'I'm worried about my friend who keeps cutting herself'

Our pupils' worries extend a lot further than their exams: they're concerned about money, mental health and the state of our politics, writes Emma Kell

Anxious pupils, worried teenagers, mental health, teenage stress, mental health in schools

I’m currently working on a project about young people’s perceptions of education and their bigger place in the world. When we think about the transition from primary to secondary school, we imagine that foremost in students’ minds are concerns about strict teachers, detentions, homework and getting lost.

These things do indeed concern young people, but the reality is that, as adults, we’re far more likely than young people to be getting lost in school corridors six months down the line, who are remarkably adaptable. So adaptable that I regularly wonder at the young people who arrive in the country and the school with no English, sometimes with no background of formal education whatsoever, and within three months, have founded friendships and are making progress indistinguishable from those who’ve been at the school since the beginning.

This piece is written with two fundamental assumptions in mind:

  • Not much gets past young people: their emotional intelligence and perceptiveness go far beyond what they might openly display on a day-to-day basis.
  • In the vast majority of cases, young people value smartness and want to do well – they fear most looking stupid or feeling like failures. 63 per cent of those surveyed agree or strongly agree with the statement, "I worry I will let my family down if I don’t do well at school".

I surveyed over 700 young people aged 11 to 18 years old and asked them what they feared in school, what stops them from doing as well as they possibly can, and what their main worries are for the future. It made for pretty humbling reading. The kind of reading which makes me hold my loved-ones tightly and mutter "there but for the grace"…

“I’m worried that my friend who keeps cutting herself will actually hurt herself badly and I can’t make her stop.”

That was one of the most striking responses to the question "What stops you from doing as well as you can at school?"

There were also around 50 direct references to depression, anxiety or mental health problems getting in the way of achievement at school.

Because life happens for young people just as it does for older ones, many of our young people are shouldering burdens at home ranging from daily errands to being the primary carer for relatives. Many have recently faced bereavements or live with long-term disabilities – their own or those of a loved one.

Many more struggle to find quiet spaces to work in noisy and crowded homes.

I was amazed at just how many students are not just aware of, but worry about, money – the cost of school lunches, school uniforms and anxiety around asking for money for school trips when they are all-too-aware of how tight it is at home.

One Year 11 girl captured many of these issues in a statement that I found quite heartbreaking:

“My mental health – depression, anxiety and eating disorders – have become progressively worse as a result of school. I am a young carer for my disabled brother. Perfectionism, due to the fact that I want to do so well, works in an opposite effect, meaning that I will often procrastinate doing work or similar as a result of a fear or failure. A fear of not being deemed 'good enough' by my teachers – or more appropriately, the government. My creativity – I have always loved to perform, read and write, and express myself creatively from a young age. I find I don't have enough time to allow myself to explore my creativity much anymore, due to the amount of time spent on school work, homework and studying.’

I also asked young people, "What worries you about becoming an adult?"

By far the most overwhelming response was money, paying the bills or providing for my family. If we think we can cocoon our young people from such concerns, we’re fooling ourselves.

Second to this concern, poignantly, was loneliness – we know that young people thrive on relationships and the thought of moving into the big world brings with it a fear of genuine isolation.

I don’t remember many young people having an opinion on Gordon Brown or Paddy Ashdown back in the day, but goodness me, every child has an opinion on Donald Trump. Beyond the almost universal ridicule, there is a genuine fear of discrimination and injustice. Young people are genuinely scared about the fallout from Brexit and more aware of the atmosphere of uncertainty and the lack of any clear political role models that we might imagine.

Are they scared they might not convert that Grade 4 in Science to a 5? Are they worried they might forget the chemical formula for tin or lose their drift in the middle of an analytical paragraph? Are they concerned that your departmental monitoring procedures might not be having as much of an impact on ‘closing the gaps’ as you imagine? They are not.

In fact, more than 25 per cent claim that they do NOT have someone at school to talk to if they are worried or concerned. One student says that “mental health is never discussed at school – this means students decide to manage it on their own, which makes it worse.”

This all makes me wonder, as an experienced teacher, if we’ve got our priorities the wrong way around. Rather than tokenistic half-term efforts to educate students in managing finances, should we not be ensuring that we’re fully educated on managing finances, recognising mental health struggles and signs of strain at home and creating regular opportunities to discuss these with young people.

They don’t need colour-coded datasheets. They need unconditional positive regard: an assurance that we’ve all spent endless lunchtimes buried in piles of coats wondering what on earth our purpose is in this universe (haven’t we?!). We need to equip them with the tools to help them survive and thrive and have faith that, for all the horrific challenges life throws at them – and the legacy that the adult world has left for them – stubborn optimism is sometimes the only way to muddle through.

Dr Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of  How to Survive in Teaching

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