If school-going children are locked inside their homes for months on end, it can badly affect their social and emotional skills — this is pretty intuitive, but it’s exactly what a new study confirms. Furthermore, when things become normal again, they may find it more difficult to socialize and make new friends, the study shows.
A team of researchers from the University of Cambridge and Addis Ababa University has studied the impact of COVID on the social and emotional skills of 6,000 school-going children in Ethiopia, a country located in East Africa. It is one of the fastest-growing economies in the region but at the same time, it is also still ranked among the poorest countries in the world. According to UNDP, about 53% of Ethiopians are living in poverty.
In the age of globalization, where communication and social skills matter a lot for the growth of individuals and societies. If the new generation stops learning these skills, this may adversely affect the growth of an entire nation. For a country like Ethiopia that has just started to come out of the clutches of poverty, the effects could be long-lasting and far-reaching.
Ruptured social and academic development
The study was conducted in two phases; in the first phase 2,700 Grade 4 students went through social skill tests that presented statements like “I make friends easily”, “I feel confident talking to others”, “If I hurt someone, I say sorry”, etc. The students had to tell whether they agreed or disagreed with the mentioned statements.
Apart from this, the 2019 (pre-COVID) numeracy test scores of students were compared against the marks they obtained in the tests that were conducted in 2021 (post-COVID). The authors also examined dropout rates among students after the pandemic.
In the second phase, the researchers measured the academic progress of students from the pre-COVID to post-COVID times. They compared the numeracy scores of Grade 1 and Grade 4 batches of 2020-2021 with the scores of Grade 1 and Grade 4 batches of 2018-2019. The post-COVID Grade 1 batch scored 15 to 19 points less than the pre-COVID batch.
A similar pattern was noticed for the Grade 4 batches —- the 2020-2021 batch students scored 10 to 12 points less than the students of the 2018-2019 batch. According to the researchers, these differences in numeracy scores suggest that post-COVID, students missed about four months of academic progress.
Moreover, findings from the first phase revealed that students who used to feel confident in talking to others and responded positively to the various social skill questions in 2019 turned into less-social individuals within two years. Post-COVID, the same students found it difficult to make new friends and say sorry to others for making mistakes.
The authors believe that this decline in social and emotional skills could also be associated with reduced academic progress. Many previous studies also suggest that better academic results boost self-confidence and self-respect in students.
Due to greater levels of isolation, the deterioration in both academic and social skills was higher for students coming from rural and poorer backgrounds. Dropout rates among girls and remote area students also sharply increased as a result of the pandemic. Unfortunately, about 11.3% of the total students analyzed by the researchers left their schools by 2021.
The study authors estimate that there are 26 million school-going children in Ethiopia which means that if these dropout rates are considered the same nationwide, nearly three million kids stopped going to school after the pandemic.
“Urban learners showed significantly higher social skills than rural children during both rounds of surveys. Girls, older pupils, and low performers in 2019 were significantly more likely than their peers to have dropped out of school by the time the surveys were conducted in 2021. Further, although all learners reported reductions in social skills, the gradient of decline is steepest for the rural pupils, especially compared to the urban boys, which suggests a widening disadvantage and the greatest losses in skills for children in rural locations,” the authors note in their paper.
How the ruptured social skills can be rebuilt?
If countries like Ethiopia aim to make their upcoming generations relevant for future markets, jobs, and businesses. They need to ensure proper social and academic development of the students in the schools. Researchers suggest implementing targeted programs for developing social and communication skills in girls and students of rural backgrounds.
One such program called the Complementary Basic Education (CBE) initiative is already operational in Ghana, a west African nation that has been facing similar challenges as Ethiopia related to rural children’s education. The program allows the government of Ghana to improve education in the most disadvantaged parts of the country by increasing student enrollment and conducting various learning programs in public schools.
While highlighting various improvement strategies, one of the study authors and professor at the University of Cambridge, Pauline Rose emphasized the importance of making sure children are reintegrated:
“Social and emotional skills should be an explicit goal of the curriculum and other guidance. Schools may also want to think about after-school clubs, safe spaces for girls, and ensuring that primary-age children stay with the same group of friends during the day. Initiatives like these will go some way towards rebuilding the prosocial skills the pandemic has eroded.”
The study is published in the journal Longitudinal and Life Course Studies.