Children, neurodevelopment, learning, mental health and schools:

Children, neurodevelopment, learning, mental health and schools:

Schools and education play an important protective role for all children, including the most vulnerable, in terms of cognitive, language, social, emotional and physical development, mental health, physical health, social risk and well-being.  Please see statements relating to normative activities. Systemic risk and protective factors in the context of #covid19 must however be identified, considered, weighed and managed by professionals with experience in this context.  

Doctors with training and experience in neurodevelopment, especially in the context of respiratory infections, will likely have concerns regarding schools opening without additional and effective risk reducing initiatives.  Most adults who work with children present with frequently increased incidence of upper respiratory infections (colds or flu).  Children also visit grandparents and elderly relatives, and engage within the general community unsupervised or supervised.  This impacts on risk for communities.  

Normal neurodevelopmental stages of children indicate that children (without learning, neurodevelopmental and mental health problems) are often significantly more physically playful, fidgety, impulsive, inattentive and forgetful than adults.  Consider research where authority figures inform children that they cannot touch an object; that it would very likely result in imminent death.  Children proceed to touching and playing with the object within minutes.  This is normal behaviour for most children without mental health, neurodevelopmental or learning problems.  Research indicates that adults (mostly with fully developed frontal lobes and neurological systems) touch their faces more or less 16-23 times per hour, often without registering this behaviour.  In Europe and the UK, we observe most adults touching their faces underneath their masks with unwashed hands on a daily basis, masks hanging on ears or chins, or adults dropping masks on wet floors and wearing it again.  Children’s behaviour in this context will likely not be safer or more responsible, the contrary will be likely. 

Mental health problems, learning problems or neurodevelopmental disorders such as ASD or ADHD, often increase these features, relating to physical playfulness, fidgeting, impulsivity, inattentiveness and forgetfulness, markedly for children or adults.  

In the UK more or less 2.5% of children present with learning disabilities, as reported by MENCAP.  Learning problems are more prevalent, 14.9% of school aged children have special educational needs, as reported by GOV. UK.  Many children with learning problems have not been identified.  More or less 30% of children with developmental delay, present with associated mental health problems or concerns. 

Prevalence of neurodevelopmental disorders, such as ADHD, in children is more or less 3-4% in England and Wales.  It must be noted that children in this category are often most vulnerable for co-morbid mental health morbidity, often presenting with more than one co-morbid mental health diagnosis or concern, which are not always easy to identify; this is one of the reasons we recommend that children are assessed, diagnosed and treated or managed by Child Psychiatrists with training, CCTs, in Child Psychiatry, and that children with ADHD or ASD remain within generic CAMHS teams, rather than be referred to separate neurodevelopmental, ADHD or ASD teams.  Children also often wait months or years on ADHD waiting lists, whilst presenting with serious co-morbid concerns such as depression and suicidal ideation, which lead to markedly increased risk.  Co-morbidities of ADHD include depression (15%), anxiety disorders (25%), learning disabilities (15-40%), language impairment (15-75%), Oppositional Defiant Disorder (35-50%) and Conduct Disorder (25%).  More than 50% of children with ADHD meet criteria for 2 co-morbid conditions.  

The WHO reports that more or less 20% of adolescents may experience a mental health problem in any given year.  GOV.UK reports that more or less 12.5% of 5-19 year olds had at least one mental health disorder and that more or less 5% met criteria for 2 or more mental health disorders (survey 2017, published 2019).  The Children’s Society reports that more or less 10% of children and young people aged 5-16 years have a clinically diagnosable mental health problem, yet 70% of children and adolescents with mental health problems have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age.

It might be relevant to add in this context, considering recent research published by the Lancet, that longstanding research indicates that all or most physical health problems or disorders can increase mental health morbidity by up to 50%, neurological injury can increase prevalence by up to 500%, and neurological injury associated with epilepsy can increase prevalence by up to 1000%.

Biological risks in schools will affect risk in communities.  Risk reducing initiatives have been employed to reduce the risk in many countries for children attending schools.  Children now rotate through schools in some countries to keep the numbers down per classroom and at the school in general, for instance in corridors, to facilitate social distancing and reduce risk.  We have observed that social distancing is possible in almost all contexts in the public. Temperature screens and health questionnaires are also in place for every student and teacher to complete every morning at home before attending schools on interactive apps. Many countries still identify individuals with symptoms by paper questionnaires and old fashioned temperature screens, this is also effective.

Creative evidence-based options to reduce risk are always available in every domain and context, however, it is essential that risk factors and protective factors are identified, acknowledged, understood and managed appropriately, with regular review.  The importance of eduction for the general public is relevant in this and every context.  We offer pro bono training and presentations relating to this topic to staff supporting vulnerable children such as teachers, youth offending teams, Social Care or the Police, twice a year. Please contact us at for details of upcoming training events.

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