Young carers: sacrifice and support

While there has been a lot of conversation about the vulnerable over the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, and rightly so, there has not much attention given to the people who care for them, particularly the young people who do so. Young carers carry a lot on their shoulders, and this has only been increased with the impact of the pandemic affecting those they love. However, we also need to look out for these young people and give them the support they deserve.

Issues faced by young carers

Young carers are faced with many challenges due to their position and this can depend on the carers, their age, the level of care they give and who they care for. A report on siblings of disabled children from the UK charity Sibs found that the particular young carers they engaged with tended to not get as much attention and support from their parents because of their sibling needing more urgent care. Even something as simple as going out to play centres or restaurants must be adapted to fit the disabled sibling, with the carer sibling rarely getting their own choice.

Young carers have also been found to be at more risk of mental health problems than others, particularly if the person they are caring for is a parent with a mental illness or a history of substance misuse.  A study from Scotland found that young carers, much like adult unpaid carers, were more likely to have physical health issues such as tiredness, backache and bad diets in addition to reporting worry, stress, anxiety, depression and resentment. They were also found to have significantly lower self-esteem and feelings of happiness than non-carers.

Impact of pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted young carers greatly. Sibs reported that a lot of parents felt their carer children were extremely worried about contracting the virus and giving it to their sibling, or bringing it into the household if their family were shielding or vulnerable. Others also reported their child withdrawing from friends, either because of shielding or simply because they were uncomfortable socialising outside of their household. Sibs also noted cases where siblings would become the object of their disabled sibling’s anger or frustration.

In addition, a lot of activities and support groups normally put into place for these specific carers, in order to give them attention and opportunities to enjoy life outside of their role as a young carer, were cancelled due to COVID-19, and left many young carers at home, where they were often ignored if their sibling or parent needed additional support.

Other young carers have had to take on a range of duties, including shopping for their families or taking care of their home or other siblings. A lot of these young people have had to balance this with continuing their education from home and dealing with having their lives outside of the home cut off due to social distancing and isolation. This is on top of the general struggles of growing up as a child and adolescent. Izzy, a 12-year-old interviewed by a study from the Centre for Research on Children and Families, said she felt her entire life was “being a mini adult, but it’s not a pick and choose the time sort of thing.” 

Support

There have been a range of support services for young carers across the United Kingdom. Young carers groups have been found to be a great resource to help find other young carers and share some of the issues that affect them with people who understand. These groups  are also important as an outlet outside of their role in the family home, providing support  solely for  young carers. Even during the pandemic, some groups were able to schedule calls for young carers which provided them with interaction just for them, and something to look forward to each week at home.

However, many young carers remain “hidden” from services, either out of choice or because they have been ignored. Some simply don’t know about support groups or services, or have been found to not consider themselves ‘carers’. Instead, they  view their lives as “normal” or doing something that’s “expected” of them. Others may be afraid of the stigma their particular situation may bring them, and therefore want to be perceived as the same as their fellow students.

Final thoughts

The pandemic has pushed conversation and debate towards how we care for the most vulnerable in our society, and hopefully will lead to improvements in our attitudes towards care. However, this also has to extend towards unpaid carers, and particularly the young people who often shoulder invisible labour at the expense of their childhood.

Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange blog on carers

Playing catch up: education and the pandemic

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The coronavirus pandemic impact has been far reaching and it is predicted that the impacts will be felt for a number of years to come.

However, one of the potentially longest-term impacts is that on children at school who have missed out on learning which has been significantly disrupted for the duration of the pandemic.

Whether it is the mental and socio-emotional impact of children being isolated from peers, those children who missed out on key early years learning, or those children due to take important examinations, the impact has been significant and few children, if any have been unaffected.

Politicians and commentators have speculated about how easy it will be for children to “catch up” on learning they might have missed. Some have questioned if it will even be possible at all, with suggestions that we could be feeling the effects of the educational impact of the pandemic for many years.

Lost learning

Research from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that in the first 12 months of the pandemic (March 2020-March 2021), 1.5 billion students in 188 countries and economies weren’t able to go to school, for varying lengths of time. 

Further research published by the Education Policy Institute in October 2021 estimated that by the second half of March 2022, lost learning in primary school had amounted to 2.2 months in reading and 3.5 months in numeracy. The research also showed that the impact of lost learning is not equal across groups of children, with those from lower income backgrounds or areas of higher deprivation facing a greater gap in learning than those from more affluent backgrounds.

There have also been significant challenges faced by children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). Research has found that in many instances the pandemic has created a “double disadvantage” for children and young people with SEND and that it has exacerbated challenges they already faced with accessing support. Many children and their parents felt “left behind” by decisions that were made around school and care setting closures which they say will have a largely negative impact on children with SEND, not just from lack of learning, but also loss of routine, access to specialist therapies and equipment and interaction with peers.

Trying to predict the impact

Researchers have been attempting to use data from previous crises, such as the Christchurch earthquake and the Second World War to look at the potential long term impact of learning disruption on employment and earnings in later life.

Those examples highlight that long-run negative effects are considerable, but can be mitigated by significant government, school and parental responses. In other words, catch-up is not a natural process: it requires active and sustained efforts.

However, researchers have also noted that the response to catching up is also unprecedented, with little previous comparison for the immediate recognition of the disruption and the efforts in strategies like remote learning which have been employed to try and reduce disruption.

This effort to allow children to maintain some level of learning during the pandemic and allow those who have missed learning to catch up after it could be key in ensuring that children aren’t left behind.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

How to “catch up” on learning

 A report by the United Nations-led Accelerated Education Working Group has proposed multiple ways to deal with pandemic-induced learning losses. These range from extending teaching time to implementing formal catch-up programmes with remedial education for struggling pupils.

In 2020 £350million was invested by the UK Government in the National Tutoring Programme, with a further £200million allocated in February 2021. 

