Pandemic lessons for children’s resilience

“They say it takes a village to raise a child, but the village has become deserted. The hard times have multiplied, from school losses to mental health problems. Therefore, it is important to build data to track children’s development through adulthood and document actions to mitigate risk factors. Ms. Côté spoke at an international conference entitled What are the effects of the pandemic on children ?, recently organized by OPES.

It all starts in school. Carla Haelermans, Professor of Educational Economics at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, is therefore interested in the closure of classes and its impact on young people. “Nearly 168 million children around the world have come home to learn. Repeated class closures and online schooling have had many negative effects on children’s learning, ”says the researcher.

His recent study reveals that homeschooling in the Netherlands has led to many learning losses in reading, spelling and math, especially among the most vulnerable.

To take the pulse of these disorders, researchers conducted two standardized tests with 300,000 elementary school students in March 2021 and February 2022 – tests usually held six weeks earlier to assess learning. They compared with results collected three times before Covid (2017, 2019 and 2020). For example, they found a 7-point drop in math and spelling in 2021 – and in math it’s worse in 2022, while for spelling it looks like the losses for the first year have dropped in 2022 of the second year.

But it is not the same for everyone. The results show significant inequalities in terms of learning loss, based on parental education and income, in addition to the inequalities that already existed before Covid-19, notes Carla Haelermans. “There were losses for all groups of students, but it was worse for those whose parents are more disadvantaged. The strategies put in place have not been able to catch up and it will take a long time to catch up.”

The absence of catching up in mathematics in February 2022, but also in certain other learnings, was a surprise to her, for if the decline was expected for the first year, it was less for the second. “There has been no return to normal yet. The virus is still there and regularly disrupts the learning of many students.”

The pandemic has had an impact on all students and even the smartest, adds Kristof De Witte, professor of economics at KU Leuven University, Belgium. “Many studies show that learning loss and inequality are linked. We have seen a decline everywhere: in French, in mathematics, in science and in languages.” And although in Belgium it stopped in mathematics and science, “it continued to decline in the language after one year “, reports the researcher.

The same in Quebec

The same in Quebec. “We see a decrease: 69% success in 2021 compared to 77% in 2019. This varies according to the schools, because the more they have experienced closures or interruptions in education, the less they manage to maintain their level”, notes professor in the Department of Economics at UQAM, Catherine Haeck.

At the OPES symposium, she and her colleague Simon Larose from the Department of Education and Learning at Laval University presented the results of a study (to be published) on learning and guidance in a pandemic context.

Conducted as part of their Resilience in Learning project, which brings together 275 schools and 12,000 children, the study analyzes the Ministry of Education’s 2019 test as young people aged 4 years.e years have passed in 2021. ”For those who do well, there is no change, while there is a decline in those who already did worse in school. »

Catherine Haeck notes that school delays decrease when school has been open more often; a factor that is also linked to an increase in motivation among students. She notices a link between school results and low parental income. Several disadvantaged children have had a harder time coping with the pandemic.

In addition to the 70-day initial school closures during the first incarceration, there have been repeated closures. These missed days are already being felt by those who struggle the most on the school benches. “There is a gap between average students and those who are even weaker. There are many delays in reading, from the 2nde primary school, and many students do not even hold their pencils in the right way. There is also a decrease in motivation at 3e cycle “, presents in turn the teacher at the Saint-Joseph School in Sainte-Adèle, Hélène Lecavalier.

What young people are going through …

And the problem does not stop with learning. “At the school level, there is also a decrease in interpersonal skills, an increase in stress and a greater lack of respect on the part of students towards their peers and even towards staff,” the teacher adds.

It is a warning sign that the mental health of young people has been affected by all these disorders.

Admittedly, several mental health experts have already seen an increase in anxiety and symptoms of depression among high school youth during the pandemic. However, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at McGill University, Marie-Claude Geoffroy, notes that this is not a recent problem.

