Educating the whole child: The pandemic, child maltreatment, and socioemotional development in the classroom
Globally, about 1 billion 2- to 17-year-olds experience maltreatment in a given year 1. There is concern that children may be at even greater risk of maltreatment during the COVID-19 pandemic 2-9. Rates of child maltreatment have risen in past times of economic uncertainty, disaster, and emergency 10-15. 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 networks 6. 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 children 16-18.
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 2019 19. In the United Kingdom, another hospital reported a 1493% increase in abusive head trauma in children in the first month of national self-isolation 20. 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 2019 21. 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 others 22. Many countries have worked to ensure that helplines remain operational during the pandemic, as crucial lifelines 22. But only some governments have designated social workers as “essential” so that they can continue to provide standard child protection services 23.
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 trends 24. Similarly, the number of allegations was 27% lower than expected in Florida for March and April 2020 25. And in New York City, fewer allegations were reported than expected in March (-29%), April (-52%), and May (-46%) 2020 26. 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 Germany 28. School closures mean a lack of access to the primary reporters of allegations: education personnel e.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 environments e.g., 29,30-32. Educators have the opportunity to nurture health and development through positive relationships e.g., 33. Trauma-informed education typically focuses on socioemotional learning e.g., 34,35, helping children to learn or rebuild emotional, self-regulation, and relationship skills. In turn, socioemotional skills are related to academic achievement 36. Socioemotional experiences, both positive and negative, affect brain development and learning 37. Trauma-informed education can also focus on strengths, such as psychological resources the child already has that can be built on for success e.g., 38,39. Children can demonstrate remarkable resilience e.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) domains e.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-being e.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 access 45, but more evidence is needed regarding how best to implement and resource such school-based programs in low- and middle-income countries 46. 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 pandemic 4, 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 children e.g., 50. All child maltreatment is preventable.
- Hillis, S., Mercy, J., Amobi, A. & Kress, H. Global prevalence of past-year violence against children: a systematic review and minimum estimates. Pediatrics 137, e20154079, doi:10.1542/peds.2015-4079 (2016).
- Ashikkali, L., Carroll, W. & Johnson, C. The indirect impact of COVID-19 on child health. Pediatrics and Child Health, doi:10.1016/j.paed.2020.09.004 (in press).
- The Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action. Technical note: protection of children during the coronavirus pandemic. 1-21 (2020).
- The Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, End Violence Against Children, UNICEF & WHO. COVID-19: protecting children from violence, abuse and neglect in the home. (2020).
- United Nations. Policy brief: the impact of COVID-19 on children. (United Nations, New York, NY, 2020).
- Rosenthal, C. M. & Thompson, L. A. Child abuse awareness month during the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic. JAMA Pediatrics 174, 812, doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2020.1459 (2020).
- Pereda, N. & Díaz-Faes, D. A. Family violence against children in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic: a review of current perspectives and risk factors. Child and Adolescent Mental Health 14, 1-7, doi:10.1186/s13034-020-00347-1 (2020).
- Campbell, A. M. An increasing risk of family violence during the COVID-19 pandemic: strengthening community collaborations to save lives. Forensic Science International: Reports 2, 100089, doi:10.1016/j.fsir.2020.100089 (2020).
- Romanou, E., Belton, E. & NSPCC Evidence team. Isolated and struggling: social isolation and the risk of child maltreatment, in lockdown and beyond. (NSPCC, 2020).
- Becker-Blease, K. A., Turner, H. A. & Finkelhor, D. Disasters, victimization, and children’s mental health. Child Dev. 81, 1040-1052, doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01453.x (2010).
- Huang, M. I. et al. Increased incidence of nonaccidental head trauma in infants associated with the economic recession. Journal of Neurosurgery: Pediatrics 8, 171-176, doi:10.3171/2011.5.PEDS1139 (2011).
- Peterman, A. et al. Pandemics and violence against women and children. Working Paper 528, 1-43 (Center for Global Development, Washington, DC, 2020).
- Seddighi, H., Slamni, I., Javadi, M. H. & Seddighi, S. Child abuse in natural disasters and conflicts: a systematic review. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse 22, 176-185, doi:10.1177/1524838019835973 (2019).
- Brooks-Gunn, J., Schneider, W. & Waldfogel, J. The Great Recession and the risk for child maltreatment. Child Abuse Negl. 37, 721-729, doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2013.08.004 (2013).
- Schneider, W., Waldfogel, J. & Brooks-Gunn, J. The Great Recession and risk for child abuse and neglect. Children and Youth Services Review 72, 71-81, doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2016.10.016 (2017).
- Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. Building core capabilities for life: the science behind the skills adults need to succeed in parenting and in the workplace. (2016).
- Griffith, A. K. Parental burnout and child maltreatment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Family Violence, doi:10.1007/s10896-020-00172-2 (in press).
- Lawson, M., Piel, M. H. & Simon, M. Child maltreatment during the COVID-19 pandemic: consequences of parental job loss on psychological and physical abuse towards children. Child Abuse Negl., doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2020.104709 (in press).
- Kovler, M. L. et al. Increased proportion of physical child abuse injuries at a level I pediatric trauma center during the Covid-19 pandemic. Child Abuse Negl., doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2020.104756 (in press).
- Sidpra, J., Abomeli, D., Hameed, B., Baker, J. & Mankad, K. Rise in the incidence of abusive head trauma during the COVID-19 pandemic. Arch. Dis. Child., doi:10.1136/archdischild-2020-319872 (in press).
- Fouché, A., Fouché, D. F. & Theron, L. C. Child protection and resilience in the face of COVID-19 in South Africa: a rapid review of C-19 legislation. Child Abuse Negl., doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2020.104710 (in press).
