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It's too early to panic

Despite adult anxieties about stress, children are amazingly robust and take new challenges in their stride, says Stuart Waiton

My son John started school this month. My wife and I were both a little anxious about this - especially as we had left him with his nan in Newcastle for the two weeks before his starting date while we travelled the west coast of America. As it happened, John loved his time with my mother, who seems to have taken him to every beach, farm and play park in the north-east.

Come the first day of school, John, rather than being anxious, couldn't get out of the house fast enough and ran all the way there. To help with the transition to school, however, John is only able to attend in the morning for the first two months of his school life; having attended full-time nursery for the past four years, he feels somewhat cheated by this.

As both myself and Penny my wife work full-time, we also feel cheated by it. But, despite the increasing number of full-time working mothers, I suspect the chance that primary schools will change their policy and start children all day in their first year is nil, given the growing concerns about childhood transitions.

Transition from primary to high school, for example, is something that was taken for granted as part of growing up in the not so distant past. Today it is seen as highly problematic and visits to high schools before the starting date have been accompanied by concerns about the academic pressure this puts on children.

Interestingly, looking at research into this development in England, it has been found that a number of first-year high school pupils are bored by their initial experience of secondary education as much of the work simply goes over ground already covered.

A significant aspect of this concern about transitions is the notion of children being vulnerable - and "stressed out". Stress is increasingly being studied and discussed as a problem for both secondary and primary children. One study found that there were worryingly high levels of stress in young children. Whereas 20 years ago children wouldn't have understood the meaning of stress, today not only do a large number of them understand the term but also "report experiencing it".

One of the key concerns of educationists is the pressure placed on children who face exams at an ever earlier age. However, the same concerns are repeated in the discussion about competitive sports and there is a range of adult anxieties about pressure being put on children by their peers.

Exams for eight-year-olds may not be the most useful thing for their education but, as the examples of competitive sports, peer pressure and the transition to high school suggest, concern about stress and the vulnerability of children has developed around aspects of their lives that are not new and would have been understood as relatively unproblematic only a few years ago.

The growing understanding of children as being both vulnerable and potentially stressed by any new experience or pressure is unfortunately encouraging both parents and teachers to be ever more aware of the potential harm rather than the immense good that school can do to and for children.

Despite adult anxieties, it is still the case that children are often extremely robust and take new challenges in their stride - the language of stress has not come from them or their changing experiences but rather from the changing way that adults interpret and give meaning to them.

The danger with the promotion and concerns about childhood transitions is that young people will be educated to understand these developments as being more difficult than previous generations would have; equally schools will be less prepared to pressurise children either academically or in sports.

At the moment John is desperate to learn and incredibly competitive when playing sports. Despite my own anxieties about his well-being as he starts his school life, my greater concern and hope is that his experience of education doesn't knock this out of him.

Stuart Waiton is a director of GenerationYouthIssues.org.

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