Research exploring the effect of extending the school day and summer schools on educational attainment from the Education Endowment Foundation has found that these measures have a low impact but moderate associated costs. This suggests that it is not an effective way to address gaps in children’s learning created by the pandemic. The evidence also indicates that these interventions aren’t effective in meeting the needs of the vulnerable children who need most support.

There are many, though, who suggest that the focus on “catching up” is not helpful, for learners or teachers. They say that the notion that learners need to “catch up” or are “left behind” reinforces the idea that children only have “one shot” at a “traditional educational route” and that those children who don’t meet those standards have somehow failed. It also puts them under pressure to perform academically at a time which has been challenging and unprecedented for everyone, which could do long term harm to their wellbeing. Instead, they contend that children should be encouraged to celebrate the learning and successes they have had in the past 18 months, whether that is in formal academic assessments, finishing a book they previously hadn’t read or learning to bake or sew.

Children will be returning to school to “catch up” on missed learning from different places some will have made surprising progress, some will have seen developments in their socio-emotional learning, some will have endured a difficult series of months, some will be continuing to deal with challenges which have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

The reality is that there is unlikely to be a “one size fits all” process that can restore children to expected curriculum targets as though the pandemic never happened.

Final thoughts

As announcements come of a potential return to formal examinations in 2022, both learners and teachers need to be supported to help make up gaps in knowledge and to ensure assessment is fair.

While learners need to be supported to catch up educationally, the pandemic has also had a significant impact on socio-emotional learning and mental health, and children and young people will need to be brought back into learning environments in ways which support this too. Teachers and those involved in schools and education are themselves under pressure from significant workloads and stressors on their own mental health and wellbeing which was also inevitably impacted by the pandemic.

There are, as yet, few studies which look at the longer term impact of large scale missed education, particularly the impact on older children who have missed, or will now be due to take, key examinations, or early learners who may have missed out on key developmental learning milestones. But the early research shows we face a significant challenge to help bring all children whose learning has been disrupted back to pre-pandemic learning levels.


If you liked this article you might like to read:

Follow us on Twitter to see which topics are interesting our research team this week.

More than growing pains: young people and mental health

woman sleeping on brown armchair

The last few decades have seen increasing rates of mental health disorders among children and young people. But while children and young people’s mental health is currently high on the public agenda, many of these mental health conditions remain unrecognised and untreated.

The NHS conducted a Mental Health Survey for Children and Young People in 2017, interviewing 3,667 children and young people, which was followed up in 2021. The follow-up survey found that 39.2% of 6 to 16 year olds had experienced a decrease in their mental health since 2017, while approximately 52% of 17 to 23 year olds also reported a decrease. Within these last four years, a number of factors appear to have impacted these figures, including the continued rise and prominence of social media platforms, family life, and, of course, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Impact of the pandemic

The beginning of the pandemic marked the closure of all schools, colleges and universities. Not only were young people faced with the anxiety and stress associated with living through a global pandemic, particularly for those who are immunocompromised or have family members who are, but these closures also cut off access to resources for mental health problems. A survey by YoungMinds in January 2021 found that among over 2000 participants who were under the age of 25 in the UK with a history of mental illness, 75% agreed that they were finding the current lockdown harder to cope with than the previous ones, and 67% believed that the pandemic will have a long-term negative effect on their mental health.

Peer support groups and face to face services such as counselling that could be accessed through school were closed, or made accessible through the internet or over the phone. While this does offer some kind of continued support, it is not a form of support that works for everyone and many young people were left feeling unsupported. The YoungMinds report emphasised that any future provision must recognise the value of face to face interaction alongside virtual and digital forms of support.

Alongside issues with access to support, school closures  also disrupted routines, which for many people of all ages with mental health problems can be particularly important as a coping mechanism. It has been suggested that being unable to attend school or university in person, or part-time jobs, can lead to a relapse in symptoms where young people relied on these routines. Refusing to undertake typical daily activities such as showering, getting out of bed and eating sufficient meals are some of the effects seen amongst these young people – all which can exacerbate feelings of depression or loneliness.

Role of families

Families have been found to play a vital part in helping young people who are suffering from mental health issues. This has only become more apparent with the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns, where young people would most likely be living with their family – whether that be parents, siblings or other relatives or caregivers. Lockdown guidelines that mandated staying at home would leave these young people spending more time with their families, and the closure of other services outwith the home, meant these young people’s households often became their main support system. The NHS follow-up survey found that both family connectedness and family functioning were associated with mental disorder, highlighting the importance of supporting families to enable them to support young people’s mental health.

The Local Government Association has recently published a guide on a “whole household approach” to young people’s mental health, stressing the importance of educating families on how to support their young people. This is highlighted as particularly important when they transition from child services to adult services as many teenagers and young people struggle with the lack of support offered when they are legally considered adults.

Social media

Another big issue affecting young people’s mental health is the use of social media. While there are many reported benefits of social media, particularly in relation to connecting with others, there are also growing concerns about its effects on wellbeing and the pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated this. The NHS survey found that, in 2021, half (50.7%) of 11-16 year olds agreed that they spent more time on social media than they meant to and 16.7% using social media agreed that the number of likes, comments and shares they received had an impact on their mood. Those with a probable mental disorder were particularly likely to spend more time on social media than they intended, and girls seem to be more affected that boys.

The survey found that 21.1% of girls reported that likes, comments and shares from social media affected their mood, compared to 12.1% of boys. It also found that double the number of girls than boys spent more time on social media than they meant to. Other research has also highlighted the disproportionate impact on young girls. One study found that constant social media use predicted lower wellbeing in girls only and that these mental health harms may be due to a combination of cyberbullying, and a lack of sleep or exercise. This was not found in the teenage boys interviewed.

Solutions

When addressing mental health problems, it is clear that a ‘one size fits all’ approach does not work. As highlighted in the research, mental health problems can present themselves in a range of ways, and depend on a number of variables.  People from different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, or those with additional needs, often face more stigma and can find it more difficult to express their problems or access the correct support for their specific needs.

