Guiselle Alpizar (MEP), Loreto Biehl (IDB), Juan M. Hernández-Agramonte (IPA), Olga Namen (IPA), Emma Näslund-Hadley (IDB), Laura Ochoa (ICBF), and Brunilda Peña de Osorio (MINED)
As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages, the chaos of taking on distance or hybrid education in addition to worries of contracting the disease, joblessness and everyday stresses can trigger negative mental health outcomes for parents.
In Latin America, the Ministries of Education in El Salvador (MINED) and Costa Rica (MEP) and the Institute of Family Wellbeing in Colombia (ICBF) joined forces with Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to explore teacher and parent experiences with emergency distance education. Teachers experienced increased distress from being on call 24/7 during the pandemic related school-closures. Among parents, around 85% of the 61,000 caregivers surveyed in the three countries report experiencing deteriorated mental health based on the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CESD-R).
The levels of distress are particularly elevated among mothers of young children who shoulder the bulk of the burden of supporting children’s distance education (84%). The pursuing gender gaps in mental health outcomes are troubling, including gender gaps in sadness (28%), lack of appetite (27%), overall distress (24%), fear (19%), exhaustion (17%) and insomnia (15%).
Close to two-thirds of mothers (63%) report that they are struggling with the distance education and that they need assistance. Among mothers who report that they cannot manage the distance education of their children by themselves, the levels of stress are 12% higher compared with mothers who report coping on their own, controlling for the socioeconomic level of the household.
Whether fathers are involved in distance education matters. The overall gender mental health gap in households where fathers are involved in their children’s education is 21%, compared to 16% in households where the father is not engaged.
The long-term costs for children with caregivers of poor mental health will be high.Using the Family Care Indicators (FCI), we find that the higher the level of distress of mothers and fathers, the lower their levels of investment in their children in terms of quality time (e.g. playing, reading and singing) and type and quantity of toys. Although higher income groups report more elevated levels of investment in children, the decline is consistent across socio-economic groups. The findings are aligned with previous international research, which concludes that parental stress has long-term implications for children’s brain development.
Parental distress also places children at risk of violence. We find that the level of distress is positively associated with caregivers’ reported use of violent discipline. In Colombia, families with high levels of distress have a 50% increased likelihood to use violent punishments. In Costa Rica and El Salvador the corresponding numbers are 40% and 33%.
The use of violent punishments is more prevalent in higher income socioeconomic groups. Telework, which is more common in this group, appears to add to stress and the use of violent punishments. Parents who manage their children’s education while also teleworking report higher levels of distress than their peers that do not telework. This group is also 20% more prone to use violent punishment after controlling for socioeconomic level.
The endless COVID-19 tunnel is overwhelming for many parents who multitask work, schooling, and childcare responsibilities amid concerns about their families’ health and finances. Women bear the brunt of these added family responsibilities, and experience disproportionately high levels of mental distress.
A household’s resilience depends on its ability to be stable and flexible in the face of adversity. This resilience is ultimately determined by its members’ 21st Century Skills, including collaboration among parents and family members around household chores, distance education and other activities, and joint problem solving. Resilience also includes the ability to be emotionally empathetic and supportive of one another, and the use of mindfulness practices in parenting. These emotional skills are being put to the test at an unprecedented scale in the face of social distancing and joblessness, and when children loose parents or grandparents.
In this context, it is important to incorporate in the national early childhood curriculum of each country, a component of family training in parenting to promote gender equality and prevention of violence in the family environment. Key areas of the curriculum include training in strategies to generate children’s sense of belonging both in their nuclear environment and in the support networks of which their families are part; and to support the development of empathy and self-regulation.
How do we involve more fathers in their children’s distance education? What steps can be taken to support the coping mechanisms of families during the pandemic? Share your comments with us in the section below, or comment on Twitter mentioning @BIDEducacion #EnfoqueEducacion
Stay tuned and follow our blog series on education and #skills21 in times of coronavirus. Read the first entry of these series here. Download the Future is now and don’t forget to keep an eye out for our news!
 We thank Kelly Montaño, Rayssa Ruiz y Carlos Urrutia from IPA for their excellent research assistance; and Ekizache Foxua for the graphic design.