Educating the whole child: The pandemic, child maltreatment, and socioemotional development in the classroom

Educating the whole child: The pandemic, child maltreatment, and socioemotional development in the classroom
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the risk of child maltreatment. Teaching and learning socioemotional skills may become even more important as children return to classrooms.
Professor, Department of Education, Dartmouth College, United States

Globally, about 1 billion 2- to 17-year-olds experience maltreatment in a given year1. There is concern that children may be at even greater risk of maltreatment during the COVID-19 pandemic2-9. Rates of child maltreatment have risen in past times of economic uncertainty, disaster, and emergency10-15. During this pandemic, lockdowns and school closures have been additional risk factors. Children at home due to school and childcare closures lose access to social support and care networks6. As time in isolation extends, family stress levels (for example, as related to childcare and home-schooling, the illness itself, fear, job loss, and economic upheaval) rise. One outcome is that parents may not have the capability to provide a stable, safe environment for their children16-18.

Preliminary data on maltreatment during the COVID-19 pandemic are sobering. In the month following the closure of childcare centers in the state of Maryland in the United States, one pediatric trauma center reported a doubling of physical abuse cases compared to the same time period in 201919. In the United Kingdom, another hospital reported a 1493% increase in abusive head trauma in children in the first month of national self-isolation20. In South Africa, contacts to a child-dedicated crisis line in April 2020 increased 67%, with reports of abuse 62% higher than in the same period in 201921. Around the world, the number of contacts to helplines increased in the first six months of the pandemic; however, contacts related to violence increased in some countries but decreased in others22. Many countries have worked to ensure that helplines remain operational during the pandemic, as crucial lifelines22. But only some governments have designated social workers as “essential” so that they can continue to provide standard child protection services23.

Overall, the number of allegations of abuse has tended to decrease during the pandemic. This raises the concern that children who are being abused and neglected and do need help are not being identified. In the United States, for example, the Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline for Los Angeles county reported a 50% decrease in child maltreatment allegations in April 2020, although different areas within the county showed different trends24. Similarly, the number of allegations was 27% lower than expected in Florida for March and April 202025. And in New York City, fewer allegations were reported than expected in March (-29%), April (-52%), and May (-46%) 202026. This pattern is not just seen in the United States. Overall volume of suspected child abuse reports has also declined in Canada, between 30 and 40%27, and in Germany28. School closures mean a lack of access to the primary reporters of allegations: education personnele.g., 25.

Education systems are an important resource for intervention against maltreatment and its impacts. Teachers can serve as protectors beyond reporting allegations. As part of a team of caring adults in a child’s life, teachers can provide trauma-informed education for their students. This involves building reliable relationships and creating supportive, predictable, and safe environmentse.g., 29,30-32. Educators have the opportunity to nurture health and development through positive relationshipse.g., 33. Trauma-informed education typically focuses on socioemotional learninge.g., 34,35, helping children to learn or rebuild emotional, self-regulation, and relationship skills. In turn, socioemotional skills are related to academic achievement36. Socioemotional experiences, both positive and negative, affect brain development and learning37. Trauma-informed education can also focus on strengths, such as psychological resources the child already has that can be built on for successe.g., 38,39. Children can demonstrate remarkable resiliencee.g., 40 with the support of caring and informed adults. “The deleterious effects of maltreatment on biological and psychological development are not inevitable”40, p. 414.

Child development and learning are incredibly complex processes involving dynamic interactions across physical, social, emotional, cognitive, cultural, neurological, academic, and contextual (et cetera) domainse.g., 33,41,42,43. If a goal of education is to guide and support the development of the whole child, we must address the physical, psychological, and socioemotional toll of maltreatment in our classrooms. This may require an expansion of our focus in schools beyond just welfare to well-beinge.g., 44. This must come in addition to providing children access to specialized, culturally-appropriate medical and mental health services. Integration of evidence-based mental health services within schools can democratize access45, but more evidence is needed regarding how best to implement and resource such school-based programs in low- and middle-income countries46. This is a pressing need as even more children who have experienced maltreatment begin returning to our classrooms as the pandemic wanes. We must find evidence-based ways to take care of and educate these children.

Whereas staying home has been effective for limiting the spread of disease, for some children, staying home has not been staying safe. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the risk of child maltreatment and decreased the ability of educators, child protective services, and mental health practitioners to respond. Failure to recognize education, child protection, and provision of mental health support as essential services and prioritize child safety both during and after the pandemic “will undermine the international community’s ability to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 and to fulfil its obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child”47, p. 1.

A consortium of international agencies has released guidelines related to “the goal of strengthening the protection of children in all types of homes” during the pandemic4, p. 1, see also 48. These guidelines are also applicable after the pandemic has ended:

  • Influence social norms and related behaviors to better safeguard children [at home]
  • Provide access to positive parenting resources
  • Strengthen the role of schools and education actors to support children in distress
  • Strengthen and adapt child helplines
  • Raise awareness in professionals who have contact with children of their roles in identifying and reporting signs of maltreatment
  • Support families in distress
  • Designate and support child protection as an essential service
  • Adapt and continue specialized services for children and families

Maltreatment is a public health issue requiring protective services. It is also a rights issue, as “part of a range of violence, harm, and exploitation of children at the individual, institutional, and societal levels”49, p. 332. At the individual and institutional levels, teachers and schools can work to prevent and counteract negative effects of maltreatment. At the societal level, we are all responsible for the safety, well-being, and development of our childrene.g., 50. All child maltreatment is preventable.


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