There have been suggestions for more targeted support for young people and the issues they may be facing, including more investment in schools and social services. Particularly for adolescents who are transitioning to adulthood, it is important to provide continuous support. As highlighted in the NHS Mental Health Survey, more adolescents and young adults (17 to 23 year olds) mentioned a decrease in their mental health than younger people (6 to 16 year olds). Children and Young People’s Mental Health Services (CYPMHS) notes that the transition from child to adult mental health services tends to begin around three to six months before the individual turns 18, although there can be flexibility.  Perhaps even greater flexibility is required, particularly as we assess the damage left by the pandemic. It is argued that engaging adolescents in the provision of mental health services and a shift towards early intervention and prevention will also be important as we look to build new solutions.


If you enjoyed this article, you may also like to read:

Follow us on Twitter to see which topics are interesting our research team.

The year of living differently: reviewing The Knowledge Exchange blog in 2020

2020 has been a year like no other. A microscopic virus – 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair – has dominated, disrupted and redefined the way we live and work.

Although the pandemic is primarily a public health emergency, its effects have been felt in all areas of public and social policy, from economic development and employment to transport and the environment. Throughout this year, our blog has reflected on the impacts of the coronavirus and the restrictions introduced to prevent its spread.

The COVID-19 knock-on

While the coronavirus pandemic has dominated the news headlines, it has also obscured the knock-on effects on the NHS. In October, we reported on the impacts of delays to preventative healthcare measures, such as screening and routine medical care in the form of pre-planned operations for long-term chronic and non-urgent conditions.

As the blog post noted, the impacts have been wide-ranging, including not only delays in care for case of physical ill health, but also for those seeking treatment for mental health conditions:

“Research suggests that incidence of mental illness during the coronavirus pandemic increased. However, the numbers of people accessing services and being referred for treatment have not increased proportionate to this.”

The ‘hidden epidemic’

Long before the coronavirus pandemic, domestic violence had become known as a ‘hidden epidemic’ in the UK. In September, our blog highlighted the unintended consequences of quarantine for domestic abuse victims.

After the UK entered lockdown in March, calls and online enquiries to the UK’s National Domestic Abuse line increased by 25%. Three-quarters of victims told a BBC investigation that lockdown had made it harder for them to escape their abusers and in many cases had intensified the abuse they received.

Despite additional government funding, the local authorities and charities which support victims of domestic violence have been struggling with the financial fallout from the pandemic. Even so,  important partnerships have been formed between local government, educational institutions and third sector bodies to provide safe spaces for women and their children fleeing violence. Among these was an initiative at the University of Cambridge:

St Catherine’s College formed a partnership with Cambridge Women’s Aid to provide over 1000 nights of secure supported accommodation during the lockdown period.

‘Same storm, different boats’

As the recent Marmot review has stressed, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed and deepened many of the deep-rooted inequalities in our society, including gender, ethnicity and income.  It has also shone a light on more recent inequalities, such as the growth of precarious employment among sections of the population.

In July, we looked at the uneven economic impact of the pandemic, focusing on the heavy price being paid by young people, women, disabled people and Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities.

Women often work in the frontline of care services and have had to juggle childcare during lockdown. BAME communities are over-represented in key-worker jobs, and so were particularly vulnerable to coronavirus.

And although there has been much talk about ‘building back better’, our blog post drew attention to the observations of Dr Sally Witcher, CEO of Inclusion Scotland during a Poverty Alliance webinar:

“She asks whether indeed we should want to build back, when the old normal didn’t work for a large proportion of people, particularly those with disabilities. Dr Witcher also questions ‘who’ is doing the building, and whether the people designing this new future will have the knowledge and lived experience of what really needs to change.”

The impacts of a pandemic

Many other aspects of the impact of COVID-19 have been covered in our blog:

  • How housing providers have embraced the fluidity of an emergency situation, including tackling homelessness, engaging effectively with tenants and addressing mental ill health.
  • Digital healthcare solutions for those with coronavirus and for the continuity of care and day-to-day running of the NHS.
  • Creating and managing a COVID-secure workplace.
  • How COVID-19 is changing public transport, including an acceleration towards contactless payment and mobile ticketing.
  • The additional challenges of the pandemic facing autistic children and young people.
  • The impact of the coronavirus restrictions on the arts.
  • The role of green new deals in tackling climate change and economic inequality as part of the post-Covid recovery.

Beyond the virus

Although the pandemic has been at the forefront of all our minds this year, The Knowledge Exchange blog has also taken the time to focus on other important issues in public and social policy:

We’ve also taken advantage of the ‘new normal’ experience of remote working to join a number of webinars, and to report back on the observations and ideas emerging from them. Most recently, our blogs have focused on a series of webinars organised by Partners in Planning, which included contributions on how the planning system can help address climate change.

Final thoughts

The health, economic and social impacts of the pandemic are likely to be long-lasting – restrictions on travel, work and socialising will continue into the spring, and insolvencies and unemployment numbers are likely to rise. And the continuing uncertainty over the UK’s new trading relationship with the European Union will generate additional challenges.   

But, as a frequently difficult, often challenging and sometimes distressing year draws to a close, there is cause for optimism about 2021. Vaccines to prevent the spread of the virus have been developed with lightning speed. Across the UK people are already being vaccinated, with greater numbers set to receive the jab in the coming months.

Here at The Knowledge Exchange, we’ll continue to highlight the key issues facing public and social policy and practice as we move towards the post-Covid era.

Season’s greetings

It’s with even greater meaning than ever before that we wish all our readers a happy Christmas, and a healthy, prosperous and happy new year.

Best wishes from everyone at The Knowledge Exchange: Morwen, Christine, Heather, Donna, Rebecca, Scott, Hannah and James.


Follow us on Twitter to find out what topic areas are interesting our research team.

Knowledge from a distance: recent webinars on public and social policy

During the national lockdown, it’s been impossible for most of us to attend conferences and seminars. But many organisations have been harnessing the power of technology to help people share their knowledge, ideas and experience in virtual seminars.

