General wisdom tends to ignore back to school anxiety and instead states that children of all ages should be happy and grateful to return to school, despite:
- the ongoing threat of coronavirus;
- the difficulties of settling back into a daily routine after months out of it;
- the enforced changes that make familiar environments unfamiliar;
- back to school anxiety around numerous other unknowns;
- all the negative media publicity around schools and exams.
According to ministers and their advisors, school is still the best place for our pupils. And teachers would broadly agree with this: we work our backsides off to make sure that young people leave our care better informed and better prepared for what life throws at them than when they first strolled through the school gates.
A Breeding Ground for Mental Health Issues
Only, research just released shows that teenagers were actually more anxious last October, during a normal Autumn term, than they were in May, isolated at home during the grip of a global pandemic. This should make worrying reading for the whole of the educational sector. We all know exams are stressful but the angst of summative assessments should not echo all the way back to Year Nine, which was the testing ground for this study. Year Nines should be gleefully anticipating their option choices, focusing in on those subjects they enjoy and discarding those they don’t!
The report does not go into detail about the causes of school-based anxiety or specific back to school anxiety, but teachers could hazard a guess: peer pressure, the frenetic pace of the school day, and an overwhelming focus on academic attainment. Educators suffer from the exact same symptoms; it wouldn’t be any surprise if a survey of teachers found a similar drop in anxiety during lockdown and the enforced break for many from the daily rat-race, even taking into account the complexities of facilitating home learning.
Time for Reform
In September there is going to be more emphasis than ever on pupil wellbeing. Our recovery curriculum resources encourage pupils to reflect on their time out and how best to move forward. The question is: will school leaders and reformers be doing the same? Is this concern for wellbeing genuine or is it a means to an end, designed to get pupils back into the attainment mindset as fast as possible? Of all the downsides of a godawful 2020, it has regularly been commented that the prevailing upside is a golden opportunity for recalibration, but will this actually happen? Anyone accustomed to broken promises over work-life balance would be forgiven for being cynical.
Of course, nobody makes a classroom a miserable and fretful place on purpose. Colourful, motivational wall displays and smiley welcomes at the door are intended to counteract the dread that many of us recognise from our own schooldays, yet all the research on the teenage mental health crisis suggests that, for all our efforts, most schools still aren’t getting it quite right. So, how to break a vicious cycle?
Banishing Back to School Anxiety and Creating Happier Classrooms
Sadly, there is no simple answer. However, the simplest answer of all seems to be to put happiness on the curriculum. And you don’t need to wait for the DfE to implement this, even though they undoubtedly should, since…
If a school wants to improve the academic performance of its pupils, it should, first and foremost, focus on their happiness and wellbeing. The simple fact is that pupils with higher levels of wellbeing generally perform better at school academically (Gutman and Vorhaus, 2012). Evidence shows that schools that put in place programmes to boost pupils’ social and emotional skills have an 11 per cent gain in attainment, as well as improvements in pupil behaviour (Durlak et al., 2011).Bethune, Wellbeing in the Primary Classroom: A practical guide to teaching happiness, 2018
Bethune is writing about wellbeing in the primary classroom, laying the foundations for practice that should be systemic. The good news is that Ian Morris has already concentrated on the later years, when exam factories crank into their highest gear and teenage mental health gets put through the wringer. One of the key messages from both practitioners is that teachers have to look after their own wellbeing to set any kind of example to those in their care. Furthermore, one of the key contributors to happiness is empowerment. So don’t wait for the powers-that-be to bring about change. Small, incremental alterations can make a world of difference.
You might now be thinking, understandably, how am I supposed to do this on top of everything else? Firstly, Beyond’s purpose is to help those who teach. We can’t pretend to be experts in mental health and psychology, but we are qualified teachers. Let us pick up the slack on planning and resource creation. Then take the time to read and research for yourself; investing in you is another contributor to happiness, after all. Useful sites, as well as our own, include Action for Happiness, Teach Happy and Young Minds. Happy reading, and good luck banishing the back to school blues for teachers and pupils alike.
You can also check out the video below, which further explores how schools can prioritise wellbeing and happiness.