Survey Reveals Children Coped Well with School Closure

Without school, children exhibited increased independence and responsibility.By

By Peter Gray, Ph.D., a research professor at Boston College, author of Free to Learn

When COVID-19 resulted in closures of schools and after-school activities for children, beginning generally in early March of this year, there were some dire predictions about the effects this would have on children. Without the structure of school and other adult-directed activities, what would children do? How could parents deal with bored, restless children at home all day? What would happen to children’s minds and bodies? Would they just vegetate?

I have no doubt that the pandemic has had devastating effects on many families. But here I report on the results of a large-scale, demographically representative survey, conducted several weeks after schools closed, suggesting that most children were doing very well, in some ways better than they had before schools closed. The survey was developed and sponsored by the Let Grow nonprofit, headed by Lenore Skenazy (President) and Tracy Tomasso (Executive Director), of which I am one of the founding members, and the surveyed sample was provided by a market research company, OvationMR.

This is a preliminary report based on an initial analysis of the findings. I hope, in time, to conduct a more detailed analysis for an academic article, but academic articles are slow to come out and these findings are timely, right now, as educators, parents, legislators, and children themselves (to the degree that they have any say in the matter) think about what to do this coming school year. Below, I describe briefly the survey method and then summarize the main conclusions, along with some of the data supporting each conclusion.

Survey Method and Sample

The survey sample came from a large, demographically representative list of people in the United States, maintained by OvationMR, who are willing to fill out surveys for a small payment. The invitation to participate did not specify the survey’s purpose but did indicate it was open only to families with a child in the age range of 8 through 13. Separate questionnaires were developed for parents and children. The children and parents came from different families. That is, for any given family either a parent or child filled out a questionnaire, not both. Parents were asked not to oversee their child’s responses.

The parent questionnaire consisted of (a) eleven items asking the parent to disagree or agree, on a scale from 1 (Not at all) to 10 (Yes, very much) with a statement about themselves or their child, such as “During the past week my child has helped with chores around the house.”; (b) seven items asking the parent to respond with Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Neither Agree nor Disagree, Agree, or Strongly Agree to statements, such as “I am gaining a new appreciation for my child’s capabilities while observing them at home;” (c) a list of eight adjectives—randomly ordered and ranging in valence from “Proud” to “Disappointed”–to check or not check in response to the question, “How does seeing how your child is coping with this period make you feel?”; (d) four additional questions, with separate response categories, dealing with the child’s online learning and outdoor play; and (e) nine open-ended questions in which parents were invited to comment on changes they had observed in their children or in their relationship with their children during the period of school closure.

The child questionnaire consisted of (a) eight items asking the child to disagree or agree with such statements as “I have been more calm than when I was in regular school” on a scale from 1 (No, this doesn’t describe me at all) to 5 (Yes, this describes me very much); (b) a list of thirteen types of activities to check or not check in response to the question, “Which of these activities have you been doing MORE of in the past week?”; (c) a list of twelve adjectives—such as Bored, Happy, Sad—to check or not check in response to the request, “Choose all the ones that describe how you’ve mostly been feeling the past week;” (d) a yes-no question on whether they had been doing remote or online lessons provided by their school followed by a question on how many hours a day that occupied; and (e) six open-ended questions in which children were invited to comment on specific aspects of their experiences and feelings during the period of school closure.

In all, 798 parent forms and 762 child forms were completed. The completed forms were nearly evenly distributed across the six age groups of children, across child gender, and across geographic regions of the United States. By race of child, 15% identified as African American/Black; 15% as Hispanic; 6% as Asian; and the rest as non-Hispanic Caucasian/white.  Of the parents who responded, 40% were dads and the rest were moms. There were no obvious large differences in responses based on any of these variables, though there were small differences that could be statistically significant (not tested in this preliminary analysis).

Now, here are the main conclusions, along with some of the data supporting each.

Overall, children’s psychological wellbeing seemed to improve after school closure.

Some may be surprised by this conclusion, but those who have been attending to the increased stressfulness of school, with so much focus on drill and testing, with reductions in recess and other creative activities, should not be surprised. Specific findings supporting this conclusion include the following:

• Forty-nine percent of the children agreed with the statement, “I have been more calm than I was in regular school,” and only 25% disagreed. The rest were neutral.

• Likewise, 43% percent of the parents agreed with the statement, “My child is less stressed now than before school closed,” and only 29% disagreed. The rest were neutral.

• Eighty-five percent of parents rated their child as having been happy during the past week (6 or above on the 10-point scale). Similarly, on the list of adjectives to describe themselves over the past week, 62% of children checked Happy, while only 20% checked Sad and 10% checked Angry.

• One of many contributing causes of reduced stress and increased happiness may have been increased sleep. Fifty percent of parents indicated that their child was getting more sleep now than before school closure and only 12% said less. The rest indicated no observable change in amount of sleep.

• The schools’ requirements to do school lessons online at home, after school closure, was a source of stress for some children. According to the parents, 91% of the children were doing such assignments. Of the children doing them, 48% agreed with the statement, “I have been worried about making mistakes or not understanding my schoolwork, 33% disagreed, and the rest were in the middle. However, in response to the question about how many hours a day it took to do the lessons at home the median reply was just 3 hours. This left lots of time each day for other, non-school activities. Some children claimed, in an open-ended question, that doing schoolwork at home was easier and more efficient than at school because there were fewer distractions and less time wasted. For example, one wrote, “I can do 6 hours of school at school, but it takes 2 hours to do all of it at home,” and another wrote, “I work better alone and at my own pace.”

Children appeared to gain a greater sense of independence and personal responsibility after school closure.

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