Headteacher Magazine, guide to services and products for UK Schools
For many children, the start of the new school year is a time of great excitement. The first day back after the summer holidays is a great time to catch up with friends, but it’s also a time to look to the future and take advantage of the many exciting opportunities that are in store.
This, however, is not true for every child. At a time when classrooms should be full of excited children, not every seat in the class is taken. In fact, research shows that 72,000 children in the UK alone have a long-term or chronic illness - something that in a number of cases inhibits them from attending school regularly and joining the throng of children at the beginning of the school year.
To better understand how we can help these children, we spoke to Karen Dolva, the CEO and co-founder of No Isolation - a company that designs technology to help those who are chronically isolated…
Why is social isolation an important issue for children?
I was inspired to found No Isolation after meeting Anne Fi Troye - a mother who had lost her teenage daughter to cancer in 2005. In the years after the original diagnosis, both Anne Fi and her daughter Cornelia experienced a level of solitude that was, in her own words, “much worse than the diagnosis, the pain, and the treatment.” After hearing this, we kept meeting people that that would recount this same experience, and I knew that technology could be harnessed to help these children. A child suffering from long-term illness does not need their friends and their social environment any less than their healthy peers.
Social isolation can have a huge impact on a child’s learning and development. Being away from school and friends for an extended period of time affects the way that they interact with others. Not having the opportunity to experience social situations and learn how to navigate them at school can leave children with the feeling that they are missing out.
According to Dr. Gerine Lodder, who is a postdoctoral researcher of loneliness amongst young people from the University of Groningen, “lonely youngsters perform worse at school, become depressed, and can…have more difficulty reaching out to others in comparison to their peers.”
As well as the emotional and social learning that they are missing out on, socially isolated children can also suffer from depression and a range of other mental health issues. For children who may already find themselves battling illness and chronic conditions, isolation can be one of the most difficult things to come to terms with.
How can we tackle social isolation in schools?
Social isolation is not something that is easily ‘curable’; however, by simply recognising how widespread loneliness is, we can begin to take positive steps towards helping those suffering from isolation.
In daily life, isolation and loneliness is still a taboo subject. Though we have seen a lot discussion around the issue in the media, it can be difficult for children and adults alike to tell others, or even recognise themselves, that they are suffering. The lack of discussion around isolation amongst most adults also means that it can be difficult for parents or teachers to recognise when a child is suffering.
Opening up a conversation about isolation in schools, and teaching children about what it means to be lonely can go a long way towards starting natural conversations about it outside of school. A willingness to discuss issues such as these in the classroom can normalise isolation and loneliness, and will enable us all to provide help to those who need it.
Another way that we can tackle social isolation in schools is through technology. Social media, although divisive, is an example of a tool that isolated children can use to connect with their friends. In a world in which technology has become a means of making the effective members of society more effective, then logically it can be used to find a solution for those who need it most.
Are there any concrete steps we can take to help those who are already isolated?
Social isolation is subjective, and as such there is no one-size-fits-all solution. What we can do, however, is identify what each group of people needs to be able to tackle their isolation, and begin to create tailored solutions for each group.
In the research we conducted when designing a solution specifically for children, we found that those who were already suffering from chronic conditions typically did not want to be on display to their classmates. This is why we made sure that AV1, our telepresence robot, had two-way audio, but only one-way video, thereby ensuring that the children could be comfortable while using the device and not worry about being literally on display.
We also ensured that the child was the key decision maker when it came to using AV1. Only the child can decide when AV1 is on or off, as they activate the robot by connecting to it via a secure app. When connected, the child is present and in the room. If they are not feeling well, and want to passively participate, they can turn AV1’s head blue. When they want to leave, they can disconnect from AV1. This way, the child is not required to participate unless they actively want to, and we understood that this feeling of control was important.
It is findings such as these, and products such as AV1, that we hope will help highlight the huge need to create solutions that are designed to alleviate feelings of loneliness amongst specific groups of people, rather than attempting to create one blanket solution, designed to solve every problem for everyone, but in actuality solves none.
There is still a long way to go, but the more we talk about it, the more we can understand and innovate. Hopefully, in time, we will find ourselves much closer to solving the huge issue that is unnecessary social isolation.
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