In the past few weeks, the research officers at The Knowledge Exchange have joined some of these webinars, and in today’s blog post we’d like to share with you some of the public and social policy issues that have been highlighted in these online events.

The liveable city

Organised by the Danish Embassy in the UK, this webinar brought together a range of speakers from Denmark and the UK to consider how our cities may change post COVID-19, including questions around green space, high street recovery, active travel and density and types of residential living accommodation in our towns and cities.

Speakers came from two London boroughs, architectural design and urban planning backgrounds and gave examples of experiences in Newham, Ealing and Copenhagen as well as other more general examples from across the UK and Denmark. The seminar’s website also includes links to presentations on previous Liveable City events in Manchester, Edinburgh, Bristol and Glasgow.


What next for public health?

“Healthcare just had its 2008 banking crisis… COVID-19 has generated a real seismic shift within the sector and I don’t think we will ever go back”

This webinar brought together commentators and thought leaders from across the digital health and tech sectors to think about how public health may be transformed by our experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the significant shift to digital and online platforms to deliver care.

The speakers discussed data, privacy and trust and the need to recognise different levels of engagement with digital platforms to ensure that specific groups like older people don’t feel unable to access services. They also discussed the importance of not being driven by data, but using data to help us to make better decisions. The webinar was organised by BIMA, a community of businesses, charities and academia across the UK.


Green cities

This project, organised by the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), included 3 webinars each looking at different elements of green infrastructure within cities, including designing and planning, assessing the quality of different types of green infrastructure and highlighting the positive impacts of incorporating more good quality green spaces for mental and physical health, as well as for environmental purposes.


Rough sleeping and homelessness during and after the coronavirus

Organised by the Centre for London, this webinar brought together speakers from across the homelessness sector within London, including St Mungos, the Greater London Authority (GLA) and Croydon Council to explore how the COVID-19 pandemic was impacting people who are homeless or sleeping rough in the city.

Each speaker brought insights from their own experiences supporting homeless people in the capital (so far) during the COVID 19-pandemic. They highlighted some of the challenges, as well as some of the more positive steps forward, particularly in relation to co-operation and partnership working across different levels of government and with other sectors such as health.

They also commended everyone involved for the speed at which they acted to support homeless people, particularly those who were vulnerable or at risk. However, concerns were also raised around future planning and the importance of not regressing back into old ways of working once the pandemic response tails off.


Poverty, health and Covid-19: emerging lessons in Scotland

This webinar was hosted by the Poverty Alliance as part of a wider series that they are hosting.  It looked at how to ‘build back better’ following the pandemic, with a particular focus upon addressing the long-standing inequalities that exist throughout society.

The event included presentations from Dr Gerry McCartney, Head of the Public Health Observatory at Public Health Scotland, Dr Anne Mullin, Chair of the Deep End GPs, and Professor Linda Bauld, Professor of Public Health at University of Edinburgh.

A key message throughout was that while the immediate health impacts of the pandemic have been huge, there is an urgent need to acknowledge and address the “long-term challenge” – the impact on health caused by the economic and social inequalities associated with the pandemic.

It is estimated that over 10 years, the impact of inequalities will be six times greater than that of an unmitigated pandemic. Therefore, ‘building back better’ is essential in order to ensure long-term population health.


Returning to work: addressing unemployment after Covid-19

This webinar was also hosted by the Poverty Alliance as part of their wider webinar series on the pandemic.

The focus here was how to address the inevitable rise in unemployment following the pandemic – the anticipated increase in jobless numbers is currently estimated to be over three million.

The event included presentations from Kathleen Henehan, Research and Policy Analyst at Resolution Foundation, Anna Ritchie Allan, Executive Director at Close the Gap, and Tony Wilson, Director of the Institute for Employment Studies.

The webinar highlighted the unprecedented scale of the problem – noting that more than half of the working population are currently not working due to the pandemic, being either unemployed, furloughed or in receipt of self-employment support.

A key theme of the presentation was that certain groups are likely to be disproportionately affected by unemployment as the support provided by the government’s support schemes draw to a close later this year.  This includes women – particularly those from BAME groups, the lower paid and migrants – and young people.  So it’s essential that the support provided by the government in the form of skills, training, job creation schemes etc addresses this, and is both gender-sensitive and intersectional.


Supporting the return to educational settings of autistic children and young people

The aim of this webinar, provided by the National Autism Implementation Team (NAIT), was to offer a useful overview of how to support autistic children and young people, and those with additional support needs, back into educational settings following the pandemic.

Currently around 25% of learners in mainstream schools have additional support needs, and it is generally accepted that good autism practice is beneficial for all children.

The webinar set out eight key messages for supporting a successful return, which included making anticipatory adjustments rather than ‘waiting and seeing’, using visual supports, providing predictability, planning for movement breaks and provision of a ‘safe space’ for each child.  The importance of listening to parents was also emphasised.


P1050381.JPG

Ellisland Farm, Dumfries. “P1050381.JPG” by ejbluefolds is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Burns at Ellisland

Our Research Officer, Donna Gardiner has also been following some cultural webinars, including one that focused on the links between Scotland’s national poet and the Ellisland Farm site. The webinar was led by Professor Gerard Carruthers, Francis Hutcheson Chair of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow and co-director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies.

Robert Burns lived at Ellisland Farm in Dumfriesshire between May 1788 and November 1791, and is where he produced a significant proportion of his work – 23% of his letters and 28% of his songs and poems, including the famous Tam O’Shanter and Auld Lang Syne.

The presentation looked at how Robert Burns was influenced by the farm itself and its location on the banks of the River Nith.  It also touched on his involvement with local politics and friends in the area, which too influenced his work.

It was suggested that the Ellisland farm site could be considered in many ways to be the birthplace of wider European Romanticism. The webinar also included contributions from Joan McAlpine MSP, who is chair of the newly formed Robert Burns Ellisland Trust. She discussed how to help promote and conserve this historic site, particularly given the impact of the coronavirus on tourism.


