The hidden crisis and the great un-leveller

The hidden crisis and the great un-leveller

16th March 2021

Beth, TLG's Policy Lead, outlines why COVID-19 has not been a leveller, but has further deepened existing inequalities - including around children's emotional wellbeing.

At the core of TLG’s work is the unrelenting commitment to show every child that they have hope and a future, no matter their circumstances. Every child deserves to be given that belief in themselves and in what they can achieve, despite what may have gone before in matters beyond their control.

Right now, we are all surrounded by one particular circumstance that is beyond all of our control – the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic has overturned all our lives to varying degrees. Towards the beginning of the pandemic, people started to call it a ‘leveller’, that ‘we were all in the same storm’. However, while we may have been in the same storm, we were certainly not in the same boat and COVID-19 has shown itself to further ‘un-level’ some of the existing inequalities in our society.

For children, those existing inequalities were already growing. Evidence was starting to show that the already far-too-wide attainment gap was starting to widen again. School exclusion statistics also highlighted inequalities. Prior to the pandemic, children on Free School Meals (FSM) were four times more likely to be excluded than their peers (Department for Education, 2019) and children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) accounted for nearly half of all fixed-term and permanent exclusions in 2017/18 (National Audit Office, 2019).

Similarly, while everyone has had their emotional wellbeing impacted in some way by the pandemic, this too has not been an equal experience, highlighting how various factors can affect children’s emotional wellbeing.

As reported in our briefing paper, ‘The Hidden Crisis: The impact of COVID-19 on children’s emotional health, the link to exclusions, and how a trauma-responsive approach can help reduce the long-term effects’, these inequalities also existed prior to the pandemic.

You can read ‘The Hidden Crisis’ here.

There are a variety of factors that cause these inequalities. These include poverty, ethnicity, physical health conditions and experience of violence or abuse (Centre for Mental Health, 2020).

Likewise, children’s experience of lockdown will not have been the same. Many of the above factors also made people more vulnerable to the effects of the current crisis, or can cause inequality of experience in other aspects of life, which in turn can impact their emotional wellbeing further. For children exposed to trauma, the risk of a more severe impact during the pandemic was also even greater (Centre for Mental Health, 2020).

As children have had varying experiences of COVID-19 and the impact of it on their emotional wellbeing, so children will also need individualised support in response. As recommended in ‘The Hidden Crisis’, schools need to be equipped and empowered to prioritise support for children’s wellbeing upon the return to school – with a particular focus on those children who are more vulnerable to the impact of COVID-19 on their emotional health, as listed above.

If we do not give children the support they critically need, it could affect them for the rest of their lives. ‘The Hidden Crisis’ outlines the link between unsupported emotional wellbeing and school exclusions. A trauma-responsive approach teaches that what we often label ‘bad behaviour’ is actually a cry for help. When children’s emotions are heightened, this can outplay in their actions at school, leading to reprimand. This results in a negative spiral of further anxiety, leading to further outbreaks of emotion and further reprimanding – ultimately leading to exclusion from school.

As children deal with the emotional health and wellbeing crisis triggered by COVID-19, there is a heightened risk of more children being trapped in this cycle and being excluded as a result. That is why we are calling for trauma-responsive and early intervention-focused practices to be the norm across all schools and children’s work, to help children break that cycle of spiralling emotional ill-health and instead learn healthy regulation strategies and coping mechanisms.

The unequal experience of emotional health as outlined above is not COVID-specific, so long-term action is needed to permanently tackle the decline in children’s wellbeing. That is why, in ‘The Hidden Crisis’, we also call for a new ‘Early Intervention Taskforce’, to develop new and innovative ways to intervene earlier in a struggling child’s life, with their recommendations being met with sufficient government resources.

We cannot allow children’s lives to be defined by events they had no control over, nor allow these inequalities to hamper any child’s determination to succeed. We cannot allow the un-levelling brought about by COVID-19 to endure for the years to come. There are a number of practical and simple recommendations, as outlined in ‘The Hidden Crisis’, that will go some way to help with this.

To find out more about what a trauma-responsive approach looks like, how it can help alleviate the wellbeing pressures facing children and tackle inequalities in emotional wellbeing, read ‘The Hidden Crisis’ here.

Beth Prescott

Beth Prescott

Before coming to TLG, Beth worked as a Fundraising Project Manager for poverty-relief charity Christians Against Poverty. Beth also has expansive experience in the political sector. Beth is a season ticket holder at Huddersfield Town and enjoys hiking through the Yorkshire countryside followed by a local ale in the pub.

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