Supporting Children's Return to School Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic

Insights from Research with Syrian Refugee Children


July 1, 2020

The events of the past month have underscored the urgency of working together towards a more just and equitable world for children and families around the world. In our last communication, we outlined four distinct ways that Global TIES for Children is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. In this communication, we focus on the first of these ways: Sharing evidence about how to best support children as schools around the world prepare to reopen.

School closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic have left nearly 1.6 billion children and youth out of school around the world, while the cascading economic impacts are anticipated to force millions more to drop out [1] Recent research indicates that even short-term, 14-week school closures can have significant long-term repercussions on children’s academic outcomes [2]. Such losses are not only the direct result of school closures. They likely represent the cumulative and compounding impact of returning to schools that are unprepared to meet the diverse needs of children, limiting children’s ability to keep up with or engage with the curriculum [3]

Our own research with Syrian refugee children in Lebanon conducted pre-pandemic suggests that such cumulative experiences of adversity can have repercussions for both children’s academic and social and emotional skills.

The research, recently published in the Journal for Applied Developmental Psychology, was conducted in collaboration with the International Rescue Committee and supported by Dubai Cares and the  E-Cubed Research Envelope. In the paper and corresponding policy brief, we examine adversities faced by Syrian refugee children enrolled in Lebanese public schools. The risk factor that was most consistently associated with developmental and learning difficulties was being older than expected for the grade in which they were placed, what we call “age-for-grade”.

One possible explanation for such findings is that age-for-grade is a marker that a child has faced numerous risks earlier in childhood that interrupted schooling and/or impaired learning. Alternatively, being older than expected for a grade can mean being in a classroom without same-age peers or developmentally appropriate teaching practices, routines, and learning materials. In this case, prolonged exposure to such a learning environment may itself result in cognitive, behavioral, and academic challenges. 

In the policy brief, we recommend that practitioners:

  • Consider both children’s age and learning level in placing children in classrooms;
  • Use differentiated instructional and pedagogical strategies appropriate for children’s varying ages, where age-blended classrooms are necessary; and 
  • Incorporate evidence-based strategies that promote children’s executive functioning and behavioral regulation skills—such as Social Emotional Learning (SEL) practices and curricula—into education programming.

As children around the world return to school in 2020 and beyond, it is likely that a cohort of children have experienced learning losses that may result in placement in lower grades than is usual for their age. Insights from global developmental science can help us best prepare to support these children. Indeed, if there are any silver linings in the current crises, it is the opportunities they present to rebuild our current systems such that they not only stop further disadvantaging those already most vulnerable, but actually help them catch up. 

As we share more about our work in responding to the pandemic and economic and political shocks in the coming months, we would love to hear from you and stay engaged around this timely conversation.