Follow us on Twitter to see which topics are interesting our research team.

Coping with covid: supporting autistic children through and beyond lockdown

The measures put in place to reduce the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) have impacted almost every aspect of our lives – from our contact with family, friends and loved ones, to how we work, eat, shop, relax and learn.

Adapting to and living with these new measures has been universally challenging.  For autistic people, the changes to daily life associated with the COVID-19 outbreak present a number of additional challenges.  In this blog, we are going to discuss some of these additional challenges, with a particular focus on autistic children and young people.  We also highlight some available supports.

Change of routines

A key feature of autism is the desire to follow certain routines and/or avoid unexpected or unpredictable events. Thus, adjusting to the changes caused by COVID-19 poses particular difficulty for many autistic people, for whom changes to routine may cause additional anxiety, distress and in some cases, emotional overload.

Other autistic people may be distressed because of the lack of structure their day now has – being unable to tell one day from the next, when there are no defining characteristics, can feel particularly disorientating.

Scottish Autism have produced guidance for autistic people and their parents/carers on helping to maintain a routine and the reasons why this is important.  They explain that not only does maintaining a routine provide a sense of security and stability, it can also help to provide a sense of calmness, support emotional self-regulation and encourage health and positive habits.

Many autistic children already use visual schedules and/or calendars to let them know what is happening and what to expect next.  These can be helpful in the current circumstances to help children adapt to new routines at home, and bring some sense of predictability and control to their changed lives.

 Being at home

Another change that COVID-19 has brought about is that more people within the household are at home than is typical – for example, one or both parents/carers may be working from home, along with any siblings/other householders who are usually in education or work.

This may be present challenges for autistic people both in terms of the change to routine and also in terms of sensory issues (e.g. noise).  For example, the household being busier than usual may be more challenging for autistic people as they will subsequently have less time and/or space to themselves, which may be needed in order to self-regulate and/or avoid sensory overload.

Special interests

Many autistic people have special interests that form a large part of their daily routines, and may play a key role in enabling them to relax, self-regulate and recover from sensory overload.

The coronavirus ‘lockdown’ has prevented most outdoors activities from taking place.  Thus many autistic people may have found that their special interest is no longer open to them – from train spotting to bird watching.  The removal of this activity from their life may be experienced as particularly distressing, and make self-regulation more difficult.

School closures

The widespread closure of schools means that many parents of autistic children have found themselves responsible for educating their child at home.

Educating children at home under these new circumstances is challenging for all parents.  However, for parents of autistic children, it presents additional challenges.

Many autistic children require additional support with their learning, and may experience difficulties sustaining concentration.  Autistic children may also have additional support needs such as dyslexia or dyscalculia, which may require the use of specific approaches and/or learning aids.  This presents additional challenges for learning in the home environment for parents that are unaccustomed to providing a full time education for their child.

In school, many autistic children receive additional support in class either in a 1-2-1 or in a small group lesson from practitioners skilled in addressing these additional needs. Replicating this level of support at home is of course challenging for parents who may not be familiar with the techniques used, or skilled in their use.  They may also struggle to provide the necessary 1-2-1 support if they are also expected to work from home themselves, or have other children to care for.

Concern about their child being disproportionately affected by school closures without the skilled support that they receive in schools may also add considerable stress.  For example, the United Nations has recently noted in a briefing paper that children with disabilities and special needs are among those most dependent on face-to-face services and are least likely to benefit from distance learning solutions.

As well as adequately supporting special educational needs, there are also challenges in relation to an autistic child’s ability and/or willingness to undertake schoolwork at home.  Some autistic people have difficulties with what is termed ‘flexible thinking’. This may include, for example, the ability to see something in a new way. Autistic children may be more likely to have a fixed perception of home as distinct from school.  Thus, it may be more difficult for autistic children to accept and adapt to schoolwork being done at home.  Similarly, they may not readily accept the notion that their parent or carer is now also their ‘teacher’, particularly if this person is usually relied upon as being their primary source of comfort and safety when distressed.

Accessible home learning

While this is without a doubt a difficult situation for both autistic people and their parents/carers, the good news is that there is an increasing amount of support and sources of advice available to help support autistic people to adapt and respond to the ‘new normal’ that the coronavirus pandemic has created.

On Twitter, the #accessiblehomelearning hashtag has been trending, with people sharing lots of home learning ideas and support for parents and carers, including tools to support individuals with dyslexia and/or reading and writing difficulties.

Lucy Chetty, Head Teacher at New Struan School has also shared her top tips on education at home.  She notes that different young people will experience the changes to life differently – some will enjoy having more control over their day outside of school, whereas others will miss the routines that they are used to.

According to Lucy, happiness and fun is a key aspect of learning. Thus parents and carers should try to find something that interests and motivates their individual child special interests may be of particular help in this regard.

On a practical level, ensuring clarity is hugely important.  This includes providing clear instructions, and setting out a clear beginning, middle and end to the activity.  Also recommended is ‘chunking down’ activities into smaller pieces so that there are regular breaks, and the use of visual strips and/or timers to help illustrate how long an activity will last.

 Re-opening schools

As we look ahead to the future, there are a number of critical issues that need to be considered to support autistic children and/or adults to transition back out of lockdown.

Transitioning back into the school environment will be challenging for many autistic children, particularly those that have previously found it difficult to attend school, and/or have experience of ‘school refusal’.  For many autistic children, successful school attendance has required a great deal of input from teaching and support staff, parents and the child themselves. This is because the school environment is often experienced as being particularly challenging for a number of different reasons – for example, sensory issues (e.g. noises, smells, lighting), difficulties with processing information, and/or social communication challenges (social skills, etiquette, etc).  Many autistic children also experience heightened levels of anxiety, which is exacerbated by the school environment.

Many autistic children will need additional support with the change of routine back to school days and hours, and also with their anxiety levels – particularly if they have concerns about catching and/or spreading the virus, or if other people within the school are perceived to be ‘not following the rules’.

