Loneliness in children: what can teachers do about it?

As new research reveals worrying findings about pupil wellbeing, co-author Daniel Muijs explains what teachers should do next

Daniel Muijs

Loneliness in children: what can teachers do?

Today, Edurio has published some research that should concern everyone who works in education. The research, of which I was co-author, asked 45,000 pupils from 165 primary, secondary and all-through schools about wellbeing, safeguarding and support during the summer term in 2021. 

A quarter of pupils say that they feel lonely, and two-fifths feel they don’t have an adult at school they can talk to. Around 15 per cent say they do not speak to anyone when they feel sad or worried. When it comes to stress, 55 per cent of girls reported feelings of stress, compared to 36 per cent of boys. 

The research also suggests that there is a correlation between pupils’ wellbeing and a school's Ofsted rating: 49 per cent of pupils feel stressed at "outstanding" schools compared to 44 per cent at "good" schools. The changes aren’t large but are statistically significant.


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In particular, many pupils feel stressed and have problems sleeping – this peaks in exam years. The reasons for this are, in many cases, not down to individual schools. Indeed, family situations and Covid lockdowns are mentioned frequently by respondents. And of course, we know that typically, schools have a good provision in place for supporting pupils’ mental health. 

However, there are some issues coming out of these findings that schools should look at more closely. 

The pressure of exams and performance

We can see that, for example, pupils tell us that stress and poor sleeping are partly caused by the pressure of exams and performance. At first sight, the response to this may be to call for an abolition of exams, as some have done, or a reduction of academic demands on pupils.

This is not the right approach. As we have seen, following the temporary cessation of exams during the pandemic, the lack of standardisation of results can lead to greater inequality between groups of pupils (for example, those in public and private schools), grade inflation, and a lack of reliability. It also doesn’t make sense to lower standards, which is likely to especially harm pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

There are things, however, that schools can do to mitigate exam stress. For example, making greater use of retrieval practice, so pupils are both better prepared for exams and can more easily retrieve knowledge. Another worthwhile approach would be to further develop pupils’ self-regulation and metacognition. Schools should consider teaching effective study skills, such as self-testing and spaced practice, which again may leave pupils feeling better prepared for these exams and reduce stress.

Feelings of loneliness

There are some new and notable findings from this study that deserve greater attention. As mentioned above, a quarter of pupils say they feel lonely. Of course, this may be partly down to lockdowns, but is clearly a major threat to pupils’ mental health. It would be useful to learn more about the reasons for this. We should explore whether there are particular things we can do in terms of supporting social networks during lockdowns, for example.

Particularly vulnerable pupils 

We also see that some groups of pupils appear particularly vulnerable. For example, wellbeing is significantly lower among pupils who identify as neither boys nor girls, and levels of reported bullying appear particularly high for pupils from Arab backgrounds. While we always need to be careful to generalise from the group to the individual pupil, it is sensible to ensure we are alert to the situation faced by these pupils in particular. 

Other findings reflect previous studies: the lower levels of wellbeing for girls than boys, for example, likely reflects established societal pressures on girls. It highlights the continuing importance of addressing girls and boys equality in the curriculum and dealing firmly with the safeguarding issues that affect girls.

Schools are first and foremost, spaces for learning. But pupils’ wellbeing does concern us as well. There is no contradiction here: good schools can, and do, serve both purposes by creating a safe, orderly and inclusive culture in which all pupils can be supported to thrive.

Daniel Muijs is dean of the School of Education and Society at Academica University of Applied Sciences, and formerly deputy director at Ofsted. He is the co-author of Edurio’s Pupil Learning Experience and Wellbeing Review

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