Elementary school after the pandemic
Prof. Dr. Christian Huber
Rehabilitation Education at the Institute for Educational Research
Photo: Private

"In the pandemic, we lost the feeling for each other".

Educational researcher Christian Huber on a recent study on the situation at elementary schools after two years of pandemic

Corona and no end... The international social crisis of the 21st century does not stop at our children. A new study conducted by educational scientist Prof. Dr. Christian Huber at the Institute for Educational Research at Bergische Universität has set alarm bells ringing in our school system. The study was triggered by school administrators seeking advice who, in their distress, turned to the school board of their school district, which then contacted the Wuppertal scientist. He and his team then prepared a study for the Cologne school district in the spring, the results of which are cause for concern.

"The decisive and central reason was that at some point the teachers realized that it was no longer possible," Huber begins, "the stresses on the teachers* were at the limit. Teachers were facing an increasing number of behavioral problems in recent months. Starting with the task of catching up on the missed material, they were faced with the problem of taking into account the children's massive behavioral problems, which made stress-free learning impossible.

The participants

In addition to the teachers and the children's parents, the primary school students* in the third and fourth grades themselves were the main focus. "We designed the study broadly, meaning that we naturally interviewed the children themselves, because that is quite crucial. We wanted to know how the children felt," explains the educational researcher. Because the reading skills of first and second graders are not yet sufficient, the study only provides information for this area through parent statements.

The survey started just before the Easter break, at a time when many Corona measures had already been scaled back. "We actually expected the kids to have packed away the Corona issue pretty well," Huber says, "but that definitely wasn't the case. We have about a third of the kids who have massive fears about the future in terms of the Corona pandemic." The questions also included future prospects, which the elementary school students said were massive future worries due to Corona, limited leisure activities and a changed work life. The children also perceived themselves as unusually aggressive. "We had three times more children who had great difficulty with their own aggressiveness. At the same time, there were elevated anxiety scores and depression scores." The study also demonstrated a link between parental stress and child stress. "The more stressed the parents were, the more stressed the children were."

High perception of stress among parents and children

Huber and his team used comparable methods that had already been used in the Copsy study (The COPSY longitudinal study examines the effects and consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health of children and adolescents in Germany. The study is led by Prof. Dr. Ravens-Sieberer and conducted by the Child Public Health Research Department at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf. Editor's note) "This means that our study can be linked to findings of the Robert Koch Institute," Huber explains, "i.e., we were able to compare our values with it and find that there has been no reduction in exposure over the past two years, but that we are still at a very high level." A calming of the situation had therefore not occurred, so that the still high burden on the parents also had an influence on the children and one could see a possible cause in this.

Aggression, fear and a war in Europe

Depression and also anxiety situations can also be traced back in part to the social insecurities in the parents' homes, Huber explains. "But also topics that have been very strong in the media, such as the Ukraine war, play a role here that are often not taken up in schools and also in the family." The social situation is currently geared toward relaxation, he said, and children don't necessarily come along with that. Says Huber: "Some children have really spent a quarter of their conscious lives in this corona pandemic. They can't just shake off this situation. That's the fear part. We need more processing of the entire situation here," the scientist therefore demands. If children then also do not understand how to deal with this fear, this can easily turn into aggression, he said. "We must not imagine that a child who feels aggression inside is always the child who goes over the table and benches. Aggressiveness, as with us adults, can manifest itself in different ways."

For some, he said, the aggressiveness is directed inward; for others, it is directed outward. Some act it out at school, others at home or in sports. The pandemic has abruptly ended not only the opportunities to act out aggression, but many opportunities to learn social skills. The study results show that children would obviously have massive deficits in social cognitive information processing. Huber gives an example: "If a child gets a ball hit in front of his head in the playground, for example, there are different ways of interpreting that. Some kids tend to say, 'Well, it was an accident and so it's okay again.' But we assume that the proportion of children who interpret this to their own disadvantage, as it were, is increasing sharply. So according to the motto: You did that on purpose. And this regulation actually takes place in mutual cooperation. If we play together a lot in the playground, then I learn that this can happen." But these learning processes were hardly possible through homeschooling, he said. And nonverbal communication, he said, was also made more difficult by the constant mask-wearing, because half of the face was covered. So many nonverbal interactions could not be learned, Huber says, and the children hung back. Interactions with peers also suffered, because "conflicts arise that are not worked through. Children don't have models to follow, haven't had previous experiences. And that's the second big task, in addition to working through fears: making social contacts possible. We have to re-learn these social skills with the children."