- Petrowski, N., Cappa, C., Pereira, A., Mason, H. & Daban, R. A. Violence against children during COVID-19: assessing and understanding change in use of helplines. Child Abuse Negl., doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2020.104757 (in press).
- Fore, H. H. & Cappa, C. Violence against children in the time of COVID-19: what we have learned, what remains unknown and the opportunities that lie ahead. Child Abuse Negl., doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2020.104776 (in press).
- Barboza, G. E., Schiamberg, L. B. & Pachl, L. A spatiotemporal analysis of the impact of COVID-19 on child abuse and neglect in the city of Los Angeles, California. Child Abuse Negl., doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2020.104740 (in press).
- Baron, E. J., Goldstein, E. G. & Wallace, C. T. Suffering in silence: how COVID-19 school closures inhibit the reporting of child maltreatment. Journal of Public Economics 190, 104258, doi:10.1016/j.jpubeco.2020.104258 (2020).
- Rapoport, E., Reisert, H., Schoeman, E. & Adesman, A. Reporting of child maltreatment during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic in New York City from March to May 2020. Child Abuse Negl., doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2020.104719 (in press).
- Children First Canada, University of Calgary O’Brien Institute for Public Health & Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute. Raising Canada 2020: top 10 threats to childhood in Canada and the impact of COVID-19. (2020).
- Jentsch, B. & Schnock, B. Child welfare in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic – emerging evidence from Germany. Child Abuse Negl., doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2020.104716 (in press).
- Crosby, S. D. An ecological perspective on emerging trauma-informed teaching practices. Children & Schools 37, 223-230, doi:10.1093/cs/cdv027 (2015).
- Cole, S. F., O’Brien, J. G., Gadd, M. G., Ristuccia, J. & Wallace, D. L. Helping traumatized children learn: supportive school environments for children traumatized by family violence. (Massachusetts Advocates for Children, Boston, MA, 2005).
- Crosby, S. D., Howell, P. & Thomas, S. Social justice education through trauma-informed teaching. Middle School Journal 49, 15-23, doi:10.1080/00940771.2018.1488470 (2018).
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. SAMHSA’s concept of trauma and guidance for a trauma-informed approach. (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville, MD, 2014).
- Osher, D., Cantor, P., Berg, J., Steyer, L. & Rose, T. Drivers of human development: how relationships and context shape learning and development. Applied Developmental Science 24, 6-36, doi:10.1080/10888691.2017.1398650 (2020).
- Osher, D. et al. Advancing the science and practice of social and emotional learning: looking back and moving forward. Review of Research in Education 40, 644-681, doi:10.3102/0091732X16673595 (2016).
- Weissberg, R., Durlak, J. A., Domitrovich, C. E. & Gullotta, T. P. Why social and emotional learning is essential for students, in Edutopia, https://www.edutopia.org/blog/why-sel-essential-for-students-weissberg-durlak-domitrovich-gullotta (2016).
- Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D. & Schellinger, K. B. The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: a meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Dev. 82, 405-432, doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01564.x (2011).
- Immordino-Yang, M. H., Darling-Hammond, L. & Krone, C. R. Nurturing nature: how brain development is inherently social and emotional, and what this means for education. Educational Psychologist 54, 185-204, doi:10.1080/00461520.2019.1633924 (2019).
- Brunzell, T., Stokes, H. & Waters, L. Trauma-informed positive education: using positive psychology to strengthen vulnerable students. Contemporary School Psychology 20, 63-83, doi:10.1007/s40688-015-0070-x (2016).
- Brunzell, T., Stokes, H. & Waters, L. Shifting teacher practice in trauma-affected classrooms: practice pedagogy strategies within a trauma-informed positive education model. School Mental Health 11, 600-614, doi:10.1007/s12310-018-09308-8 (2019).
- Cicchetti, D. Annual research review: resilient functioning in maltreated children – past, present, and future perspectives. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 54, 402-422, doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2012.02608.x (2013).
- Diamond, A. Interrelated and interdependent. Developmental Science 10, 152-158, doi:10.1111/j.1467-7687.2007.00578.x (2007).
- Diamond, A. The evidence base for improving school outcomes by addressing the whole child and by addressing skills and attitudes, not just content. Early Education and Development 21, 780-793, doi:10.1080/10409289.2010.514522 (2010).
- Cantor, P., Osher, D., Berg, J., Steyer, L. & Rose, T. Malleability, plasticity, and individuality: how children learn and develop in context. Applied Developmental Science 23, 307-337, doi:10.1080/10888691.2017.1398649 (2019).
- Jaffee, S. R. & Christian, C. W. The biological embedding of child abuse and neglect: implications for policy and practice. Social Policy Report 28, 3-19, doi:10.1002/j.2379-3988.2014.tb00078.x (2014).
- Fazel, M., Hoagwood, K., Stephan, S. & Ford, T. Mental health interventions in schools in high-income countries. Lancet Psychiatry 1, 377-387, doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(14)70312-8 (2014).
- Fazel, M., Patel, V., Thomas, S. & Tol, W. Mental health interventions in schools in low-income and middle-income countries. Lancet Psychiatry 1, 388-398, doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(14)70357-8 (2014).
- M’jid, N. M. Hidden scars: the impact of violence and the COVID-19 pandemic on children’s mental health. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health 14, 1-3, doi:10.1186/s13034-020-00340-8 (2020).
- Inter-agency Working Group on Violence against Children. Agenda for action. (United Nations, New York, NY, 2020).
- Reading, R. et al. Promotion of children’s right and prevention of child maltreatment. Lancet 373, 332-343, doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(08)61709-2 (2009).
- Bérubé, A. et al. How societal responses to COVID-19 could contribute to child neglect. Child Abuse Negl., doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2020.104761 (in press).