Anxiety is on the rise in schools

While the first term of a school year is still new and exciting for many it is a cause of anxiety for some and the rate of anxiety in school age children has been increasing in recent years, according to developmental and educational psychologist at University of Southern Queensland (UniSQ) Dr Yosheen Pillay.

Dr Pillay says that anxiety is also occurring in children at a younger age.

“Whereas once we would look at anxiety in high school children, especially in the transition phases, for example from primary to secondary years, what we are seeing now is anxiety developing as early as prep aged children going into year 1. A lot of the anxiety we are seeing is associated with change of routine, newness, unfamiliar situations and separation anxiety between child and parents,” Dr Pillay said.

Even with a positive start to the new term, Dr Pillay says that by February the newness starts to wear down and any factor that can trigger some sort of fear or anxiousness will “rear its ugly head”.

“An important thing we cannot overlook is for parents to observe any patterns of behaviour that they see in the early days or weeks up to Easter,” she said.

According to Dr Pillay things like complaints about stomach aches, headaches, children not wanting to go to school or saying they have no friends can be signs of anxiety if they become repeated patterns of behaviour.

“Of course we don’t want to overlook it if it is a medical problem, but if it is ongoing and it’s happening every Monday morning then we need to look at whether it is a problem of going to school or is there something medically going on and get them checked by the GP.

“If the same behaviour is going on at the end of February or into March I would urge parents to talk to the teachers who are very savvy at picking up if children are having problems such as with reading or comprehension.

“Easter is a pretty good marker for us psychologists and teachers to start to question whether there is more going on than anxiety about school. For example, for 6 to 10-year-olds is there something else to consider such as concentration, reading or numeracy difficulties, are there learning problems or ADHD. For older children peer pressure, peer influence and academic competition are things to consider.”

How parents can help

According to Dr Pillay parents can help by setting up a positive mindset about school early in a child’s life.

“When we look at anxiety and anxiety-provoking situations we look at fear and all sorts of negative behaviour that contributes to that, including bullying. What we want to establish is appositive mindset to school and to build up that positive social emotional wellbeing which we are seeing on the decline at the moment. We are seeing an increase in school refusal and what we see the causes are is fear. It’s a lack of developmental awareness of how to make friends.”

It’s important for parents to talk through these situations, says Dr Pillay. Be positive about school, follow-up when they come home and when something negative does happen then it is about problem-solving. If parents need help then they should have a conversation with the appropriate person at the school to address it. Support in schools ranges from counsellors to peer support and mentoring for older students to assist mental health and wellbeing, and academic performance.

Referring to programs like Triple P can also help parents manage their own anxiety, apprehension and stress as children will pick up their parents’ anxiety.

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