Prof Sarah-Jayne Blakemore: The impact of the pandemic, lockdown and school closures on adolescent social development

Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore

Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience

Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge

 

Most children and young people have missed at least 10 weeks of face-to-face schooling, and many students (especially teenagers) are still unable to return to their classrooms. This has created vast inequalities in education, with a large number of children and young people not having received any teacher-led learning at all. This is due to a range of factors including disparities in the resources and abilities schools have to provide online teaching. At the same time, a significant number of students do not have appropriate access to a laptop, wi-fi or a home environment conducive to online school. Children who were already disadvantaged have become more so.

Being absent from school not only deprives children and young people of academic learning, but also a number of other opportunities important for their development. Schools provide structure and daily opportunities for social and emotional learning, autonomous decision making, planning, self-regulation, creativity and physical activity. Play and social interaction with peers are crucial at all stages of development, and school closures and social distancing have removed many sources of face-to-face social connection from children and young people’s lives (1).

For some students who have tumultuous home lives, school provides a safe place and teachers can be a source of independent support and help. Teachers play a crucial safeguarding role in identifying vulnerable children and signposting support in cases of maltreatment, neglect or abuse, signs of mental health problems, criminal behaviour or radicalisation.

My lab’s research over the past eighteen years has focused on social brain development in adolescence. Research from my lab and from other labs has demonstrated the crucial importance of social interaction and social learning in adolescence, which is a sensitive period of social brain development (2). Adolescence is also a period of vulnerability to mental health problems and there is a real risk that the lack of structure, support, social-emotional learning and face-to-face peer interaction due to ongoing school closures will exacerbate this vulnerability, resulting in a mental health crisis amongst the younger generation (3) . The social-emotional and wellbeing needs of children and young people urgently need to be addressed.

 

Full list of papers from my lab can be found here:

https://sites.google.com/site/blakemorelab/publications/peer-reviewed-papers

 

29th June 2020.

[Photo credit: Brainstorm, by Company Three (www.companythree.co.uk), photography by Camilla Greenwell]