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Parents and carers reported that behavioural, emotional and attentional difficulties in their children changed considerably throughout the past year, increasing in times of national lockdown and decreasing as restrictions eased and schools reopened, according to the latest Co-SPACE (COVID-19 Supporting Parents, Adolescents, and Children in Epidemics) study, led by experts at the University of Oxford.

A taller boy and a girl with their backs turned looking out a glass paned door. © Kelly Sikkema on @Unsplash

Summary of Co-SPACE Study Findings

  • Co-SPACE children and young people experienced highest levels of mental health issues in June 2020 and February 2021, when restrictions were most stringent
  • Overall, primary school children have had greater changes in levels of mental health difficulties throughout the pandemic compared to secondary school aged children
  • Average mental health difficulties among primary and secondary school aged children have decreased again since schools reopened and restrictions started easing

Polly Waite, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford and co-lead of the study, said:


'These findings make it clear that children and young people’s mental health has been negatively affected over the course of the pandemic. Moving forward, it will be crucial to prioritise their wellbeing, and in particular, identify those who continue to experience significant difficulties and require further urgent support. At Oxford University, we are delighted that our research is helping to support families through the pandemic, via the SPARKLE project (in collaboration with researchers from KCL) and the Co-CAT project.'

This pattern of change over the year has been similar in boys and girls, yet more pronounced in primary school aged (4-10 years old), than secondary school aged (11-17 years old), children. Adolescent self-reported levels of behavioural, emotional and attentional difficulties were highest during the national lockdowns (April 2020, May 2020, and January 2021) when restrictions were most stringent and schools were closed to the majority of students. Yet, in line with parental reports, participating adolescents’ self-reported mental health difficulties were on average relatively stable throughout the year.

Claire Cattel, a mother of a seven-year old, said:

'My daughter has always struggled with transitions causing anxiety. The sad thing about the effect of the pandemic is that we were making great progress with her anxieties when all of this hit, but I have sadly seen her regress quite significantly.  The worst periods were definitely May-July 2020 and December - February 2021. There were nights she wasn't asleep until gone midnight and this had a knock on effect to the next day when her behaviour was really difficult. We had a few months where her tantrums were huge and very distressing for me. As an only child she has struggled socially in the pandemic too and when schools resumed the craziness of a school morning was very overwhelming. We are making progress and she will be ok, but managing her mental health has been a full time job this last year.'

The study also highlighted that children with SEN/ND and those from lower income (< £16,000 p.a.) households have been particularly vulnerable throughout the pandemic. Their parents or carers reported continuously elevated mental health symptoms with higher levels of behavioural, emotional, and attentional difficulties.

Clare Stafford, Vice-Chair, CYPMHC & CEO of Charlie Waller Trust, said:


 'The study consistently highlights the unequal impacts of the pandemic on specific groups of children and young people, such as those with special educational needs and disabilities and children living in families on low income. It is now more important than ever that these groups are properly supported to prevent these inequalities from being further entrenched. We must create safe school environments for children and young people who have been through traumatic experiences and offer help to those who are struggling most. This must mean a strong move away from the current emphasis on punitive approaches to behaviour and discipline in schools. A whole school and college approach in every education setting across the country will be vital in helping to create a culture where mental health and wellbeing is supported.'

More than 12,500 parents and 1,300 adolescents have now taken part in the Co-SPACE (COVID-19 Supporting Parents, Adolescents, and Children in Epidemics) survey. This research is tracking children and young people’s mental health throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Survey results are helping researchers identify what protects children and young people from deteriorating mental health, over time, and at particular stress points, and how this may vary according to child and family characteristics. This will help to identify what advice, support and help parents would find most useful. Crucially, the study is continuing to collect data in order to determine how these needs change as the pandemic progresses.

This research is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of the UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19 and the Westminster Foundation, and supported by the NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre, the Oxford and Thames Valley NIHR Applied Research Consortium and the UKRI Emerging Minds Network Plus.

To access previous Co-SPACE reports


Please follow the link below to read the news on the NIHR BRC website.

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