I haven’t commented much on the whole ‘child mental health’ crisis thing, neither have I said anything about parents keeping their kids off school due the ‘stress’ caused by standardised testing. To be honest I’m fairly agnostic about the whole situation plus I’m certainly not experienced enough in mental health to make any judgements (I leave that to those who are equally inexperienced but more vocal in their gibberish).
Despite this I do have a few observations knocking around in by brain that are fairly desperate to escape, so by way of relieving myself of these burdensome gremlins I’ve decided to break my silence and try and write some kind commentary, a kind of outpouring of gunk.
1. Anxiety is real and it’s not the same as getting worried or nervous.
I get nervous when I have to sit an exam, attend an interview or give a presentation. Being nervous doesn’t even compare to when I’m in the throes of proper anxiety; exams and interviews don’t cause these episodes, in fact they’re often caused by an accumulation of little things.
Anxiety can be caused by anything and anxiety disorders can relate to anything from dogs to getting peanut butter stuck to the roof of ones mouth (it’s called arachibutyrophobia) – phobias are anxiety disorders (as are conditions such as OCD). They are irrational and illogical but that doesn’t make them any less terrifying. Someone (I honestly can’t recall who) tweeted some time ago asking if maths anxiety is just anxiety. Well, of course it is, but often anxieties are directed towards a certain thing – this is what makes them phobias if they’re extreme enough.
There is, therefore, no reason why people can’t be test or exam phobic (or at least test anxious). The question is more about how many young people actually suffer from it – my guess would be very few; they are mistaking being nervous with being anxious and therefore stressed (‘stress’ seems to be used as catch all these days). This makes it incredibly difficult to separate those in desperate need of help and those who are actually just a bit worried.
2. Who is stressed: Child, Teacher or Parent?
This questions has really been bouncing around my head of late. I recall asking my son if he was nervous about his year 6 SAT’s a few year ago. We hadn’t really discussed SAT’s but I was aware of other parents getting all worked up and worrying that their kids were suffering from stress (while at the same time insisting that they practice, practice, practice). My own son was pretty chilled but did think that his teacher was stressed out. My strategy (basically ignoring the whole thing) seemed to work – he did incredibly well in his SAT’s but, please, don’t take parenting advice from me – it will only end in tears.
We all want the best for our kids and we want to protect them as much as we can. I can’t help thinking, however, that we often transfer our own anxieties on to them – maybe there’s a parent mental health crisis – our desire to protect is negatively impacting on the wellbeing of our children.
3. Schools don’t really know how to deal with anxiety.
The last school I worked at would allow anxious students to sit their exams in small groups and away from the main exam hall (I’m not sure if they still do this). Each year the small groups got bigger. From a psychological perspective this strategy makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, especially as many of the students were unable to identify what it was about the exam that triggered their anxiety (and I suspect, in many circumstances, students were mistaking nerves for anxiety). Other schools might use relaxation training or mindfulness but I have my doubts about both as universally appropriate.
Ironically, one strategy that will probably work is to test more (not less). One of the problems with exams is that they represent an unusual situation and, generally speaking, human beings are never that keen on rarely experienced situations. Regular low stakes testing is not only good for the memory but it should also work for test anxiety by normalising the test environment. In psychological terms this is known as the FEAR (Face Everything And Recover) strategy – make low stakes testing the daily norm and gradually raise the stakes. High stakes testing is here to stay so we’re better off dealing with that rather than engaging in a fruitless attempt to get rid of it.
(There are other useful strategies but I’m not going to list them now).
Finally, human beings are pretty resilient – let’s face it, we’ve survived this long against the odds. If there is a child mental health crisis it’s only because incidents of psychological distress have increased world-wide and across all age groups – just because big humans act in a certain way it doesn’t mean little humans shouldn’t. You can accuse Big Pharma of wanting to medicate the planet but I would rather think that it’s to do with the normalisation of abnormal behaviour and better diagnosis of mental illness than a global conspiracy.
As I said, just some thoughts. Feel free to disagree and I’ll feel free to ignore you. I’ll leave you with my quote of the day from Tim O’Brien:
When someone feels overwhelmed or engulfed by life’s challenges a kind word or an act of kindness from others will travel a long way.