By contrast, just one in six children saw their social and emotional development improve over this period. These statistics highlight that the pandemic’s impact on children stretches well beyond lost learning.

These results are drawn from a unique survey run by IFS and the UCL Institute of Education in February 2021, funded by the Nuffield Foundation. The researchers asked parents 13 questions about their child’s behaviours (for example, how often the child appeared worried, easily lost confidence, or had tantrums) both in February 2021 and, retrospectively, a year earlier. 

While children from all backgrounds saw their social and emotional skills worsen, some groups were more affected than others. Children aged 4 to 7 years were 10 percentage points more likely to have seen their social and emotional development worsen than 12- to 15-year-olds (52% versus 42%). And, unlike previous research into academic learning loss, the study finds no evidence that children in disadvantaged families fared worse.

Most notably, children whose parents’ pre-COVID employment situation changed were far more likely to see their social and emotional skills worsen. This happened even in cases where parents were furloughed, pointing to the important negative impact that parental job instability can have on children even when not accompanied by significant earnings loss. 

The study demonstrates that economic instability affects children’s development – the relationship is not just down to other shared causes. There are several explanations for this link, including actual and expected earnings loss caused by job instability, as well as the adverse effects that job instability had on parental well-being. These results highlight that economic turbulence affects not just the worker him or herself, but also has knock-on impacts on children

Andrew McKendrick, Research Economist at IFS and an author of the report, said: ‘During the COVID-19 pandemic, children from all backgrounds saw their social and emotional skills worsen considerably. Children lived through many changes during these years: school closures, lack of contact with friends and family, and potentially devastating severe illness or death among loved ones. Our research shows that another important driver of children’s declining skills was the economic disruptions experienced by their parents, whether or not those disruptions led to a large income loss. With the cost of living crisis currently hitting many families’ budgets, our findings are a reminder that economic uncertainty can have multi-generational impacts.’

Josh Hillman, Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation, said: ‘This important research highlights yet another adverse and compounding effect the pandemic had on children and young people, particularly those whose parents stopped working or were furloughed. Children’s social and emotional development is important, not only in its own right, but also in supporting their capacity to learn and achieve in school, which in turn can bolster their longer-term outcomes.’

Notes to Editor

1. ‘How did parents’ experiences in the labour market shape children’s social and emotional development during the pandemic?’ is a report written by Sarah Cattan (IFS and IZA), Christine Farquharson (IFS), Sonya Krutikova (IFS and University of Manchester), Andrew McKendrick (IFS) and Almudena Sevilla (LSE), embargoed to 0001 Tuesday 1st August.