The researcher reports an increase in suicide attempts of 6 to 9% between 2009 and 2019 and an increase of 11% to 19% for suicidal thoughts in the same years.

“Youth insanity was present before the health crisis. However, this has become a bit accentuated with an increase in anxiety and suicidal thoughts (one in four young people) among teenagers, especially girls. Even the less vulnerable have become more anxious, ”sums up Pre Geoffroy.

Regarding young adults (18-25 years), a recent study shows a 6% to 9% increase in severe depression after a year of pandemic and an increase of 10 to 14% in those suffering from moderate anxiety. “Let us also remember that 70% of mental health problems occur before the age of 25, and therefore we need to increase access to resources for the youngest,” notes Pre Geoffroy.

Since 2013, a few young Quebecers in high school have been closely studied by COMPASS project researchers. “We have also seen the increase in inequalities during the health crisis: more difficulties in school and a higher level of mental symptoms, especially among young girls aged 15-16 from disadvantaged backgrounds,” sums up Dr. Mucus. Haddad, full professor in the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine at the Faculty of Medicine at Laval University.

This research project originally developed by the University of Waterloo (Ontario) brings together in 2022 113 schools or 50,000 young people from 6 regions of Quebec. Through regular 45-minute questionnaires with secondary 1 to 5 students, researchers collect data on their health, diet, learning, and behaviors, such as time in front of screens, physical activity, or drug use.

These are ways for researchers to assess the effectiveness of health-promoting interventions on students because they can follow them throughout high school.

For as many scientists reminded us during this day, we must be able to measure in order to act. “It is a hybrid project and not just a research project. We want to promote communities of practice and develop interactions between schools and their communities, e.g. through innovation competitions, and validate the impact of actions taken with young people, ”adds Dr. Haddad.

“We did not come to terms with such a long pandemic, so how do we balance the risk of disease with the effects on society,” asks Caroline Quach-Than, professor of microbiology, infectious disease and immunology and pediatrics at the University of Montreal.

She argues for the importance of no longer working in silos, but instead of monitoring education and health, maintaining the tools that provide important data, but also monitoring our selection bias. “We need to have the entire population in our data, including the most vulnerable,” she adds.

Out of the crisis

What could be the strategies to mitigate the negative consequences of the pandemic?

Many experts have stressed the importance of keeping schools open, despite the virus circulating. “Quebec has kept its schools open longer than elsewhere, compared to, say, Ontario, and despite the concerns, it was the right decision to make,” said Nicholas Mazellier, assistant deputy secretary of education in Quebec.

“The school represents a safety net for vulnerable and disadvantaged students,” said Dominic Bertrand, Director General of the Marguerite-Bourgeoy School Service Center.

It depends first and foremost on the teachers. “A well-equipped teacher means that 80% of the students are able to succeed. For the others, there is a need for targeted (15%) or more individualized (5%) approaches. We must value the teaching staff and not solve the problem of unqualified replacements, ”continues Dominic Bertrand.

At Saint-Adèle Primary School, where Hélène Lecavalier teaches, the addition of a reading aid service three times a week since the autumn, with an intern, has helped a lot. We also made matings between the little ones and the older ones, ”explains the teacher.

Guidance, mentioned several times, would also be one of the important mitigating measures. “We have been thinking of pedagogical mutual assistance and guidance for almost 170,000 students from January 2021 to respond to the special situation and its challenges,” notes Nicholas Mazellier.

Guidance is also Université Laval professor Simon Larose’s workhorse. He presented the FORTUNE project (training in guidance for new and future teachers): “It is a program made in collaboration with all the school’s stakeholders. It aims to develop multidisciplinary knowledge (matching, how to initiate relationships, didactics, essential content, etc.) and based on research evidence ”. From next fall, this project, linked to the elementary French program, will be tested in 30 Quebec schools to be evaluated in 2023-24 before being implemented on a large scale across the province.

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