Post-pandemic, our children are sad and anxious like never before. But from wellbeing surveys and exercise regimes to meditation centres, savvy schools are finding ways to help
“My five-year-old’s behaviour in class is getting worse — he just refuses to follow instructions,” one worried mother posted on Mumset, the online parenting forum. Another wrote, “My son likes to keep himself to himself and recently has started ‘fake falling’,” and another said that her daughter has “panic attacks about going to school”.
The plight of Britain’s schoolchildren has reached a post-pandemic crisis point, with a generation of deeply unhappy pupils who are struggling socially, emotionally and academically.
“There was an explosion of mental health problems among young people between 2017 and 2021, referrals to the NHS went up 50 per cent,” says Peter Fonagy, professor of psychoanalysis at University College London, who has advised the Princess of Wales in her Royal Foundation charity work to improve youngsters’ wellbeing.
“In schools that has translated into a rise in pupils behaving badly as well as children being sad, depressed and anxious. Children now have emotional and conduct problems — they have anxiety and depression and their behaviour issues include defiance and violence.”
It is a worrying diagnosis. So what can be done to help? Amid concerns about the emergence of a snowflake generation, unable to face the challenges of adult life and the workplace, many schools are trialling new approaches to try to keep pupils of all ages happy and healthy.
For the youngest children in primary schools that can mean “lots of music, drama, art — and sport,” says Fonagy, who is also chief executive of the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families. “If there is one panacea for mental illness it is exercise.”
Regular jogging was the solution Beth Collins, deputy head at the Laurels Primary School in West Sussex, reached for when her eight-year-old pupils returned to school last year. Some young children had got so used to playing computer games and sitting at screens that their fingers and thumbs could not stop twitching in class, according to Collins, who found that they had put on weight too. She decided to interrupt lessons and take them outside every hour for short runs around the playground to calm their screen-linked fidgeting and improve their fitness.
One little girl was so unused to any physical activity that she said she felt as though her “heart would burst out of my chest”. “I told her that was a good feeling and we talked about endorphins,” Collins says. Parents and children were also offered yoga training and showed how to breathe well in a bid to reduce time spent on screens. The approach worked. “The children are back to where they should be,” she adds.
Other primary schools such as Thomas’s Battersea, the prep school where the Prince and Princess of Wales’s children were pupils, have gone a step further and introduced outdoor classes, following the Scandinavian model of ‘forest schools’.
In the UK, Fonagy says, a “culture of safety” allied to teachers and helicopter parents who hover over children directing their every activity limit their chances to take risks and explore — and thereby build their confidence and happiness. The Thomas’s group that includes the Battersea school offers woodland lessons that allow children to explore, fall over and get dirty, play with conkers, kindle a fire outdoors, climb trees and even use a knife to whittle wood.
Some secondary schools have developed their own, sometimes unexpected, innovations aimed at helping pupils think about and manage unsettling feelings, which can spill over into self-harm or bad behaviour. Last month Ark Elvin Academy in Brent, northwest London, opened a custom-built meditation room partly funded by a foundation set up by the footballer Raheem Sterling, a former pupil. Children can use the room to practise meditation, which Sterling has said has helped him “as a professional athlete, supporting me in balancing my thinking, focusing and diminishing external noise”.
In a similar way XP, a free school in Doncaster, holds mindful Mondays and “crew” meetings every morning where small groups discuss pupils’ emotional as well as academic development.
Such is the nationwide concern, education officials and academics have even held talks about the possibility of measuring children’s wellbeing — in the same way that data is collected for exam results. Experts, however, have cautioned against launching league tables that rank schools on levels of mental health.
Fonagy is in favour of measuring wellbeing, but cautions that schools should beware of “medicalising ordinary human unhappiness”. Teenagers being sad because they have been ditched by a boyfriend or girlfriend is normal.
“Teachers have a huge role in stress reduction; not to be amateur counsellors, but to be calm role models to children,” he says. “I would measure schools on wellbeing, including how well the kids function with each other, how happy they are and how well they are doing, how much they thrive. Can they pursue goals to completion, are they connected to others, do they feel optimistic and generally happy? That is what good education should be about.”
One of the most ambitious projects to measure children’s wellbeing is the #BeeWell project. Across Greater Manchester, a team led by Neil Humphrey, professor of psychology and education at Manchester University, is annually surveying the happiness of 40,000 children, in years 8 and 10, by asking them to answer questions about issues such as their emotions, sense of autonomy and optimism.
The project, which could be the model for a national scheme, is also quizzing the pupils about the drivers for their wellbeing, such as health and routines, their relationships with parents, the amount of time they spend on social media and whether or not they are being bullied.
From the responses to the questionnaires the team has built “a series of data dashboards that each school can log into”, Humphrey says. “It gives teachers feedback about the things we assess for their pupils compared to the results for other schools in Greater Manchester.” It reveals, for instance, how optimistic pupils in a school are in comparison to those in other schools or how much they are bullied. Schools can then work with the Anna Freud Centre, which is linked with 14,000 schools across the UK, to develop a plan to tackle any areas of weakness.
The project has found that one in four young people in Greater Manchester “have levels of mental distress that are a cause of concern and that girls are more affected than boys”. It has also discovered that only one in three youngsters is meeting the target of “one hour of exercise a day”, and that bullying and family problems are the two factors that youngsters say influence levels of health and wellbeing.
Some of the lowest scores were linked to sexual orientation. Youngsters who said they were bisexual or pansexual scored lower on wellbeing than those who said they were heterosexual, lesbian, gay or transgender, Humphrey says.
Why does all this matter? “Feeling satisfied with your life and optimistic about the future . . . affects young people’s academic attainment,” Humphrey says. “And there is evidence that wellbeing in childhood predicts labour market outcomes, adult relationships and adult health too.”
Many schools are also offering guidance to parents on strict early bedtimes and taking away mobile phones at night after teachers were confronted with a generation of children post-pandemic so weary from messaging friends and playing computer games till the early hours that in the afternoon they would put their heads on the desk and go to sleep.
For Fonagy one of the most encouraging developments is that one in three schools is now linked up with NHS mental health support teams.
“The teams go into schools. Their special training is evidence-based . . . they are unique in the world. It is one of the best things the NHS has done and has increased by 31 per cent the number of children that are seen by putting early prevention teams in place. We hope all schools will be covered in six or seven years’ time.”News