Additional support for transitioning back into school will be particularly important if the new school environment looks significantly different to that which the child is used to as a result of social distancing measures – for example, by attending different hours or days at school, or having different classroom set ups to allow for social distancing – both of which are options currently being considered by the Scottish Government.

Transitioning out of lockdown

In recognition of the difficulties facing many autistic people and their parents and/or carers, the Scottish Government recently announced new funding to help provide additional support in the form of an extended helpline run by Scottish Autism, and the creation of online social support groups by the National Autistic Society Scotland. 

Researchers at UCL Institute of Education are also currently conducting research into the experiences and needs of parents and carers of autistic children during the pandemic, which will hopefully help inform how they can best be supported as we transition out of lockdown and into the future, where we learn to live alongside coronavirus.

In Scotland, the Education Recovery Group is currently exploring options for stabilising the education of pupils with additional support needs as “an early priority”.

While there is still a degree of uncertainty about how and when lockdown will be eased across the UK, what is certain is that the easing of lockdown – whenever it happens – will present additional challenges for many autistic people and their parents/carers. Listening to the voices of autistic people and their parents and carers will be hugely important if they are to be successfully supported in this transition.


Follow us on Twitter to see which topics are interesting our research team

The Knowledge Exchange remains open for business and continues to provide current awareness and enquiries services to our clients. If you have any questions, please get in touch.

Guest post: Some countries have introduced mandatory nutritional labelling on menus – here’s why the UK should follow suit

Olga_Moroz/Shutterstock

 

Guest post by: Dolly Theis, University of Cambridge

Would you eat a burger if you knew it contained almost 6,000 calories? Some would gladly tuck in while others would recoil in horror. But if you have calories on the menu, at least you know what you’re biting into. And as our latest research shows, menu labelling, as it is called, may be a powerful way to change the nation’s eating habits.

Research shows that the British public is increasingly eating out and ordering takeaways, rather than preparing food at home. Our earlier research estimates that a quarter of UK adults and a fifth of children eat at a restaurant or order a takeaway at least once a week. Food that isn’t prepared at home tends to be less healthy, more calorific and higher in fat, sugar and salt than food prepared at home. While eating out is a triumph for a large and important commercial sector, it is also contributing to the obesity crisis and the increase in diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cancer.

Still not mandatory

Unlike nutrition labelling on pre-packaged food, which has been around for years and mandated under EU law since 2016, menu labelling is still not mandated in the UK. The government included voluntary menu labelling in its Public Health Responsibility Deal in 2011, and several establishments have since introduced menu labelling.

Of the top 100 chain restaurants in the UK, we recently found that 42 publish nutritional information on their websites, and of these, 14 voluntarily provide menu labelling in their establishments. A proposal for mandated menu labelling was included in the UK government’s Childhood Obesity Plan, and a public consultation closed last December, but no announcement on a final policy has been made so far.

Mandatory menu labelling has been introduced in other countries, including the US in 2019 and parts of Australia.

Calories explained.

Labelled menus mean healthier food

We found that food and drink sold at the top largest UK chain restaurants whose menus display energy information are lower in fat and salt than those of their competitors.

Menu labelling has often been touted as a way to provide information that helps people choose healthier dishes, but several reviews, including a recent Cochrane review, found only modest, poor quality evidence of an effect of menu labelling on purchasing and consumption. Our evidence suggests that the benefit of menu labelling may not necessarily be in helping consumers make healthier choices, but in incentivising restaurants to serve healthier food and drink. Without nutritional information, it is difficult to know where improvements are needed.

Nutritional information is only helpful if it is accurate. A 2018 study on the views of Irish food-service businesses towards voluntary menu labelling found that key barriers to implementing it included concerns about potential inaccuracies in calorie information and the lack of training on how best to provide quality calorie information.

If food outlets are mandated to provide menu labelling, they will need greater support and training to do so. But it may also increase the demand for more accurate, efficient and accessible methods of data collection (typically laboratory or electronic database analysis), promising easier ways to account for the nutritional quality of what’s on restaurant menus.

Should nanny stay at home?

Mandatory labelling will not be popular in all corners. After all, who doesn’t enjoy blowing out at the occasional all-you-can-eat buffet? The challenge is that eating out is not occasional anymore. It is has become habitual.

Fortunately, as we increasingly ditch the kitchen for the restaurant and takeaway, government has found that there is strong public support for menu labelling. Through the Childhood Obesity Plan, the government is exploring many ways to help make it easier for us all to make healthier choices and menu labelling should be considered as one of many policies, not as a silver bullet.

The 6,000-calorie burger is an extreme example. But think about it, when you last ate out, did you know how many calories you were consuming?The Conversation

Dolly Theis, PhD Candidate, University of Cambridge

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.


Read more: further reading on food from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Scottish Learning Festival 2019: getting back to the basics in Scottish education

by Rebecca Jackson

The Scottish Learning Festival (SLF) is the annual conference and exhibition for educational practitioners across Scotland. Across two days thousands of delegates and over 200 exhibitors from across the spectrum of Scottish education gathered at the SEC in Glasgow to take part in over 100 workshops and seminars reflecting the best of Scottish Education.

The conference theme this year was Achieving Excellence and Equity and across the two days delegates and speakers discussed a range of topics related to this, including the empowerment agenda for teachers and learners, how to drive improvement across all areas of education and the importance of wellbeing in developing a healthy and successful learning community, able to achieve the best possible outcomes.

Back to basics in Scottish Education

This year’s keynote address was delivered by the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, John Swinney MSP. In his speech Mr Swinney encouraged delegates to get back to basics on education, emphasising his belief in the importance of the core principles of Scottish Education and how increasing the focus on the “four capacities” can help learners achieve their potential. The four capacities allow learners to become: successful learners; confident individuals; responsible citizens and effective contributors.

