SPI Global Initiatives Socioeconomic Impacts of COVID-19

Pandemic isolation increasing negative behaviors among children in Israel

By Oren Heller, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Michal Grinstein-Weiss, Director; Yaniv Shlomo, Senior Fellow; and Jason Jabbari, Research Assistant Professor

On September 14, 2021, two weeks after the opening of the school year, approximately 150,000 Israeli children – more than 8% of students in the education system – were in isolation, according to the Ministry of Health. Isolation as a result of COVID-19 exposure is a key public health protocol to mitigate the spread of the virus; however, new survey results indicate increased isolations are associated with anger, violence, difficulties sleeping, and prolonged screen time.

The Social Policy Institute at Washington University in St. Louis conducted an online survey in Israel between March 25 and April 5, 2021 with a representative sample of 1,055 parents of children up to 18. Using data from this survey, we explore the relationship between isolations and children’s behaviors and find that increased isolations affect children’s behaviors and that isolated children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds often face increased difficulties. The findings presented in this study suggest an additional perspective on the unintended consequences of isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, which may be relevant to policymakers for adjustments of isolation policy, and for school leaders and parents to better understand children’s current needs.

Who are the students in isolation?

In the 2020-2021 school year, about half (52%) of the children of Israel were in isolation at least once and about one-fifth (17%) were isolated more than once. Here, it is important to note that the 2020-2021 school year was characterized by many school closure periods in which students stayed home anyways; thus, these isolations were harder relative to isolations during the 2021-2022 school year which meanwhile takes place without general closures.

Other trends among isolated children include:

  • Isolation was more common for children in larger families.
    • 72% of children in families with four or more children were in isolation at least once (43% once and 29% more than once).
    • 35% of children without siblings were in isolation at least once (27% once and 8% more than once).
  • Isolation was more common for ultra-Orthodox or religious children.
    • Nearly a quarter (73% and 77%, respectively) of ultra-Orthodox or religious children were isolated, compared with less than half among secular or traditional children (47%) and Arab children (45%).
  • Isolation was more common in preschool and primary school.
    • Nearly two out of every three children in primary school were isolated (61%), compared to about half among junior high (51%) and high school students (50%).

Figure 1. Distribution of children according to the number of isolations in which they stayed

How does isolation affect students?

The findings of the study show a link between being in isolation and both emotional difficulties and negative behaviors of children, according to parents surveyed. These symptoms are more severe in children who were in isolation than children who had not been isolated, and even more so among students who were experienced multiple isolations.

Among children who were in more than one isolation during the 2020-2021 school year:

  • 59% exhibited outbursts of rage during the month preceding the survey, compared with 43% of those who had isolated one time, and 36% who were not in isolation;
  • 31% behaved violently towards family or friends during the month preceding the survey, compared to 17% and 16% of those who were in one isolation or were not in isolation, respectively;
  • 75% exhibited prolonged use of screens during the month preceding the survey, compared with 64% of those who had isolated one time, and 60% who were not in isolation;
  • 49% exhibited drastic changes in sleep patterns—such as sleeping during the day instead of night— during the month preceding the survey, compared with 47% of those who had isolated one time, and 37% who were not in isolation.

Figure 2. Percentage of children who exhibited one of the following behaviors according to the number of isolations

Isolation impact by socioeconomic status

Our findings also demonstrate that the behaviors reported above are especially common among children from low socioeconomic backgrounds. The survey asks respondents to place their household’s disposable income relative to the average of approximately 17,000 NIS per month. Those placing themselves very much below it or slightly below it, are defined as low-income households (N=431); those placing themselves at about the average are defined as average-income households (N=264); and those placing themselves slightly above it or very much above it, are defined as high-income households (N=278).

For example, 37% of children from low-income households who had more than one isolation exhibited violence, compared with 18% of children from average-income households and 29% of children from high-income households with the same isolation experience. A similar phenomenon was found in sleep difficulties, and—to some extent—in the overuse of screens. However, the frequency of anger associated with isolation was more uniform across all household income groups. Here, children from disadvantaged backgrounds may be more sensitive to isolation as a result of their parents’ greater difficulty in providing them with a variety of supports—both material and social-emotional.

Policy recommendations

Overall, these findings suggest that isolations can have adverse effects on children’s behavior. Moreover, given the similarities in school closings and isolations across Israel and the US, these findings have broad implications. While public health considerations should remain a priority in slowing the spread of the disease, policymakers should consider additional strategies to mitigate the negative effects of prolonged isolations. For example, strategies such as the green classroom – which enables students who were exposed to COVID-19 to attend school, subject to a daily negative COVID-19 test during a week – have recently been proposed in Israel in an effort to reduce the number of children in isolations, the length of isolations, and the negative effects associated with them.

Furthermore, the fact that children in the most vulnerable families are exposed to greater harm as a result of being in isolation is very concerning. In Israel, the vast majority of students go to public schools. When in-person school attendance is not an option, whether because of a school closure or a student entering isolation due to COVID-19 exposure, the first harmed are children from low-income households—whose parents may be facing additional hardships. For this reason, providing special services, such as psychological support or parental guidance, should be prioritized for already vulnerable populations.

In light of the negative consequences of isolation on children, resources should be invested in safe models that reduce the number of those staying in isolation as well as the length of isolation, while providing additional social, emotional and other resources to children.