School stress image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Does your school prioritise wellbeing and emotional health?
On the school run I walk past two schools: the primary, where my children spend their days; and the local secondary school, which churns out hundreds of blazered adolescents attached to phones, bikes, and in some cases, to each other. Overall, these teenagers are pretty well-behaved; their headteacher often operates the pelican crossing, so they need be, at least until they’re over the road and round the corner. They will move aside for your buggy – if they see you. They will nod, and maybe even smile, if they live on your street. They will – usually – get off their bikes, or move to the road, if you’re walking on the pavement with younger children. They’re pretty good, as teenagers go.
I often hear people grumbling about them though, teenagers. There seems to be a cynicism around kids of that age which presumes that all of them will be a pain to some extent. ‘Enjoy them while you can,’ I hear regularly about my own. ‘Wait till they’re teenagers if you think you’re losing sleep now!’ people in the know intone. I know it’s a thing, a rite of passage, that being the parent of a teen involves a lot of self-control and diplomacy. And yet, I have friends who have teenagers, who are school teachers, and what they tell me about the life of a teenager makes me want to cut them some slack.
Stress at school
Here’s a list of things I know teenagers are dealing with:
- Homework – tons of it. 2-3 peices a night, every night, and more at weekends. It must be exhausting!
- Friendship issues – people can be really mean to each other!
- Self-esteem wobbles – do I have the latest look? Is my hair cool? Is my skirt the right length? Am I muscly enough? Oh god is that… it can’t be… please no… a spot??!!!
- Pressures from parents – we want them to stay angelic, hang out with us, do as we say, and get good results at school. They want independence, to spend less time with us, have some privacy, and build their own identity. That’s a huge clash, right there.
- Pressure from teachers – they need to do their best work in every class, no excuses. Your maths teacher doesn’t care that you’re excelling at French, and that geography is your strong subject. You have to do it all.
- Money worries – they’re learning how to budget, and not always getting it right. Mistakes cost, either in a lost opportunity, or a row at home.
- Hormones – not just pesky things we like to joke about, to explain why our child isn’t doing exactly what we want him to do, at exactly the right time. Hormones are big deal. They cause mood swings, headaches, period pains, tearfulness, acne, concentration lapses, anger, anxiety, frustration – the list goes on. All at a time in your life when what’s important is being able to concentrate, cope with an increased work load, make and retain friends, look good, feel confident, have energy – again, the list is endless. Hormones, in short, are a big deal.
- The Future. Oh dear but that’s a big one…
Just re-read that list. That’s a heck of a lot of stress and pressure for one young person. And yet they’re all dealing with it. It’s a wonder they even see me as they pass, never mind think to give me the time of day!
Health and wellbeing at school
GG will be starting at secondary school next year, so I’m well aware that the pressure will soon be on her shoulders. Whilst ‘healthy schools’ has been a tag coveted and allocated to most schools in recent years, it tends to conjure up thoughts of what’s served in the school lunches, or how much PE is done every week. Most schools have an anti-bullying policy, and ours is certainly on the ball about supporting children when they’re not feeling great about themselves. But at the end of the day, resource is limited; there is barely enough time to get them through the curriculum, so time spent on emotional wellbeing is necessarily limited.
Recent research states that poor physical and mental health among pupils and teachers are on the rise, levels of undiagnosed mental illness for children and young people are at an alarming 75%, with a worrying half of all diagnosable mental health conditions thought to start before the age of 14. Scary thought for the parent of a child just about to embark on that journey. Jamie Oliver at the school gate, and a ‘war on sugar’ aren’t going to solve that – it just needs a massively more integrated approach.
So I was really pleased to hear about a new scheme being piloted in one secondary school, to create the post of Head of Wellbeing. Nuffield Health are funding the position for two years, after joint research with think tank 2020health identified large gaps in provision at secondary schools around exercise levels, obesity, and emotional wellbeing. The position will be created at Wood Green school in Oxfordshire, and first on the holder’s list will be a one-to-one health check with every pupil, to ascertain what kind of support he or she needs. The stress of the teaching profession has also been recognised by the initiative, and teachers at the school will all receive an individual lifestyle assessment.
It’s an exciting initiative which, if successful, should help students navigate some of the most stressful years of their lives a little more gently.
How effectively does your school support your child’s wellbeing? What support do you think teenagers need at school, and at home, to make a healthy transition to adulthood?