Giving teachers autonomy to teach

He emphasised his belief that the autonomy of teachers should be key in the classroom and that teachers are best placed to make the key calls in relation to the learning of their students.  Mr Swinney suggested that helping teachers feel like they can take responsibility for their own workload and to prioritise tasks that directly impact on learning over admin tasks was pivotal in ensuring that curriculum for excellence and the new qualifications recently introduced worked effectively for both teachers and young people. However it was clear from the reaction in the auditorium and in subsequent discussions, that there are some teachers who feel they are quite a way from being able to truly take control of their workload with many highlighting significant amounts of marking and administration and “teaching to test” which prevented them from teaching in the way they would like.

The Cabinet Secretary also faced a number of questions from the floor, including on the funding of special educational needs provision and the idea of mainstreaming (as opposed to funding specialist provision for SEN pupils), as well as questions on teacher workload, the value of National 4 qualifications and multi-level teaching, where national, intermediate and higher levels are all being taught in the same lessons. Mr Swinney said that multi-level teaching was working in some areas, and in some areas it helped to expand the range of subjects pupils are able to choose from, but he admitted that it may not work in all instances and that a review of the practice would be included in a more general review of senior education which has been ordered by the Scottish Government.

The gap that is proving difficult to close

The attainment gap was also high on the agenda,  both in the keynote and in the breakout seminars. Closing the gap and raising attainment among children, young people and learners from disadvantaged backgrounds is something which is clearly a focus of people working across the education sector  in Scotland, but the results and outcomes they are seeing look to be a mix of outstanding success stories and those young learners who are still falling through the net (who provision is not reaching and whose outcomes are not improving). Continuing the work of raising attainment through the Attainment Challenge (which has been granted funding beyond its current deadline to 2021) was highlighted, as was the effective and important work already being done in many schools to help and support those children from poorer backgrounds through their learner journey. The overriding message was to keep going because the gap is closing, even if it is not as quickly as we might like.

Everyone working together for common aims

The breakout seminars spanned topics across education, including early years, special needs education and the engagement of people from outside the school environment to create a holistic approach to the care and support of young people, including through youth work. The resounding tone of the discussions was that there is so much good work being done to support young learners in Scotland, that not only should we recognise it but we should try to share knowledge and learn lessons from it.

The conference ended with a call to action, encouraging practitioners from across the education sector in Scotland to come together, to work in partnership to improve outcomes for young people in Scotland and encourage practitioners and learners alike to strive to be the best they can be for the benefit of Scotland now and in the future.


If you enjoyed this article, keep an eye out for our second blog on the SLF, which reflects on one of the seminars attended by our Research Officer, Scott Faulds.

We have also blogged on a range of topics around education, including on Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services in schools. You can read more here.

Follow us on Twitter to see which subjects are interesting our research team.

Daily exercise can boost children’s exam grades – new research

Guest post by Michael McCluskey, Keele University

 

Most parents are aware that physical activity is good for children – as it can help to improve their sense of self and have a positive impact on their mental health and well-being. But it’s less well known that being fit and active can also help to boost children’s academic performance.

Our recent review of primary school children from Stoke-on-Trent, England, shows that children who are more active perform better in key stage one results in reading, writing and mathematics than less active children – achieving grades that were either average or above average for each subject.

We also looked at how the children’s weight and height changed over the school year in our enjoy exercise. All the children gained weight, but less active children appeared to gain weight at a steeper rate than active children. This may mean these children – who currently have a normal weight and body mass – may be at risk of becoming overweight or obese in the future.

Not enough exercise

A report from Sport England shows that children who enjoy exercise, have confidence in their physical abilities and understand why exercise is important, are more likely to be active regularly. The same report also shows that these children do, on average, twice as much physical activity compared with children who don’t enjoy sport and exercise.

The Department of Health recommends children do at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day – but many children fail to meet these recommendations. This is in keeping with national figures that show only 17.5% of English, 38% of Scottish, 51% of Welsh and 12% of Northern Irish children meet the recommended minimum exercise levels.

But inactivity is not just a problem in the UK. Levels of childhood physical activity have recently been described as a global crisis by the World Health Organisation. Increasing urbanisation, changing patterns in transport, increased use of technology and high levels of poverty are considered to be reasons for the decline.

Of course, not all children naturally love exercise – and many dread PE lessons. Indeed, research shows that children who get regular encouragement and who have access to affordable facilities are more likely to be and stay active.

Be a role model

Given that our research shows the impact physical activity can have on academic performance and growth, it’s clear that children need to be encouraged to be active and given time to play regularly at home, in school and in the local community.

Children should walk more, run, cycle, use their scooter, go to their local playgrounds, dance, swim and play sports. Children should also be encouraged to travel to school on foot or by bike where possible and sit less often and for shorter periods of time.

Playing outdoors can help children to develop creative thinking Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

Importantly, children also need to have positive role models. They need to see parents, family members, teachers and members of the community, enjoying being physically active on a regular basis.

 

This is important because children who are active regularly during childhood are more likely to develop into adults who are active and exercise. And adults who exercise regularly are more likely to live happier and healthier lives than those who do not.The Conversation

Michael McCluskey, Lecturer in Physiotherapy, Keele University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Read more: articles on children and health on The Knowledge Exchange blog:

Gardens of the dead: cemeteries as spaces for nature

The cemetery is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies.Percy Bysshe Shelley, Preface to Adonais (1891)

Percy Shelley’s description of the Protestant Cemetery in Rome perfectly illustrates how the cemetery, often negatively associated with death and decay, can in fact be a place where nature flourishes.

In this blog post, we highlight some of the great work being done to promote and conserve biodiversity in cemeteries, and the wider benefits of this.

Cemeteries as ‘green oases’

The importance of cemeteries as urban green spaces is often overlooked.  Relatively untouched by surrounding urban development, cemeteries often act as green oases, providing a range of important natural habitats for many different – and often rare – plant life and animals.

