Like most schools we track our 'target learners'...those children that may not be achieving as expected in reading, writing and maths. As I am sure most schools find, many children appear on the lists in more than one area. As a small school (200) we are lucky enough to know every child deeply, to be able to make plans that work for them and usually help them to get to where they need to be.
Like most principals I spend a lot of time looking at the children on these lists and trying to find common links. Over time I have found one great big looming common link...a lack in confidence, and anxiety towards learning or towards being wrong or taking risks, a very real fear of failure.
More info on anxiety can be found here
Now this is not rocket science, but it is alarming to me that such an issue can have such a huge impact on achievement and while there are so many 'programmes' out there to help children to 'recover' from their lack of progress or accelerate to make appropriate progress. These programmes are all focused on remediating at an academic level...there seems to be a real lack of awareness that the child's issue may not need extra attention on the academics, but actually a more focused approach on their emotional wellbeing.
In fact over time at our school we have noticed dramatic changes in progress for our target children simply through using strategies that enable them to build confidence and self-belief and focusing in on their well being, rather than trying to accelerate anything or even worry about 'academic' success.
Now I am not saying that anxiety is the same as self-belief or confidence, but they certainly are interlinked. It is absolutely alarming to me that anxiety is so significantly on the rise amongst children. Anxiety and mental health issues are becoming a huge dark cloud over a young people and certainly does not bode well for our future as a country.
Anxiety is not something I am unfamiliar with. My family seems to be genetically predisposed to anxiety and it is something both my children have struggled with. My daughter is in her teens and struggles daily with strong social and generalised anxiety. It is something I think is completely misunderstood by our education system and one of the most ignored. Of course my journey through emotional and mental well being with my daughter gives me a strong sense of urgency around how we talk about and education young people around youth suicide...at the moment it is simply not talked about. In fact very sadly my daughters friends define mental illness as the images they see on the movies...people locked away in mental wards like zombies.
I know for my daughter this is something she was genetically predisposed for. Unfortunately it has been a road we have had to travel. It is a long one, but not one that is impossible to overcome.
This is an issue our country and education system needs to acknowledge and do something about...now!
The dramatic rise of generalized anxiety in young children is something I do not believe has to happen, and I have given a lot of thought to why it does.
What is it about our society that sees this generalised anxiety on such a rise?
I have a few ideas about this and once again they are just my ideas.
1)National Standards, these horrible things have changed our system completely. Parents worry, they lack trust now in teachers, they pass this worry onto their children. National Standards have redefined what being successful at school looks like. National standards have led to nothing but worry...and we would have to be dreaming if we thought this worry was not passed on to our children.
2)Anxious parents. We seem to have a real culture of parents that over worry and over cater for their children. They hover, they rescue, they limit risk and micro-manage. They over reassure when a child is worried and they let children opt out of things that they are fearful of, rather than helping them to face this fear and learn from it. They overtalk. They stop children developing resilience and independence and allow them to develop very narrow comfort zones. Worst of all they talk about their child's problems very loudly in front of their child, giving real weight and reality to the worry. Parents, without even meaning to have made children worry warts, fearful of trying new things and unable to deal with failure.
3)Our system has a very narrow definition of success. Success is defined by academic achievement and this achievement seems to be so important, much more important than developing into a well rounded person. We celebrate this success far too loudly, without celebrating the dispositions that may have led to this success.
4)Pressure, pressure is huge from the age of five (or even younger for some) The huge amount of homework piled on children and after school activities mean our children live pressure cooker lives. They are always busy, there is never just time to be. Timetables in school are pressured, there is never just time to be a kid. In fact I believe we have lost sight of the fact that they are children that we are dealing with, we treat them like little adults in training.
5)Children have too many toys, too many gadgets and not enough opportunities to be bored, be creative, use their imagination, to just go outside and be children. They don't socialise enough with other children, they often live in an adult world.
And there are probably many more reasons....of course children with specific anxieties are often predisposed to be anxious and this anxiety can not just be pinned on those listed above, but it is my belief that some children are being made anxious, and if this is the case, we can turn this around, we can start to rectify this.
