It’s the half term break and good to take a step back to reflect on things. Thinking about my experiences in both mainstream and special education this year, I still get a buzz of creative inspiration whenever I teach and see light bulb moments from my students. In my opinion, growing up should be fun, creative, supportive and liberating, within structured environments, to give children the chance of developing into adults with life-affirming memories and experiences to look back on.
On the other hand, I have also seen a great deal of pressure placed on kids, from as young as 5 years old. This pressure comes in the form of assessments, school work, learning targets, homework and strict routines. In addition, there’s making new friends, keeping these friends, fitting in, being invited to parties, social media and extra-curricular activities. Phew!
“You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” – Christopher Robin
I’ll never forget a conversation I had earlier this year with a 7 year old girl. I greeted her and said: “How you doing? Excited the summer holidays are nearly here?” To which she responded: “Oh Miss Harvey, I’m so stressed out!” In no way shape or form was I expecting this response from a 7 year old. I replied: “Why’s that then?” expecting it to be something minor. She said “Well I’ve got gymnastics, exams, homework, end of year show, tutoring, we’re packing up to go on holiday next week, there’s so much going on.” I was exhausted just listening to her reel off these things. Her facial expressions, fast paced breathless voice and body language showed how tired, worried and frustrated she was. In my mind, alarm bells began to ring, especially as her mother thought it was all harmless and she was being a drama queen.
The sad reality is that I’m seeing more and more instances like above every day. Obviously school work and taking responsibility are an important part of growing up, but we tend to forget that kids have plenty of time, and the stepping stones can gradually be introduced with carefully thought out incentives to nurture their well-being, rather than overwhelming kids with too many activities all at once.
“When little people are overwhelmed by their emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.” – L.R Knost
Stressed out kids can result in mental health problems like anxiety and depression which can get progressively worse as they get older. According to the Mental Health Foundation, mixed anxiety and depression is the most common mental disorder in Britain. Anxiety is a feeling of worry, unease or fear and tends to be triggered by a change in routine or stressful events. Anxiety can be caused by a child’s genetic profile, social and environmental factors, temperament, traumatic events and brain physiology. For children with anxiety, the symptoms (see picture) can affect their thoughts and how they behave in social situations, at school and at home. Research from the Child Mind Institute suggests that 80% of kids with anxiety disorder are not being treated by health professionals, and can result in detrimental effects to a child’s long term health and well-being.
So what can be done to help reduce levels of anxiety in children?
Firstly, I believe that teaching kids how to develop their emotional intelligence is an essential part of treating anxiety. Research shows when children and young people learn how to manage their feelings, they become better problem solvers during emotional situations, are more equipped to engage in learning tasks and in many cases develop greater self-esteem.
Psychologist Dr Susan David has developed the concept of “Emotional Agility” where we teach children to first, experience and feel their true emotions rather than denying or stuffing them down. Next, children are taught to show their feelings by letting them come to the surface in a safe way like crying, stamping their feet or even drawing a picture to show how they feel. Then children are taught to label their emotions by naming them with words like sad, angry, frustrated, scared or nervous. Lastly, when the time is right, children are supported to let go of their emotions by uncovering how their emotions can be transient and that they are bigger than their emotions. With this children can visualise their emotions going away through creative stories, self-regulation tools and compassionate conversations with adults. In time, with Emotional Agility, children feel happier, stronger from within and learn how to respond differently to their feelings during situations that previously triggered anxiety.
“How children navigate their emotional world is critical to lifelong success.” – Susan David
Depending on the child and their levels of anxiety, I also recommend therapies like Drama & Movement Therapy, Play Therapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. This is due to their unique styles of working with children in a creative and nurturing ways to reflect on thoughts and feelings associated to what triggered the anxiety; giving the child therapeutic tools to integrate into a new perspective and learning alternative ways to behave and react in situations.
In many cases, anxiety can be an occasional and normal human response to danger or stress, which can be overcome with simple and practical tools like deep breathing, a visual timetable or checklist of activities to help a child feel more in control. The Mental Health Foundation also recommends plenty of exercise, healthy eating, regular time with loved ones and taking part in pleasurable activities. Mindfulness can also help children become present, focus with their breathing and develop skills to live in the here and now. Whenever I use mindfulness in my classroom, I can see a positive change in many of my students.
“It is only in the darkest nights that stars shine more brightly.” – Hazrat Ali
If you know a young person with symptoms of anxiety, or if its you that suffers with anxiety, I hope this post inspires you to seek professional help and use some of the tools above. By taking every day as it comes, being kind to ourselves and finding joy in the simplest of things, it can make all the difference to our emotional state and well-being.
Miss H ♥