anxiety school mental health

It’s that time of year — back to school

When a new year in the classroom is about to commence, what can we do, as parents and educators, to help the pupils settle in quickly and with minimal stress?

For those about to embark on A levels, they will notice a huge jump from the requirements of the GCSE years.  Depending on the school, some will start with 4 subjects and then drop one at some stage. Some will know they have AS exams next summer.  No two schools seem to follow the same pattern.  This in itself can be stressful for the pupil.  “Is my school doing the right thing for me?” is a question I hear a lot.  Parents ask the same.   But you have to trust the school that they have thought this through and are doing what they feel is right for their cohort.  Speak to the school and get your questions answered. 

The other big question is: “Am I doing the right subjects?”  For me that is the easiest question to answer.  This is where a parent can help.  It is your child’s education, not yours.  Allow him or her to make the decisions.  Yes, guide and support.  But you are not the one sitting in the classroom and writing the exam. Allow your child to answer these questions:

  • Which subjects do I enjoy?
  • Which ones do I detest?
  • What am I good at?
  • What do I enjoy even though I find it tough?
  • Where do I score well even though I find it deadly dull?
  • What possible career options am I looking at?  Do potential careers demand certain subjects?

Putting all these answers together should allow a pupil to make a rational and independent choice. The golden rule is usually:  if I enjoy it, I will work hard at it and the hard work will be enjoyable.  If I work hard, I will achieve my potential.  But, if I find the subject dull or really difficult, I am not going to enjoy it and ultimately, I will get nothing out of it.

So before the start of term, check with your child:  have you made the correct choices for you?  I am sure that if there has been a change of heart over the summer, a quick chat with the school should allow changes to be made.

But once the new year starts, parents can be a great helping hand.  An important thing to remember is:  for good, productive learning to take place, we all need to be physically, psychologically and socially healthy.Here are some basic guidelines:

Encourage a dedicated working environment.  Not everyone has the luxury of a room that can be used as a study only.  The bedroom is usually also the workroom.  Install a desk and some shelving.  Encourage your child to keep the desk neat and organised.  Never go to bed with the desk a mess!  If possible, pack everything away before bed time. There is nothing worse than going to bed and you can see the messy desk with incomplete work.  It is a recipe for a very disruptive night’s sleep!

Encourage private reading around the subject.  This does not need to be expensive.  Most schools now have access to free online resources that your child could log into from home.  Again, ask the school to publish the websites and the login details on the school portal.  Sites like https://www.jstor.org/ are really useful.

Encourage a healthy social life.  A good social life is good for maintaining perspective and keeps the stress levels down.

Encourage a routine at home.  Allow for TV, phone calls,and social media.  But suggest that your child monitors their own use.  There is plenty out there on the dangers of screen time and social media.  To ban it would be foolish.  But show them some of the articles and allow them to see that leaving the phone off and somewhere other than next to the bed is a really good idea.

Encourage regular exercise.  This might be as simple as walking to and from school.  But good, aerobic exercise is essential for a healthy body and mind. If this exercise can be taken outside, in the fresh air and sunlight, even better.

Encourage a regular sleep routine.  Good sleeping habits are vital for our physical wellbeing. But there is so much evidence now that suggests good sleeping is essential for productive learning and the development of long term memory.  A regular bed time and waking up time is a really good idea.

Encourage a well-balanced, healthy diet.  Cut out the junk; keep an eye on sugar intake; drink lots of water.

Everyone gets stressed and anxious at times.  But, the first step to dealing with it is to acknowledge it and to accept it.  Once we know we are getting stressed, we can do something about it.  Teenagers are not always the most communicative. But look for the signs that your child is getting stressed and then offer some help.

But, most importantly, you as the parent need to watch your stress levels and the extent to which your child is picking up on them.  So often I see a child who the parent says is really stressed and anxious.  This is often true but what then becomes apparent in so many cases is that the parent is the one who is really stressed and they are then transferring the stress to their child.  This is particularly true when the eldest child is going through the education system. I understand that for parents, they want the best for their child.  But the parent, and the teacher, needs to create an environment that is as calm and supportive as possible.  When we get stressed, we stress them out. 

Tips for the teacher:

Get conversations with parents and pupils going ASAP.  Encourage open, honest and realistic dialogue now.  Parents? Evening might be too late.

Keep an eye and ear open for signs that the pupil is not coping or is finding the pace too stressful. A quiet word is often all that is needed.

But also keep an eye on yourself.  You are not much use if you are stressed out and tired.  Your state of mind is equally important.  We are not effective when we are on edge.  A bit of pressure can be useful.  But too much of it is unhealthy for everyone.  Get that work/life balance correct.  Learn to shut off.  Something as simple as removing your work email account from your mobile phone can make a massive difference.  The tips above are as relevant to us.

A version of this article first appeared on Welldoing.org

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