As the COVID-19 pandemic continues into its third year, experts gain a better understanding of its consequences for the health and development of children and adolescents.
They range from learning loss to mental health issues to housing and food insecurity to contracting the virus.
We are a law professor with a focus on the rights and well-being of children and a practicing family physician who conducts research on adolescent health. We and other researchers have found that over the past two years, governments have missed opportunities to better understand and address young people as they navigate the pandemic.
A better understanding of the pandemic’s effects on young people is essential to developing policy responses that can address the prevalence of harm caused to children and adolescents.
The impact of the pandemic on children
Research has found that, compared to students before the pandemic, K-12 students fell behind on average by about five months in math and four months in reading during the 2020-2021 school year. Many students, having lost the equivalent of half a year or more of learning, were hit hardest, with students from low-income and majority-Black schools. This learning loss puts many students at risk of not finishing high school, and it jeopardizes their chances of attending college, all of which have adverse consequences for their lifetime earning potential.
The pandemic has also adversely affected the mental health of children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 37% of high schoolers reported poor mental health and 44% reported that they “persistently felt depressed or hopeless” during the pandemic. Other research, including a recent Surgeon General’s advice on the mental health of young people, has found higher rates of depression, anxiety, loneliness and other socio-emotional issues in children since the pandemic.
The pandemic has put even basic necessities, including food and housing, at risk. Job loss, disruption of school-based meal programs and other adverse effects on families have led to an increase in the number of families experiencing food insecurity, leaving children at risk of being unable to obtain adequate nutrition for healthy development.
In addition, millions of children and their families have experienced housing insecurity. Evictions Lab, which tracks evictions in six states and 31 US cities, reports that there have been more than 939,000 evictions since March 2020. Even when families can prevent evictions, housing insecurity continues to adversely affect children’s educational progress and well-being.
Finally, we know that many children have contracted COVID-19 – more than 13 million according to official counts – although research shows the numbers are much higher.
children should be seen and heard
Policy makers often describe young people as too immature to participate in the “serious business” of policy making. This attitude has persisted during the pandemic: Young people have rarely been consulted on public health policy changes that directly affect them, from schools to transportation to public parks.
For example, most decisions about virtual schooling and back to in-person learning were made without children’s input – the population most affected by these decisions.
This failure to engage young people largely stems from the traditional view that children and adolescents are “becoming”, not “beings” – that is, because they are developing, they lack the maturity to make important decisions. and thus “should not be seen and heard”.
However, we have learned through our own research and engagement with youth, as well as other youth participation projects and reports, that this mindset is outdated and fails to recognize the wisdom of young people’s life experience. In our research and in partnership with youth, we have consistently found that involving young people at all stages – from identifying issues to designing and implementing projects to developing policy recommendations – improves outcomes. .
Why counseling with children matters
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child recognizes that youth have the right to be heard and to participate in decisions that affect their lives. Research shows that young people do not want the burden of making final decisions, but they do want to have a say in what happens in their lives and in their communities.
Research has found that listening to and engaging youth helps adults better understand the challenges children face. Giving youth meaningful opportunities to participate in decisions that impact their lives can yield important insights about whether particular options will be effective and can help identify more promising solutions.
Furthermore, experience shows that involving youth in the development of policies and programs increases the likelihood of youth making better purchases on final decisions. In turn, the buy-in helps to improve the results.
For example, while children may not be experts in education theory, they are the only ones alive today who have ever traveled to school during a global pandemic. Their live experience provides expertise that can help inform and improve policies and outcomes.
In addition, involving young people now will help develop the skills they need to prepare them for adulthood.
Listen, Involve and Build Pathways
Our work suggests that adults can partner with children to create policies and programs during this pandemic as well as future public health crises. Some of these include:
– Parents, teachers, school administrators and community leaders can listen to children more often. This can best be done by “meeting them where they are”, which can include engaging youths on social media via text messages or asking them more often how they are doing. Adults can ask them what they’re concerned about or what they’d like to see, or create supportive personal and virtual groups.
Adults can actively engage young people in what is happening in their communities and engage them in age-appropriate ways in responding to the pandemic. There are good examples of the impact of children during a pandemic. With ideas originating from the youth themselves, young people have taken leadership roles in their communities, doing everything from making mask extenders for health care workers to starting a food delivery business to help elderly community members. skill is taken advantage of.
– Schools, communities and policy makers can create sustainable pathways for youth in developing and implementing policies – and not have to wait for the pandemic to do so. In Colorado, the Growing Up Boulder Initiative has successfully engaged youth on a range of policy issues, including projects related to transportation, urban planning, housing and parks. Other cities, such as Minneapolis and San Francisco, have established youth commissions and congresses that provide ongoing ways for youth to have their say in their communities.
All three examples – from regular, informal check-ins with youth to official youth commissions – help policy makers, parents, teachers and other adults learn from young people and develop a more effective response to a pandemic or any other issue. able to partner with them.