Why we need to champion children’s and young people’s voices: Three things we learned from speaking to them about COVID-19 in Italy
As researchers at UNICEF Innocenti, we believe in the importance of listening to children and young people to inform decision-making and policies. For this reason, we designed a qualitative research project to explore how children and young people are experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic. The project is currently running in six countries around the world – Italy, Canada, Madagascar, Lesotho, Indonesia, and Chile – and aims to understand:
- Children and young people’s experiences and feelings during the pandemic;
- The issues they consider important for their well-being in this context;
- Their suggestions to parents, teachers, politicians, and all adults to put their wellbeing first.
As a first step, we carried out a pilot project in Italy, where we talked to 114 children and young people aged 10-19 between February and June 2021. Our research participants shared thoughts, reflections, drawings, photographs, and diary entries to describe what it means to grow up during COVID-19. Through multiple interactions, we learned about their memories, emotions, and opinions.
All conversations, writings and drawings echoed three key messages:
- Having free time is a protective factor. It is therefore key not to overburden children and young people with school workloads to fill the gap in formal learning. Public discourse focuses on the missed learning opportunities due to remote learning. Surveys measuring students’ learning outcomes show worse results compared to previous years. However, our research project shows that children and young people value and need free time to process the difficulties of their lives, worsened by a global emergency.
- Recognizing children’s and young people’s contributions, their sacrifices, and what they have learnt throughout the pandemic is a fundamental starting point for future planning. Children and young people have had the time to reflect about themselves, to learn from the peculiar situation they and the people around them have been experiencing, and to grow throughout these lessons and reflections. During crises people tend to ask themselves existential questions. Many children and young people told us they feel that they have changed and grown from dealing with lockdowns, remote learning, and social distancing. By modifying their behaviors, they contributed to collective health and safety, but they had to sacrifice many life experiences, and “normality” like everyone else.
- Children and young people want to be involved and be part of decision-making processes. We should listen to them. Participants in our research enjoyed talking about how they felt and what they think. They were surprised when asked to put forward recommendations for their parents, teachers, politicians, and for adults in general. They shared good ideas that, if well and quickly channeled, could make meaningful changes. They are concerned about their future and how current responses to the pandemic will affect their lives. Most of them cannot vote yet but they want to take part in decision-making processes.
In a nutshell, this generation of children and young people in Italy is different from the previous ones in a substantial way: they have collectively learnt important life lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic experience. For example, they explained that they learned to value the “little things,” act with responsibility and care vis-à-vis their community, and understand the importance of social relationships. They also often reflected on what they think can make their present and future better. If recognized and supported, they will be able to contribute to rethinking life after the pandemic, in a positive and innovative light.
Children and young people are already speaking out, but they need allies. Parents, teachers, communities, researchers, and politicians can play a major role in supporting, encouraging, and listening to them.
How can we as adults, support and be allies to children and young people?
- We can look at the opportunities, not just gaps. Do not focus solely on the losses in traditional learning and start thinking creatively about the new learnings the pandemic brought.
“In this period, I have learnt that nothing can be taken for granted. I have learnt the importance of a second, the weight of a hug or a handshake. I learnt that life is just a breath, it is so short that there is no time to waste. I learnt to live second by second, minute by minute, as if they were the last to enjoy to the fullest; a dignified life that I will be able to tell my grandchildren about when I become a grandmother.” (A, 15 years old)
“Looking back at these past months I see a girl who has overcome numerous obstacles that seemed like mountains, a girl that has discovered sides to herself that did not know she had, like stubbornness and a strong determination that brought her great satisfaction. I also see a girl that looks at school with different eyes compared to years ago, she is happy to learn and rack her brain, and she wants to do her best. I think I have also changed a lot, especially in my maturity and I hope to always continue listening to myself, my mind, but above all my heart.” (S, 16 years old)
- We can acknowledge and thank them. Children and young people have strongly contributed to the health and safety of their communities.
“We have renounced to many things, but we are also conscious that we became stronger as people and have proven that as teenagers we belong to a community (…) and that in tough times we can also be supportive of adults while we continue to dream about our future.” (G, high school)
- We can listen to what they have to say. We cannot assume that we already know how children and young people feel and what is best for them.
"The issues that the ruling class in Italy should focus on to ensure the present and future well-being of adolescents, in my opinion, are related to their freedom to live surrounded by friends and family. For this reason, it would not be a bad idea to increase the number of green outdoor spaces, to allow children to be together and close to each other in an area with clean, natural air, where they can have fun and talk without too many worries.” (M, 15 years old)
“As far as our political class is concerned, I hope that this epidemic has taught us and made us realize that schools are fundamental for us to be able to grow up in a safer world, and I hope that in the future the government will invest in schools in an intelligent, conscious way, without wasting money that our whole society will pay for.” (G, high school)
We, as researchers, learnt many lessons by talking directly to children and young people and, now more than ever, we strongly believe all adults should listen to and engage with them as key members of society.
For example, by working closely with children and young people in the preliminary stages of the research process, we learnt to dismantle our assumptions about what was ‘best’ from a methodological and ethical perspective and welcomed new and unconsidered possibilities that gave high value to the research work. During the analysis phase, we also started noticing that several of the “characters of the pandemic,” collectively created and drawn by the participants during the focus groups, were purposefully genderless. In that moment we realized that, using creative research methods that allow young people to fully express themselves, can unlock the research potential to tell us more than what we were looking for.
We now look forward to continuing and expanding this research to find out what children and young people have to say in other contexts around the world, and to becoming a bridge between their emotions, thoughts, and ideas, and the decision-makers.
Learn more about the research and related studies in the report “Vite a Colori”.