Student Well-Being

Are the Kids All Right? What New Federal Data Say About Child Well-Being

By Evie Blad — March 14, 2022 | Corrected: March 17, 2022 5 min read
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Corrected: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this headline contained a misspelling.

Rates of children’s physical inactivity, misbehavior, and unmet health needs shot up during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic alongside concerns about parental stress, according to a new analysis of federal data on child well-being.

Meanwhile, the numbers of children diagnosed with depression and anxiety stayed on pre-pandemic trendlines, growing steadily between 2016 and 2020.

In findings with significant implications for the work of schools, researchers at the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration examined a trove of parent-reported data collected between 2016 and 2020. They analyzed five-year trends and looked for statistically significant increases between 2019 and 2020 in an effort to identify problems that may have been worsened by the pandemic and the continuation of troubling patterns that predate the national crisis.

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Examining 36 different indicators of child well-being, researchers also saw increasing rates of parental job transitions during the first year of the pandemic.

“Today’s study confirms what all too many of us know and feel in our daily lives: COVID-19 was an exceptional burden on the mental well-being of our nation’s families, including kids,” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement in response to the study, which was published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics, a journal of the American Medical Association.

But it’s premature to draw a definite causal link between the changes in data and the pandemic, the authors wrote. The survey questions are fielded between June and January each year, researchers cautioned. And some questions, about issues like health care, asked parents to look back 12 months, which means their 2020 responses may reflect pre-pandemic experiences.

Challenges in meeting student needs

The data come as school districts grapple with growing student needs by creating new mental health programs, connecting families to community resources like food pantries, and improving methods of identifying and supporting students experiencing homelessness. Schools are aided by an unprecedented infusion of federal relief aid, but district administrators say they still face significant hurdles, like staffing challenges.

In his March 1 State of the Union Address, President Joe Biden pledged to ease some of those concerns by working with Congress to allow schools to bill Medicaid for mental health services and by cutting red tape on telehealth programs, which are used in an increasing number of schools.

The study’s authors used five years of data from the National Survey of Children’s Health, a nationally representative survey completed by parents and guardians of about 175,000 randomly selected children from birth to 17 years old in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

“This analysis provides an opportunity to evaluate the nation’s progress (or lack thereof) in improving the health and well-being of U.S. children and their families, including the first opportunity to use the [survey data] to investigate potential effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the study’s authors wrote.

Among the key findings:

  • Children’s diagnoses of depression and anxiety continued to climb in 2020, keeping pace with a trend that emerged in the years prior to the pandemic. Between 2016 and 2020, the number of children diagnosed with anxiety grew by 29 percent, and the number diagnosed with depression grew by 27 percent.
  • Despite those growing needs, the analysis detected no statistically significant uptick in the portion of children who received mental health treatment over the last five years. In 2020, 80 percent of children who needed mental health care received services, the survey found.
  • The analysis found a 21 percent increase in children with behavior or conduct problems reported by their parents or caregivers between 2019 and 2020, echoing anecdotal concerns educators have shared with Education Week about students’ social skills, self-control, and emotional maturity.
  • The proportion of children who received preventive care visits dropped by 9 percent between 2019 and 2020 after remaining relatively stable the previous four years. Reports of unmet health-care needs also grew; 3 percent of respondents reported unmet needs in 2016, a number that stayed relatively stable until it spiked to 4 percent in the 2020 surveys, the analysis found.
  • Children’s physical activity continued a decline that started in the years prior to the pandemic. The number of respondents who say their children got an hour a day of physical activity decreased by 18 percent between 2016 and 2020.
  • The number of parents who reported “coping very well with the demands of raising children” decreased in the years prior to the pandemic, but it dropped more significantly from 2019 to 2020. About 60 percent of respondents agreed with that statement on the 2020 survey, compared to about 67 percent in 2016. The most-recent survey was fielded as parents juggled remote work, employment disruptions, and closures of schools and child-care providers.
  • The proportion of children whose parents “quit a job, declined a job, or changed jobs because of child-care problems” increased by 34 percent between 2019 and 2020.

Caution on drawing a firm connection to COVID

But the study’s authors raised some caveats in looking at the data.

“Cautious interpretation of the 2020 estimates is warranted, and additional years of data are needed to determine whether 2020 was truly a turning point for certain trends and how long the indirect effects of the pandemic may last,” they wrote.

Still, the findings echo other data points and conversations among educators.

For example, on a national survey of educators administered by the EdWeek Research Center in January, 39 percent of respondents said that “compared to prior to the pandemic in 2019, the social skills and emotional maturity levels” of their current students are “much less advanced.” Forty-one percent said their students’ were “somewhat less advanced” in those areas, and 16 percent said they were “about the same” as their pre-pandemic peers.

Educators attributed those concerns to interruptions in in-person learning time, a divisive political climate among adults, and family stressors, like parental employment issues.

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