Bella’s mum is worried. Bella has always been a bit reluctant to go to school, even before the pandemic.
But since schools reopened fully, Bella's resistance has stepped up a gear. She has resisted going into school every day.
As a result she’s getting behind on her work, which makes things even harder when she does go into school, and she is becoming more and more withdrawn. She doesn’t want to get up in the mornings, often gets headaches or stomach aches when she is in school, and becomes really concerned about having all the right equipment for each lesson.
It’s normal for children to be a little worried about school but Bella’s anxiety has been going on for a sustained period of time. Some would say that Bella is suffering from “school anxiety”.
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So, what exactly is school anxiety? And how many students suffer from it?
When children feel anxious, worried or stressed about school over an extended period of time, it can be classed as school anxiety, says Louise Clarkson, strategic change lead for young people at mental health charity Mind.
This anxiety can come about for a number of reasons, for example, worries about exam results, challenging work, difficult relationships with friends or teachers, being bullied or feeling unsupported.
Just as the reasons vary, so do the signs: as well as the symptoms Bella presented with (headaches, stomach problems, reluctance to get out of bed), children might also be anxious about small details, they might not complete homework regularly or they may consistently underperform.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how widespread school anxiety is, says Clarkson. This is because it will often be diagnosed under the umbrella of another mental health problem, such as generalised anxiety disorder, separation anxiety or social phobias.
Mental health: the impact of the pandemic
But what is clear is the decline in young people’s mental health since the start of the pandemic. According to research from Mind, one in nine young people had a diagnosable mental health problem in 2017 and, in 2020, it was one in six.
“We know that young people were more likely to report that their mental health got worse over the course of the pandemic, they are more likely to feel lonely than adults, and they are more likely to be using negative coping strategies, such as self-harm or over- and under-eating to cope,” explains Clarkson.
“They were also more likely than adults to suggest that they develop habits that they'll struggle to break now that we’re coming out of lockdown.”
Data from the Centre for Mental Health estimated that 1.5 million young people under the age of 18 will need new or increased mental health support as a direct result of the pandemic, she adds.
And while some will have suffered with school anxiety before the pandemic, and may have found that their symptoms reduced as a result of learning from home – only to return once schools fully reopened – others will have developed it for the first time as they returned to school after long periods of remote learning.
Children being anxious about their health, and the number of people they are surrounded by each day has become increasingly common, says Clarkson, as has worry and concern about exams after the disruption to normal summer assessments.
There’s no doubt about it, she concludes: school anxiety is real, it is prevalent and it is a problem that educators actively need to address.
“For some young people, school is having a negative impact on their mental health, and learning and taking part in school life is a significant challenge,” says Clarkson.
“Young people have told us that they want someone who will listen to them, who will understand what’s happening in their life and who can give them the support they need.”
School anxiety: what can teachers do?
Naturally, all teachers will want to ensure that every child they teach is happy, comfortable and succeeding at school. But what are some practical things that educators can do to tackle school anxiety and make school an enjoyable experience for pupils like Bella?
1. Have a conversation in a safe space
The first step, Clarkson says, is to check in and listen to the young person: take the time to understand what might be contributing towards their anxiety and how they’d like to be supported.
If a school can accommodate it, these conversations work best when they occur away from the school with a parent, teacher and child involved, she says.
“It can either be the child’s home or somewhere in the community, like a youth centre, where they feel comfortable: that will always be really, really beneficial,” she says.
“Sometimes, it can be our default [approach] to get the young person back in school as soon as possible but, for some, that can be really traumatising.”
2. Put a plan in place to relieve pressures
Once initial communication has been opened up, the three key stakeholders – the child, the parent and the teacher – should work together to put a plan in place to address the problem, says Clarkson. The focus here should be on finding coping strategies and relieving pressures.
“It might be having a trusted adult within the school that the young person knows they can check in with at different times during the day, to share how they're feeling and get some support from; [or] it might be supporting the person to keep a journal of the types of things that trigger how they're feeling throughout the day,” she suggests.
Other strategies could include a “passport system”, in which children can raise a card that signals to the teacher that they need some time away from the classroom, agreeing flexible start times, a phased return to school – for example, coming in for just the mornings initially – or regular sessions with in-house pastoral support.
“It isn’t up to schools to manage this all alone,” stresses Clarkson. “Referral to external organisations could also be part of this plan.”
However, with Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services already stretched, it is important that schools do not rely on external organisations alone.
Once a plan has been created and implemented, it should then be reviewed regularly, says Clarkson. It might be that, to begin with, the plan is reviewed every couple of days before it then moves on to once a week, once a month and then once a term.
The critical part is to involve the child in this review process.
“As an absolute minimum, children should be given the choice to be in those meetings, and it also makes sense for family to be there, as well as the designated trusted adult. Everyone needs to be on the same page,” she explains.
3. Support rather than punish
Students suffering from school anxiety may display behaviours that teachers are quick to punish, says Clarkson. For example, they may not engage, may walk out of lessons or refuse to hand in homework. Where this does happen, teachers should take the time to look at the reasons behind the behaviour.
“Give students the space to cool down and explore what’s going on with them,” says Clarkson. “If they have a dedicated trusted adult in school, bring them into the conversation, too.”
4. A trauma-informed approach
A trauma-informed approach to mental health can be particularly beneficial for children with school anxiety, says Clarkson.
“It’s all about recognising the experiences that a young person has had rather than focusing on the outward signs of behaviour,” she says. “Young people often want a personalised approach, which supports choice and control, and allows them to communicate what’s happening with them while recognising that it’s difficult to talk about trauma.”
Sometimes, the teacher in the classroom might not be the most appropriate person to offer that support, says Clarkson – and while it’s important for all staff to have an understanding of how a trauma-informed approach works, having key members of staff specifically trained up and on-hand to deliver that support is crucial.
5. Peer-to-peer support
Students need to be able to lean on their peers, as well as their teachers, when dealing with school anxiety, says Clarkson. Some students may feel more comfortable talking to a friend than to a teacher or family member, and assigning a buddy or a mentor you know will be mature and helpful is key.
However, just as teachers need training, so do the buddies, she adds.
“They need to know how to have open conversations, how to set the boundaries of a conversation, what’s going to be kept confidential between the two of them, what will be shared with an adult. They need to be aware of the safeguarding policy, too, as well as how to support themselves and their own wellbeing.”
6. Utilise external agencies
Schools can’t tackle this anxiety alone – and they should lean on external organisations for resources, workshops and one-on-one support. Clarkson recommends the Anna Freud Centre, as well as Mind’s own resources hub.