A study of Ethiopian schools suggests COVID has ‘destroyed’ the social skills of the world’s poorest children

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New evidence shows that school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic have “seriously impacted” the social and emotional development of some of the world’s poorest children, as well as their academic progress.

In a study of over 2,000 elementary school students in Ethiopia, researchers found that important aspects of children’s social and emotional development, such as their ability to make friends, not only stalled, but likely deteriorated, during school closures.

Children who felt safe talking to others or getting along well with their peers before the pandemic are less likely to do so by 2021. Those who were already educationally disadvantaged – girls, the poorest and those from rural areas – appear to have been particularly hard hit.

Both this research and a second, related study of around 6,000 elementary school children in grades 1 and 4 also found evidence of slower academic progress. Children have lost the equivalent of at least a third of a school year studying during lockdown – an estimate researchers call “conservative”. This appears to have widened an already significant performance gap between disadvantaged students and the rest of the world, and there is evidence that this may be related to the decline in social skills.

Both studies were conducted by scientists from the University of Cambridge, UK, and the University of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Professor Pauline Rose, Director of the Research in Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Center at the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education, said: “COVID is having a long-term impact on children everywhere, but particularly in low-income countries. Educational assistance and government funding must first focus on supporting both the academic and socio-emotional recovery of the most disadvantaged children.”

Professor Tassew Woldehanna, President of Addis Ababa University, said: “These serious disruptions in children’s developmental and learning trajectories underscore how much we need to think about the impact on social skills, not just academic ones. Catch-up education must tackle both together.”

Both studies used data from the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) program in Ethiopia to compare pre-pandemic primary education in the 2018-19 school year to the 2020-21 situation.

In the first study, the researchers compared the numeracy test scores of 2,700 fourth-grade students in June 2019 to their scores shortly after they returned to school in January 2021. They also measured dropout rates. In addition, students completed the Children’s Self-Assessment of Social Skills scale, which asked them how much they felt about statements such as “I feel safe talking to others,” “I make friends easily,” and “When I hurt someone I say to what extent you agree or disagree “sorry”.

The second study measured relative progress during the pandemic using the numeracy results of two separate cohorts of Grade 1 and 4 students. The first of these cohorts was from the year before the pandemic; the other from 2020/21.

The results suggest that students have made some academic progress during the closure, but at a slower pace than expected. The mean baseline math score of grade 1 students in 2020/21 was 15 points behind the 2018/19 cohort; by the end of the year, this gap had widened to 19 points.

Similarly, the 4th grade 2020/21 students started 10 points behind their predecessor cohort and ended up 12 points behind them. This difference was about a third of a year’s progress. Similar patterns emerged from examining children’s math scores before and after the closures.

Poorer children and those from rural backgrounds consistently performed worse. Dropout rates showed similar problems: Of the 2,700 children assessed in 2019 and 2021, more than a tenth (11.3%) dropped out of school during the closures. These were disproportionately girls or lower-achieving students, who tended to come from less affluent or rural families.

The social skills of all students decreased during the closing time, regardless of gender and place of residence. In 2021, fewer children agreed with statements such as “Others like me” or “I make friends quickly”. The decline in positive responses varied across demographics and was greatest among those from rural areas. This may be because children from remote parts of the country have been more isolated during the lockdown.

The most striking evidence of a break in socio-emotional development was the lack of a predictive association between 2019 and 2021 outcomes. Students who, for example, felt safe speaking to others before the pandemic, often had their opinions two years later changed.

Researchers suspect that the negative impact on social and emotional development may be related to slowing academic performance. Children who did better academically in 2021 tended to report stronger social skills. This association is not necessarily causal, but there is evidence that school performance improves children’s confidence and esteem, and that prosocial behavior positively influences school outcomes. It is therefore possible that during school closures this potential reinforcement was reversed.

Both reports echo previous research suggesting that low-income countries like Ethiopia need to invest in targeted programs for girls, rural people and the poorest if they are to prevent these children from being left behind. In addition to in-school catch-up programmes, measures may be needed to support those who are not in school. Ghana’s successful complementary basic education initiative offers a model.

In addition, the researchers call on those involved in education policy to integrate the promotion of social skills both in catch-up education and in the planning of future closures. “Social and emotional skills should be an explicit goal of the curriculum and other guidance,” Rose said. “Schools might also want to think about after-school clubs, safe places for girls and ensuring primary school-age children stay with the same group of friends during the day. Initiatives like this will help rebuild the pro-social skills the pandemic has eroded.”

“Ruptured School Trajectories” is published in the magazine Longitudinal and life course studies. “Learning Disabilities During the COVID-19 Pandemic in Ethiopia” is available on the REAL Center website.

More information:
Stephen Bayley et al, Ruptured School Trajectories: Understanding the Impact of COVID-19 on School Dropout, Socio-Emotional and Academic Learning using a Longitudinal Design, Longitudinal and life course studies (2022). DOI: 10.17863/cam.88157

Sharon Wolf et al., The role of executive functioning and social-emotional skills in the development of preschool literacy and numeracy skills: a cross-time longitudinal study, development science (2019). DOI: 10.1111/desc.12800

REAL Center website: www.educ.cam.ac.uk/centres/rea … stems-ethiopia-rise/

Provided by the University of Cambridge

Citation: Study of Ethiopian schools suggests COVID has ‘broken’ social skills of world’s poorest children (2022, November 27) Retrieved November 27, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-11 -ethiopian-schools-covid-ruptured-social.html

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