurs where high-stakes examinations provide a narrow gateway to further opportunities, perhaps because a country has limited resources for funding education or elite institutions cherry-pick students.
    High-stakes testing, particularly in Asian countries, fosters concerns that academic success is achieved at the expense of children’s mental health. Sweden offers a contrasting example, thanks partly to its wealth, with a good intersection between family values and the school system: Both support students having varied paths of study that reflect their individual interests. And Sweden does not have the barriers to higher education found in some countries, which generate so much examination anxiety.
    It is much easier to highlight parental practices – such as physical punishment – that are universally bad for children than it is to identify evidence on which practices are universally good. But the level of variation suggests that parents and education systems should look elsewhere and ask: “Should we try that here?”
    Header photo: Nenad Stojkovic. Creative Commons. More