A child's mental, emotional and social well being should be of paramount importance to us. In my opinion it is far more important that academic progress, but in saying that, I believe if we can get things right for a child's well being, their academic progress will take care of itself.
So I obviously have a lot of thoughts regarding this...but do I have solutions?
I do have a few, firstly for parents:
1. Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop prioritising children over yourself. Stop making your life about them. Stop picking up for them. Stop carrying their things. Stop making excuses for them. Stop hovering. Stop rescuing them, let them learn from their mistakes. Stop talking about their worries in front of them. Stop being anxious for them. Trust your child's teacher.
2. Calm down. Success is being happy. Success is not being classed as 'well above.' Well above what? Well above some stupid contrived standard that will mean very little when they are an adult. Stop pushing, start sharing learning in a way that you and your child find enjoyable. Start talking about their world.
3.Stop looking for problems. Sometimes a child is in a bad mood, because they are in a bad mood. Let them experience emotions, emotions are normal and the very worrying thing is often children do not understand their emotions, don't shelter them from emotions, don't blame others. Just because your child starts to behave badly or appears in a bad mood does not mean something is going wrong at school, poor behaviour and bad moods are developmentally normal. Children need to feel and experience these emotions so they can learn strategies to help them cope. Experiencing and understanding emotions are vitally important for mental wellbeing later in life.
4.Let them be bored, let them generate their own play. Let them have time. Let them talk about how they feel but don't over talk, don't over reassure them. Acknowledge a worry and move on.
5.Let them face their fears. If they are fearful of doing something, try to present them with situations to work through this fear. Don't let them opt out of an activity because they are anxious...this will only make the anxiety worse. If they do something wrong, let them face the consequence for this, don't intervene in this consequence.
And for schools:
1. Do everything you can to minimise the importance of National Standards.
2. Reframe what it means to be successful at school. Being imaginative, creative, resilient, having a growth mindset and an innovator's mindset, demonstrating the key-competencies are all far more important than being 'above' or 'well above.' Simply being a good person that can see possibilities around them is far more important than being the 'best.'
3. Ensure emotions are part of your programme in some way. Teach children about emotions and help them understand that it is healthy to feel different emotions.
4. Play-based learning. This is the most fundamental change I think that all schools should make. Play-based learning allows children to develop cognitive, emotional and social competencies that will in my opinion greatly reduce anxiety. Play-based learning also allows us to identify 'safe-sitters.' Those children who stay within the known, taking part in activities like colouring because they want to do something they are able to do well. These are the children who will struggle with failure later on, these are the children we need to help now!
5. Listen to children, really listen. Allow them to plan events, talk about timetables, self-direct learning where possible. Embrace happiness and fun at every opportunity.
6. Embrace mistakes. Explicitly teach the importance of doing things that challenge you. Embrace the importance of the struggle. Allow children to experience and learn through failure.
7. Create a culture of kindness. Find a way to deliberately teach this from a young age and have firm strategies for dealing with bullying. Bullying has a profound effect on mental well being and can completely alter a way a child sees themselves. Empower children to stand up for each other. We are a KiVa school and I believe this approach should be in all schools. Don't simply say 'we don't have bullying here.' I am afraid all schools have bullies...often we are completely unaware.
8. Allow children to take pride in the process, to understand the importance of reflection.
9. Embrace the imagined. Allow opportunities to create, innovate, imagine....to play!
10. Stop using speed based warm ups for maths or testing for the sake of testing, knock basic facts 'testing' at speed on the head. Math anxiety is very real for our children and these activities only serve to make it worse. Give them time, use talk moves, encourage mixed ability groups and redefine success.
There are probably many more ways you can think of to help us reduce the current rise of anxiety amongst children. These are simply my ideas. My hope is that we can start a conversation around this issue.
To me it is vitally important that we think about and act on this now, the mental well being of our children will be crucial for their success in the future and it is something we can do a lot to help with.
Currently our education system is adding to this anxiety, something needs to change now.
(And you know what....teacher anxiety is also on the rise...that can't be a good thing for our children can it?)