School stress: the emerging issue of anxious schoolchildren
Spelling tests and messy handwriting are no longer the only key talking points at primary school parent-teacher meetings. Increasingly, a new issue of concern is emerging: anxious schoolchildren.
This article was written by Michelle McBride and appeared on the Irish Times online on 27th April, 2017
A recent survey by the Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN) highlighted just how widespread the issue is for many principals. More than a quarter of its members reported a spike in anxiety levels in their schools.
The symptoms and behaviours associated with anxiety can vary from separation anxiety, extreme self-consciousness and intense worry. If left untreated, it can lead to depression and other psychological disorders.
It is by far the most common psychological disorder in school-aged children. A report carried out by Barnardos in 2008 indicated that almost one in five children suffer from a mental health issue such as anxiety.
Another such report published by the Royal College of Surgeons found 14 per cent of 11- to 13-year-old children in Ireland had experienced an anxiety disorder.
Social media & the recession
Social media and children’s access to smartphones [are] impacting on anxiety levels. While the school has a role to play in educating children in relation to the safe use of social media, Maria Doyle [IPPN President] feels quite strongly that the buck stops with the parents in terms of policing their activity.
But social media is by no means the only potential cause of a spike in childhood anxiety. Research indicates the effects of recession have contributed to a sharp increase in mental health problems among children.
An analysis of the Growing Up in Ireland study, which has tracked the lives of almost 20,000 children over the past decade or so, found stress linked to falling incomes and unemployment damaged many parents’ and children’s mental health.
Parents under stress were found to use harsher parenting styles with less warmth, the study found. Worsened relationships between parents and children were linked to higher anxiety, conduct problems and lower child happiness.
Prof Richard Layte of Trinity College Dublin, one of the study’s authors, says the findings have long-term implications for young people. “Anxious, unhappy children do worse in school, often with long-term consequences for both wealth and health.”
In many cases it must start with the parent or caregiver. At Gaelscoil an Ghoirt Álainn, they have been advised by the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) to try to treat the parent before addressing the child’s issues.
This approach has been particularly successful in combatting separation anxiety, with meetings arranged involving the teacher, psychologist and parents or caregiver. Parents, however, need to be receptive and open to listening to others who may be giving them the information, be it the class teacher, the principal or a psychologist.
Lack of training
Mental health issues can be complex – so are teachers or principals really equipped to deal with the problem?
In January 2016, almost 80 per cent of primary school principals said they felt “insufficiently trained” or “not trained at all” when it came to dealing with mental health issues.
Doyle points out that you don’t have to be a trained psychologist to deal with matters that arise in the school. “Often a child just needs to be listened to, and we can all listen,” she says.
Hundreds of teachers at primary and secondary schools are due to receive training as part of the expansion of an anxiety prevention programme.
She says promoting the wellbeing of students needs to be at the heart of school culture.
This means providing support to schools and ensuring students in teacher-training colleges get the right training.
The most valuable thing Doyle feels schools can do, however, is “allow children’s voices to be heard in a safe space”.
Tips to help your child with anxiety
- Listen to your child’s fears – no matter how trivial they may seem.
- Be aware of your own fears and anxieties: talk to another adult rather than discussing them with your child.
- Try not to over-reassure your child – focus on building confidence.
- Do things they enjoy: encourage your child to take part in activities they gain a sense of achievement from.
- Practise relaxing sighs: this encourages the body to relax.
- Visualisation: encourage your child to imagine a place they feel happy and safe.
- Encourage the acceptance of all feelings, bad and good.