The importance of community connections

Karen Dolva

Karen Dolva, cofounder and CEO of No Isolation, was born in Norway. She studied Computer Science and Interaction Design at the University of Oslo, a leading institution in the field of education and research. Karen was began to research how technology could be used to support children with debilitating illnesses in the summer of 2015, after meeting Anne Fi Troye, a mother who had lost her teenage daughter to cancer in 2005.

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Image credit: Pixabay // ambermb. Image credit: Pixabay // ambermb.

Loneliness is an increasingly detrimental issue that strikes the most vulnerable groups in society the hardest, with children and seniors being especially susceptible. Yet, it spares no one. 45% of British people report sometimes feeling lonely, and as many as 18% feel lonely all the time. Loneliness is not only an issue of scale; it has also been labelled as being worse for us than obesity and physical inactivity, having negative effects on both mental and physical health. So what do school communities need to know to help tackle this issue?

In 2018, the UK set a bold precedent by becoming the first country to appoint a minister for loneliness and followed this by announcing shortly after that it wants to become the leading country in the world for dementia care and research. This shows that progress is being made, and that people are starting to understand the extent of the problem. However, there is still a long way to go in terms of solving the issue of loneliness and social isolation.

Loneliness is often associated with feeling like a social failure. The taboo of loneliness is passed down through generations, and can be extremely problematic, “The more self-conscious we are, the harder it is to seek help.”something about which those affected can become very self-conscious or shy. The more self-conscious we are, the harder it is to seek help. The longer it takes to get help, the more lonely someone gets. The more lonely someone is, the more self-conscious they become. This creates a cycle of isolation that feeds itself, and if we are to end social isolation and loneliness, through the school community and beyond, then this is a pattern that desperately needs to be broken.

As young children, most of the social contact experienced comes from within the family. However, as we grow up, we experience a shift, where more attention is given to peers in and out of school. This shift makes us more vulnerable to feeling lonely, and is especially common in children moving from Primary to Secondary school. These pupils experience changes in their environment, their responsibilities and their peers. Dr Gerine Lodder, an expert in social development from the University of Groningen, stated that “80% of parents underestimate or overestimate the level of loneliness of their child”. Loneliness in children is important to combat, as the effects it can have on later life are severe and often psychologically and socially damaging.

Children diagnosed with a long-term illness are particularly vulnerable, as they often miss a lot of school, and therefore miss out on many social interactions. Lacking this contact during early years of development can be devastating, and can lead children to become anxious, isolated, and lonely. In Europe alone, more than 500,000 children between the age of 6 and 19 with long-term illness are unable to attend school for extended periods of time. In the UK, this number is over 70,000. The research is crystal clear: School absence resulting from illness and disconnection from peers due to illness has a profound negative effect on a child’s social and emotional wellbeing. The absence is correlated with grade retention, achievement gaps, and dropout rates.

An article from the Australian Journal of Education by Liza Hopkins and her peers stated that “reducing the risk of disengagement during periods of absence” is “critical in avoiding premature school leaving and educational underachievements for these students.” For children, school is the primary social arena, and therefore missing out on these daily interactions breaks the norm for developing children. Additionally, school is a normalised area of social contact, and as children attend with the same peers daily, time passes quickly. This means that even missing two weeks of school can feel like a very long time, and keeping up with what is happening at school while absent for months is very difficult. The social and educational gap this creates makes it even harder for the affected children to reintegrate to their daily routines when they come back.

Hopkins et al further stated that “keeping students with health conditions connected to school and learning is critical to avoid a trajectory of school absence, disengagement from schoolwork and peers, reduced achievement in education and early school leaving.”

Missing lessons and the contact required to acquire learning skills can significantly affect a child’s overall education. Having the support through technology, school, “Missing two weeks of school can feel like a very long time.”and parents at home, can make a huge difference in allowing children bound to their house to participate and learn. Recognising the importance of this support system means part of the process for improving the issue is complete. We cannot completely abolish loneliness without first realising why it is such an issue, acknowledging the effect it has, and by doing so, remove the stigma of loneliness and social isolation.

Practical steps to help alleviate loneliness within this group can be subjective, however there are three very important stigmas that need to be broken for progress to be made.

1. We need to be able to recognise and acknowledge loneliness, and differentiate it from social isolation. We need to define what loneliness is and why it is such an issue.

2. We need to break the taboo around loneliness by talking about it more, and normalise it in the classroom. Then it will be easier to accept for ourselves and others around, and thus a dialogue can be started.

3. We need to learn to ask for help. Sometimes these emotions need to talked through with friends, family or a professional, and this should be encouraged throughout the school.

If we learn that feeling lonely is normal, and is socially acceptable, then we are likely to take giant steps forwards in stopping it.

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