Indeed, as the 2000-01 Select Committee Report on Cemeteries observes:

Cemeteries support a wide range of habitats, including relict grasslands, heath, ancient and secondary woodland, scrub, hedges, ponds and flushes, as well as more artificial features such as high maintenance lawns, stands of trees, ornamental flower beds, and shrubberies. In addition, buildings, monuments, tombs and headstones, made from a variety of rocks, can provide support for lichens, mosses and ferns, as well as providing geological interest. A large number of rare species of trees, plants, fungi, invertebrates, reptiles, birds and mammals are found in cemeteries. Cemeteries are often designated as local Wildlife Sites, and sometimes as Nature Reserves.

Green space such as that provided by cemeteries, churchyards and other burial sites is important for a number of reasons.

From an environmental perspective, green space can help to address the negative effects of climate change, including the catastrophic decline in the number of insects. And from a human perspective, research has consistently shown the health and wellbeing benefits of access to green space.

Thus, cemeteries have an important role to play in both supporting the environment and promoting the health and wellbeing of local people.

Case study: Glasgow Necropolis

The Glasgow Necropolis is an impressive example of a Victorian garden cemetery, designed to be both inspiring and aesthetically pleasing.

Today, it is the second largest greenspace in the centre of Glasgow and provides a diverse range of habitats for wildlife, including sandy slopes, ivy-covered rock, wooded areas and unmown areas of grass and wildflowers.

The Friends of Glasgow Necropolis is a charity staffed entirely by volunteers dedicated to the conservation of the cemetery.

As well important monument conservation and restoration projects, and hosting walking tours to engage and educate the public, they also work to support the cemetery’s role as a space for nature.  One key aspect of this is recording and monitoring the flora and fauna within the cemetery.

Recent surveys have found that the Necropolis supports over 400 species of animals – including a variety of species of birds, bees, butterflies, insects and spiders, as well as deer, foxes, squirrels and rabbits, and a variety of other small mammals. Some of these species are particularly rare, including the aptly-named hoverfly, Eumerus funeralis.

There is also a wide diversity of plant life.  In total, 180 species of flowering plants and trees have been recorded in the Necropolis, and there are also at least 15 species of lichens – including one rare species (Lecania cyrtella).

Other key projects have sought to actively enhance the biodiversity of the cemetery – such as the creation of a wildflower meadow, planted with the help of local school children, and the creation of the ‘Green Man’ – a 3D grass head sculpture, in collaboration with the Glasgow School of Art, Glasgow City Council, Dennistoun Community Council, Dennistoun Conservation Society and Foundation Scotland.

There are also plans underway to create a ‘tree map’ for the Necropolis – a visual representation of the different tree species that exist within the cemetery grounds.

Engaging local communities

Across the UK there are a number of examples of other grassroots projects working to promote, conserve and engage local communities in cemeteries’ rich natural heritage.

Some notable examples include:

There have also larger-scale projects and campaigns to promote the role of cemeteries as havens for wildlife.

Caring for God’s Acre is a charity working to “support groups and individuals to investigate, care for, and enjoy burial grounds”.

For a week in June each year, they run a national ‘Love your Burial Ground’ campaign, which encourages people to connect with and celebrate their local churchyards, cemeteries and burial grounds through a variety of local events.

They are also responsible for running the ‘Beautiful Burial Grounds Project’ – a £600,000 Heritage Lottery Fund project that aims to “inspire, engage and support interest groups, communities and individuals to learn about, research and survey the natural, built and social heritage of their local burial grounds”.

The project includes collecting, collating and disseminating data on the importance of burial grounds for biodiversity, providing training events on recording biodiversity and disseminating a variety of resources such as short films, toolkits and pop ups to encourage communities to value their burial grounds as refuges for wildlife.

The Green Flag Award scheme has also been involved in the promotion of cemeteries as spaces for nature.  The scheme “recognises and rewards well managed parks and green spaces” and at present, over 80 cemeteries have received this award, including Tipton Cemetery in Sandwell, and the new Dumbarton Cemetery – the first cemetery in Scotland to be awarded a Green Flag.

Challenges to address

There are of course a number of challenges to be addressed if the full potential of cemeteries as green spaces are to be realised.

Firstly, there is a lack of data on the plant and animal species that exist within cemeteries.  This lack of ecological awareness can mean that sometimes burial ground management and maintenance can be well-intentioned, but inappropriate or damaging.  Thus, projects to record species – such as those conducted by the Friends of Glasgow Necropolis and other cemeteries’ friends groups – are incredibly important.

There is also a need to find an appropriate balance between allowing nature to flourish and ensuring that the cemetery remains accessible.  For example, there have been complaints that long grass around headstones can make it difficult for some people to visit family graves.  The Select Committee Report on Cemeteries notes that: “conservation must not be confused with neglect. A neglected cemetery does not become a haven for flora and fauna.”

Health and safety is another key consideration.  Unstable memorials can cause serious – and sometimes fatal – injuries.  Any project operating within cemeteries needs to be aware of this risk, particularly if it involves children or young people.  The Scottish Government recently published guidance for local authorities on inspecting and making safe memorials and headstones.

Other potential barriers to the use of cemeteries as green spaces include the lack of onsite facilities, such as toilets and bins, physical constraints, such as steep stairs, lack of vehicle access/wheelchair access, and concerns about visitor safety and anti-social behaviour.  These issues, however, are not insurmountable – for example, the Friends of Glasgow Necropolis have recognised these accessibility concerns and raised funds from grant applications to resurface many of the paths on the lower levels of the cemetery to make it easier for people with mobility problems to get around.

‘Living places’ that inspire

It is worth remembering too that cemeteries were set up not just to bury the dead but to stir the Muses among the living.” Fiona Green, a landscape historian, quotes John Strang‘s Necropolis Glasguensis (1831)

Cemeteries are not just for the dead.  They are in many ways ‘living places’ – havens for a range of plant and animal species in the midst of urban housing and development.  They also have an important role to play in the wider community, providing opportunities for local people to connect with and be inspired by nature.

And hopefully, after reading about the many ways in which people across the country are getting involved with nature at their own local burial grounds, you may be similarly inspired.


If you’ve enjoyed this blog, take a look at some more posts on the subject of biodiversity: