Behaviour in Scottish schools: research report 2023

This report is the fifth (2023) wave of the Behaviour in Scottish Schools Research, first undertaken in 2006.

Chapter 6 – Impact of COVID-19

Summary of findings

In line with perceptions of worsening behaviour described in Chapter 5, most staff perceive that behaviour is worse than before the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions began in March 2020, both in the classroom (77%) and around the school (80%).

School staff involved in the qualitative research perceived COVID-19 to have had a negative impact on behaviour, particularly for those pupils whose transition - either between early years and primary or primary and secondary - was disrupted. School staff viewed these pupils as showing immaturity, leading to low level disruption.

COVID-19 was seen to have resulted in delays to pupils’ social and communication skills, leading to disruptive behaviour related to sharing, playing together and communicating their feelings in primaries, and interpersonal relationships and group work in secondaries.

Additional impacts of COVID-19 included disengagement with school and schoolwork, reduction in attendance for some pupils, anxiety and poorer mental wellbeing and greater reliance on mobile phones and social media. The most negative impacts of COVID-19 were considered to be felt by the most vulnerable pupils; those affected by poverty, deprivation and trauma.

The impact of the pressures placed upon school staff by COVID-19 and the impact on their wellbeing and resilience should also be noted.


This chapter explores the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on behaviour in the classroom and around the school. These questions were introduced to the 2023 BISS survey to capture the extent to which school staff perceive COVID has impacted on pupil behaviour, which may help to interpret changes in pupil behaviour since 2016. The issue was also explored in the qualitative research with headteachers, teachers, and support staff as well as Local Authority representatives. This chapter will explore the differences in perceptions of behaviour since COVID of headteachers, teachers, and support staff, as well as amongst different stages of pupils taught. The qualitative research then explores this in more depth and the potential reasons for the perceived impact of COVID-19.

Perceived changes in pupil behaviour since COVID-19

In the survey, staff were asked to think about the pupil behaviour they encounter in the classroom and around the school now, compared with before the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions began in March 2020, and to indicate if behaviour was much better, a little better, a little worse, much worse, or about the same as before the COVID-19 pandemic began[69].

All staff (head teachers, teachers and support staff) were asked about pupil behaviour in the classroom. In addition head teachers and teachers were asked about pupil behaviour around the school:

For the purposes of this analysis, answers of ‘much better’ and ‘a little better’ were combined into a single ‘better’ category, and answers of ‘much worse’ and ‘a little worse’ were combined into a single ‘worse’ category. Tables in this chapter show the net percentages of staff who perceived behaviour to be ‘better’ or ‘worse’.

Overall perceptions across primary and secondary

Overall, the majority of staff in both primary and secondary schools perceive that behaviour has become worse since before the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions began in March 2020, both in the classroom (77%) and around the school (80%) (Table 6.1).

Table 6.1: Perceived pupil behaviour in the classroom and around the school compared with before the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions began
Would you say that behaviour now is… In the classroom (%) Around the school (%)
Worse 77 80
Better 3 3
About the same as before the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions began 19 17
Unweighted base 2,943 2,165

Overall perceptions vary by staff type. As shown in Figure 6.1, teachers are more likely than headteachers to say that behaviour has worsened around the school since COVID-19 (80% compared with 68%). Similarly, a higher percentage of teachers (79%) than headteachers (71%) and support staff (72%) perceive pupil behaviour in the classroom to have worsened since before the pandemic (Figure 6.2).

Figure 6.1: Staff perceptions of pupil behaviour around the school compared with before COVID-19 by staff type
Staff perceptions of pupil behaviour around the school compared with before COVID-19 by staff type
Figure 6.2: Staff perceptions of pupil behaviour in the classroom compared with before COVID-19 by staff type
Staff perceptions of pupil behaviour in the classroom compared with before COVID-19 by staff type

Differences by staff type are mainly driven by those in primary schools where a higher percentage of teachers than headteachers perceive behaviour to have worsened since the pandemic, both around the school and in the classroom. Just over 7 in 10 (71%) of teachers compared with 64-65% of headteachers and support staff thought that behaviour had worsened in the classroom and 72% of teachers compared with 63% of headteachers thought the same around the school. In primary schools, support staff were also less likely than teachers to perceive behaviour to have worsened in the classroom (64% compared with 71% respectively).

In contrast, there were no notable differences in perceptions of behaviour since the pandemic between secondary staff. A high percentage of headteachers, teachers, and support staff all perceive behaviour to have worsened since COVID-19 (ranging from 84-89% in the classroom and around the school). The full breakdown of responses to these questions can be seen in Supplementary tables 6.1-6.2.

Variations by school type

Overall differences between primary and secondary school staff are also evident. Compared with primary school staff, secondary school staff are more likely to perceive worsening behaviour around the school (89% compared with 71%) and in the classroom (87% compared with 69%) since COVID-19. In line with this, primary school staff are more likely than secondary staff to report no change in behaviour since the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, 27% of primary staff believe behaviour in the classroom is about the same as before the pandemic compared with 11% of secondary school staff.

Wider impact of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic, lockdown and the resulting time out of school, move to online learning and the restrictions which were still in place when pupils returned to school after each of the lockdowns were seen by participants to have had a profound effect on the development, and therefore the behaviour, of pupils. While there was general agreement across participants that COVID-19 has had an impact on behaviour in schools, there was some disagreement as to both the nature and the scale of the impact. For some, the impacts of COVID-19 were clear and could be evidenced by school and LA-level survey data. However, others argued that while COVID-19 may have exacerbated behaviour issues or impacted specific groups, these patterns of behaviour pre-dated the pandemic.

“I think these issues, these societal, poverty, social economic issues were always here but they may have been worsened by COVID” (Primary teacher)

“Although COVID has impacted a lot of things, the behaviour was already an issue prior to COVID, definitely.” (Secondary support staff)

A number of these issues have also been identified in the changes to behaviour chapter (Chapter 5). In this chapter, we discuss how participants have explicitly linked these changes in behaviour to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Impact on social development and communication skills

The most commonly identified impact of COVID-19 by both school staff and LA representatives was a delay in development among pupils, particularly evident in pupils’ social and communication skills as well as a general immaturity. In terms of age and stage, the groups for whom COVID-19 seems to have had the greatest negative impact were those who experienced disruption to important transitional periods in their education. Local authority representatives and school staff identified those pupils who had missed out on early years education and the transition from nursery to school or from primary to secondary school as the groups most negatively affected by COVID-19. These transitions were seen as important for pupils to settle into school, build relationships with school staff and observe appropriate behaviour modelled by older pupils.

Immaturity among pupils as a result of COVID-19 was identified by those working in both primary and secondary schools. In primary schools, this lack of maturity was evident through incoming Primary 1s lacking the skills that staff would have expected from them, such as the ability to put on their own shoes and jacket and to take responsibility for their own belongings. Participants suggested that being at home with parents and missing out on time spent in nursery and the early years setting, as well as bypassing the transition from nursery to primary school, resulted in pupils in the earliest years of primary lacking basic skills in independence. Primary teaching staff spoke about adaptations they had made to their school day and teaching approach to support their youngest pupils in developing these skills while they settle in at school.

“I know they've had to adapt the approaches that they use within the infants’ [school] over the last number of years, having soft starts, having less desk time, more play-based learning.” (Primary teacher)

In secondary schools, immaturity was apparent in pupils through a number of behaviours such as rough play and interactions in the playground, not taking responsibility for their work and materials and needing more attention and supervision in class. Those pupils who experienced disruption to their transition from primary to secondary school and the early years of secondary school (S3 and S4 at the time of the research) were most commonly identified as the group for whom COVID-19 had the greatest negative impact on behaviour. This group were described as showing immature and disruptive behaviour and disengagement with learning.

“They've missed huge inputs of transition, and I do beg the question, and I know a lot of people do, as to whether a lot of their behaviours are to do with the isolation of COVID, them not getting those transition events, them not developing those skills at such an essential and crucial point of their childhood.” (Secondary teacher)

“I think they've missed that end of primary, beginning of secondary, this is transition, this is how we do things. I think they've missed a bit of that. Maybe a wee bit of settling. They're quite immature.” (Secondary teacher)

Delays in the development of social and communication skills were identified by both primary and secondary school staff as contributing to the overall immaturity of pupils. Among primary pupils, staff described an increase in children struggling to share, take turns and play with one another in unstructured ways such as in the playground and coming to teaching staff with interpersonal issues which, in the past, pupils would have solved amongst themselves.

Staff and LA representatives also highlighted a lack of language and communication skills among pupils in the early years of primary meaning that pupils were coming to school without the skills to communicate their feelings and felt that the closure of playgroups, toddler groups and playparks over lockdown had contributed to this. Those in early and mid-primary school (P1 to P5) who experienced disruption to their nursery and early years’ experience, the transition from nursery and their first years of primary school were described as missing key language and social skills, with negative impacts on both their educational development and behaviour.

Teachers described the COVID-19 safety measures which were in place on return to schools, such as the wearing of masks and social distancing, as contributing to these negative effects as wearing masks made it difficult for primary teachers to model sounds and mouth movements to pupils to help with their language development. In a small number of schools, school staff spoke about an increase in violent outbursts and dysregulated behaviour among pupils in the early years of primary school which they described as being linked to the inability to communicate and frustration among pupils.

“Biting, kicking, punching, throwing, things that because they can’t communicate properly and they don’t have the skills to communicate even if their voice works, they bite you, they throw things at you, they pull your hair, they run away, they wreck, they hit other kids and that communication breakdown that’s happened in development seems to be showing itself in P1, 2 and 3.” (Local authority representative)

Even when pupils were able to return to primary school, restrictions meant that they were not able to resume normal activities seen as important in helping young people to develop social skills and responsibility such as mixing with other age groups of pupils, going on trips and taking on jobs within the school such as helping in the school office or acting as buddies to younger pupils.

Secondary school staff also identified a lack of social and communication skills among secondary pupils, although to a lesser extent than primary school staff, describing pupils as more likely to struggle with social interactions and group work as a direct result of the lack of opportunities for socialising during lockdown.

“For me, what we're seeing as a result of COVID, that lack of socialisation, their social skills if nothing else, being able to socially interact with friends and other adults that they missed out on.” (Secondary teacher)

Disengagement with learning and low level disruption

Among both primary and secondary school staff, lack of focus and engagement with learning was identified as contributing to low level disruption within the classroom. For both primary and secondary pupils, staff described a reduced attention span, and an increase in pupils struggling to sit in class, shouting out, arguing with teaching staff, coming late to class and getting out of their seats to walk around the classroom or go to the toilet. Staff linked this to the lack of structure experienced during lockdown, online learning and two years spent outside of the classroom environment.

“They had two years of not having to meet the demands of a school day so I think now when we're expecting them to sit down, engage in lessons, to listen, they find it hard.” (Primary headteacher)

Participants in the qualitative research also linked this disengagement and disruption with gaps in literacy, numeracy and general knowledge, study skills, the poverty-related attainment gap and pupils’ lack of confidence in their academic ability. School staff described these issues as having been exacerbated by the disruption to learning and move to online learning during lockdown.

“So I've noticed in the maths, things like the first and second years, even the third years, that same core knowledge that was there, there's a load of gaps now.” (Secondary teacher)

In senior secondary school pupils, school staff observed a lack of motivation since the pandemic. Teachers compared this with previous years where they described pupils as “more self-motivated”, particularly with respect to exam preparation. Staff members from one school spoke about having introduced additional supported study to support pupils around exam preparation.

“I just feel like they're just a little bit lackadaisical. It's almost like there's a bit of a hangover from COVID, where they just don't have that same drive that other year groups have had coming through.” (Secondary teacher)

Attendance, school avoidance and anxiety

Attendance and school avoidance was identified as a significant issue post-COVID-19 by school staff and local authority representatives. Across local authority areas, representatives spoke about a small but persistent cohort of students who had experienced difficulties in returning to school post-COVID-19 and were continuing to learn online and in the community. One local authority representative described a pilot scheme in their area which aimed to support pupils to re-engage with school in partnership with the school, the Nurture team and educational psychologists.

“Looking at individualised timetables, looking at individual teacher support, looking at small group support to try and get them to re-engage with school in a small way and then build that up to get them back into more regular attendance. (Local authority representative)”

Concerns about reduced attendance following COVID-19 were echoed by school staff. Secondary school staff also highlighted a growing issue within schools where pupils will attend school but struggle to be in the classroom. This type of school avoidance was described as challenging to manage for schools as pupils are leaving classes between or during lessons to hide in the toilets or leave the school premises. Some pupils are being accommodated in spaces such as Nurture bases as an alternative to attending class.

“The first thing is to get them here. The second thing is when they are here, to get them into classes. Some of them will just not go into classes, some of them will not engage with the support spaces that we've got.” (Secondary headteacher)

School staff gave a variety of reasons for this type of non-attendance. Some staff felt that the disruption to learning had made pupils feel that school was optional and that in-person attendance was not important. Others related low attendance and in-school class avoidance to mental health issues related to the pandemic.

An increase in mental health problems and anxiety was also identified as a standalone impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. School staff described increased levels of anxiety and a general decline in resilience amongst young people, with pupils expressing anxiety around illness, infections and death. Local authority representatives described an increased demand for support from school counsellors which has led some local authorities to introduce additional provision.

“I think COVID has caused a significant increase in anxiety. For those children that were already a wee bit anxious, it's just escalated it and made it much bigger than it was previously.” (Primary headteacher)

Social media and mobile phone use

While an increase in mobile phones and social media use has already been described in previous chapters, interview participants explicitly linked this increase to young people’s experiences in lockdown. School staff described an increased reliance on mobile phones among pupils resulting from pupils using their mobile phones as their main form of communication and entertainment during lockdown.

“I think a huge part of it is phones. I think during lockdown they had their phones 24/7. That was their source of entertainment, their source of communication. I think they've not lost that. I think in social areas and things, you see the kids interacting at breaks and lunches and it's all based around technology. They've kind of lost the ability of communication.” (Secondary support staff)

School staff described negative impacts of this reliance on mobile phones on young people’s social and communication skills and on their attention spans, relating reduced attention spans to the short forms of content on social media platforms.

Impact of COVID-19 on different groups of pupils

There was general agreement among participants in the qualitative research that COVID-19 has had a more extreme impact on some pupils than others. As described above, in terms of age and stage, those pupils who experienced disruptions to their early years’ experience, transitions into primary and into secondary were identified as those whose behaviour has been most affected by COVID-19.

In addition, young people who were perceived to have had the most difficult experiences of lockdown, particularly those from areas of greatest deprivation, those affected by poverty and trauma, those already struggling with mental health and anxiety, and care-experienced young people were also identified as being more negatively affected by COVID-19 than their peers. Local authority representatives and school staff described these specific cohorts of young people as experiencing particular challenges in reintegrating into education.

“I think the significant differences within our primary-age pupils coming through - I would say there's a difference there. Yes, I would say that those who have had the most difficult period of time have been those who had the poorest experiences in lockdown. Generally, those correlate to people who have trauma, attachment, nurture and a level of high SIMD, areas of multiple deprivation. So there's a correlation.” (Local authority representative)

For pupils with additional support needs, particularly autistic and neurodiverse pupils, there was a difference of opinion as to whether these young people had been more negatively affected by lockdown than their peers. Local authority representative and school staff found that some young people with additional support needs struggled over multiple lockdowns without the structure and routine that school provided, but acknowledged that, for other young people, learning online in a quiet and familiar environment had been beneficial and that returning to school and reintegrating into the busy school environment had presented a greater challenge.

The closure of statutory and third sector support services during lockdown, some of which have remained closed or under-resourced, were reported as exacerbating the negative impact of COVID-19 on the most vulnerable groups. Interview participants spoke about long waiting lists for Child and Adult Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and speech and language therapists, and funding cuts to third sector projects as a barrier to accessing adequate support for those young people who had experienced the most negative impacts of COVID-19. In addition, it was perceived to be a source of increased pressure for schools as they were being called on to provide this support from their own resources.

“What I would say generally is we are picking up more things than ever before that other agencies previously would have picked up. Through cuts, those services or agencies or supports don't exist anymore.” (Secondary headteacher)

Impact on staff and relationship with parents

In addition to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young people, participants spoke about the effect of the pandemic on school staff and their relationship with parents. Participants described higher levels of absence, lower wellbeing and resilience among staff as a result of the pressures for school staff of transitioning to teaching online, learning to deliver classes in front of a camera and maintaining online learning resources and teaching in childcare hubs.

“Staffing, I think we see high rates of absence in staff, and I think maybe where staff might have been more resilient in the past, maybe that resilience isn't there at the moment.” (Local authority representative)

COVID-19 was also perceived to have had an impact on the way in which parents engage with schools. For some schools, lockdown had opened up new opportunities for staff to reach families through weekly phone calls and this had contributed to stronger relationships between the school and parents. However, others reported that the move to online learning and direct contact between parents and class teachers via email or online platforms has created an expectation that school staff should be available to parents outside of working hours and should be responding immediately to parental queries and requests. Teachers reported receiving emails and messages from parents and pupils late at night with the expectation of an instant reply, putting pressure on teaching staff and contributing to stress.

“It's kind of removed that barrier between going through the right procedures versus, 'I can just access you whenever'. That idea of, 'You will be available any time I'm available,' rather than actually I still have a working day.” (Secondary teacher)



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