• Kerry Johnson

Mental Health and Children Part 1 – School Pressures

Many of us perceive childhood as an era full of play and no care in the world, however there is a lot going on for our young people that we may not recognise. 1 in 10 primary school children aged 5 to 10, and one in seven children aged 11 to 16 have an identifiable mental health condition.

In addition, Young Minds report 58% who described their mental health as poor before returning to school, rising to 69% when returning in September. This indicates that while school may be the route cause for some, unhappiness still looms for our ‘care-free’ young people regardless. In my counselling work, children tell me their issues are often disregarded as ‘not real problems,’ particularly during the pandemic.

While our young people are assumed to not care about the pandemic and blind to lockdown rules, many young people worry about their vulnerable relatives, their parent's jobs, alongside feeling lonely and in some cases unsafe at home. For our GCSE and A Level children, months spent revising for exams ‘wasted’ both this year and last year, at a time where their futures are beginning to take shape.

The pressures on children at every stage of school alone are IMMENSE. The level of maths and literacy skills expected from our primary aged children is way beyond anything I can remember, I often struggled to keep up with the lessons myself when I was a Year 5 LSA, and even had the students explaining many of the literacy and maths terminology to me! I don’t know a single time in my life where I’ve needed to use a ‘fronted adverbial’, and I have an English literature degree. Do our children need this pressure?

Teachers tell us this but to sit in a lesson and experience the pressure was eye-opening. Some children will appear to cope fine, while internalising that pressure and feel obliged to achieve a certain level in their SATS. And those who very obviously struggle, face constant comparison to their ‘more successful peers.’ All schools deal with this differently, and that’s something to look out for. Some primary schools are very good and make a large effort to not pass on their stress to the students, while some do the opposite. Some of my clients come from ‘outstanding’ schools, while their mental health very much ‘requires improvement’. While the curriculum appears standard for the whole country, I see children from ‘pushy’ 'snowplow parenting' households, to deprived households, all suffering from anxiety and low mood!

But what can we do about this? You’re a parent, not the education secretary, so you can’t change too much about the expectations placed on your child. However, there are a few techniques you could use to help your child to manage their stress and anxiety.

1. Exercise. Regular exercise is one of the best ways to manage stress and this doesn’t need to be Joe Wicks. It can be walking the dog, football, dance mat, any activity your child enjoys that gets their heart rate up.

2. Write or draw. Children often find it helpful to express themselves creatively. Many counsellors will use play or art therapy to help children and this can be done at home too, through any activity your child enjoys. It could be simple, such as asking your child to draw their classroom or teacher, there could be things that appear in the drawing that indicate their worries around school.

3. Let feelings out. Sometimes it’s ok for your child to hate school, and it’s ok for them to tell you about it. If they can be honest with you it’s a good sign.

4. Do something fun. Sounds obvious, and most teachers will try their best to make their lessons fun, but coming home to do homework can be an exhausting prospect for them, so if they know that before or after homework they can engage in one of their favourite activities, then it makes the concept of homework less depressing.

5. Make homework fun. Some parents come up with fantastic creative ideas such as turning homework into a game. There are loads of ideas you can find online such as The Egg Timer Game, The Flashcards Spelling Game and the Playing Teacher Game – role reversal can be great for our children’s confidence and language skills!

6. Learn ways to relax. If our children are over-stimulated in the day, particularly through technology, then we need to find ways to wind down so everyone gets the sleep needed to function the following day. Calming music, reading, stretching exercises are some of many ways to do this.

7. Laugh. Laughing is in my opinion one of the best cures for low mood. Not only does it boost our mood but gives us an abdominal workout – win-win

There is no one size fits all approach. If your child is really struggling, the sooner you can seek more professional help the better before it manifests into a larger problem in adult life. Communication is key and remember you are parents, not mental health experts, and it’s ok to seek help when needed!

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