School anxiety

Thinking child, scratching back of his head isolated grey wall background. Human face expressions, emotions, body language

There is still a long way to go to ensure that mental health is fully supported in schools, writes Julie Whitington.

Working in a primary school as SENDCo, you can see how students’ mental health has deteriorated since the Covid-19 Pandemic. Some students have always had an unusual level of anxiety at the point of leaving their parent or carer, but the number of students reluctant to enter school has increased since schools were closed during lockdown. This is distressing for everyone involved. Staff try to disengage the crying child from their parent who the child clings to. Offers to escort them to class, or to call home at lunch, have little effect. Until the parent leaves, the child continues to cry and cling. This scene is embarrassing for child and parent as other arriving families witness the scene.

Sometimes, with the younger children, distraction works well. “Let’s go and ….check on the school dog, feed the fish, water the plants, play the keyboard …” Older children are harder to distract!

■ Thinking about how we’re feeling.

Helpful tactics can include the child walking into school with a classmate, so they say goodbye to mum or dad away from view. Or a favourite member of staff, such as the class teaching assistant, can meet mum and child at an arranged spot, out of view of other incomers. Or the child can go in to do a regular task that gets them into school, but not immediately into the classroom, such as delivering, sorting, or helping in a daily routine. The less visible the parting is, and the less fuss made, the better.

Usually, as soon as the parent has left, the child calms down and five minutes later you wouldn’t know there had been an issue. But sometimes it escalates into full-blown school refusal.

Parental attitude towards school is a big factor in a child’s own perception of school. A parent who themselves holds anxiety about leaving the child (in school or elsewhere), will transfer this to the child. Children pick up on anxieties, absorbing and internalising them. Parents who themselves have had bad experiences at school are often negative in both their expectations and perception of school. It is a great moment for a member of staff to hear a parent say “I hated school, I was excluded, but I can see that this school really cares”. The more communication between school and home the better, as trust can be built upon this.

■ An emotional “rescue” service.

The NHS offers some participating schools a talking intervention based on CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). They work with the parent and child, and help both identify patterns of thought that enable the circle of anxiety to continue, as well as offering alternative, beneficial, thought processes. The period of lockdown generated anxious thoughts around death and dying. Will my mum be OK while I am gone? Will Dad get Covid when he goes to work? Will my child catch it in the classroom?

The constant focus from the media did nothing to get the situation in proportion. The radio and TV were entirely taken up with death and dying. Children were told school was a dangerous place—a place to catch a virus that could kill. No wonder this has left a lasting dent in our collective mental health as well as reduced attendance figures.

Government attendance figures for the end of the last academic year (July 2023) show 17% of children as persistently absent in state-funded primary schools, “persistent absence” meaning missing 10% or more, of their possible sessions in school.

Many schools offer an emotional “rescue” service called ELSA—Emotional Literacy delivered by a trained Support Assistant. This gives children a “go-to” and” in-house” person. Friendship issues, new arrivals, low confidence, the chance to express grief after a bereavement—the ELSA has a wide range of materials.

■ “I can see that this school really cares”

Play therapy is available to some schools who can afford this—it is expensive and not generally funded unless Social Services are involved—then it may be 50% funded. At approx. £65 per session, it is not an option for very long, or for many children.

The number of children in school with a diagnosis of Autism has increased in recent years. As well as those with a diagnosis there are many in school who show similar traits, remaining undiagnosed. Level 1 autism can bring with it increased difficulties with friendships or anxieties about a number of issues ranging from school-work to climate change.

Secondary schools in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have government funding for paid counsellors to work with children and young people—England does not yet have this service. The BACP are advocating for this to be provided in every Secondary school, College and Academy in England.

Not only secondary, but also primary schools should have access to a trained counsellor. ELSA can provide support for a range of needs, but cannot meet the higher-level needs that often occur in schools. A self-harming child may be referred to CAMHS—Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services—but will likely be rejected as not having a high-enough level of need. When the same child is then referred to the NHS Mental Health Support Team, they will likely be rejected as having needs that are too high for that service.

Julie Whitington
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Julie Whitington SENDCO



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