On losing a sense of each other....

"The self-perception and the perception of others, especially when it comes to aggressiveness, usually diverge," says Huber. However, in this study, the researchers noted a curiosity. "Children generally always assess themselves as less aggressive than outsiders do. That is, the teacher always perceives a classroom disruption more strongly than the child himself. This was now the other way around. The children perceived themselves as much more aggressive than the teachers did. With the parents, it was partly the same." The fact that teachers were not able to observe the children in the way they otherwise would have been able to, and that the corona mask exacerbated the problem, could also be a reason, says the scientist, "that we lost a bit of our feeling for each other during the pandemic." The view of the children differs greatly between school and home. That's why the study attached great importance to interviewing the children themselves.

What role does war play?

The study also addressed concerns about the future in relation to Corona and the Ukraine war. "We finished planning the study at the beginning of February, and then the war came along. So we then included another set of questions because we didn't know, if we got striking results, what they were related to," Huber explains. At the beginning of the war, he says, it was very heavily covered in the media, and it showed that the correlations between children who were afraid of the Ukrainian war and those who were afraid of Corona were relatively large. "Children are worried about both phenomena. The bottom line is, we need to work these things up with the kids, and we need to do it as quickly as possible. We can't trust that this will all go away. We have to talk to the children. Children don't have the same ability to self-regulate that we do as adults. If we view Corona as a major crisis - and for some children it is also a traumatic experience - then what will occur now, after a brief period of calming down, is a kind of re-traumatization we are heading for again," warns the education researcher, concluding, "At the moment, there is a lot of social pressure to make up for missed material as quickly as possible. There is talk everywhere about how big the gaps are, and a generation of losers is predicted. My thesis is: If we now focus too quickly on the content and forget that children also have an emotional-social state, then the gaps will not become smaller, but larger. The classroom disruptions and behavioral problems will ensure that kids don't focus on the subject matter." That, in turn, would then be felt by the teachers, about two-thirds of whom would be in an already very stressed area.

Help for self-help

About 10 percent of the teachers* would even have to worry in the long term, because many of them would not remain in the system if the workload remained unchanged. "It certainly depends on what happens with the corona pandemic," Huber estimates, "but we can expect to lose teachers in the long term. But the school system can't afford that. So we have to take care of teachers, too." For that reason, he said, the study's goal was not so much to scientifically address the situation, but rather to focus on how to help.

"It doesn't fall under the aspect of research, but rather solidarity with teachers, families and especially students. The university is doing its part to help," Huber says. The Cologne school district, the school psychology department, the child and adolescent psychiatric service of the city of Cologne and the University of Cologne are already exchanging information on the help that can realistically be implemented in everyday school life. There is agreement on the issue of shifting priorities. "The first priority is the emotional-social processing of the overall situation. Then we can also pick up speed again in terms of promoting performance" emphasizes Huber and that works via small occasions for conversation both in the family and in the classroom. "We pick up on the children's concerns, address them and show understanding for them." To do this, he says, they develop discussion groups or even small teaching units. The second important aspect concerns the emotional and social development of the children, which is supported. "For this, we need small, simple variants of social training, where children who have learning deficits - and I wouldn't call this a behavioral disorder - that is, learning deficits in the emotional-social area that prevent them from learning, are processed piece by piece." When it comes to conflict, he said, support is needed because "the kids have two years of pandemic experience in their bones, which means they haven't learned how to resolve conflict." Special education teachers can play a crucial role in this situation, the open all-day school can be involved, and in the end it is always the parents whose support is needed, he said. "The basis for learning, is also social learning," Huber states. "If we miss that and mess it up, then we've really lost a whole generation to Corona. We can change it now!"

While Christian Huber and his team conducted this study with elementary school students due to their jobs, it's still fair to ask whether a study with adult professionals wouldn't yield similar results, since pandemics, home offices and too little interpersonal time have hit us hard, too. As is well known, we all learn through repetition. Therefore, formulated as a question at the end, we could ask ourselves Huber's opening quote again: "Did we lose a little feeling for each other during the pandemic?"

Uwe Blass

Prof. Dr. Christian Huber heads the teaching and research area of rehabilitation education (focus: promotion of emotional-social development) at the Institute for Educational Research in the School of Education at Bergische Universität.

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