'Parents are playing their part in this too' – How childhood is shrinking and anxiety is rising

It’s a sign of the times that in today’s schools, building emotional resilience and giving children the skills to cope with the pressures of modern life are as much a part of the junior cycle curriculum as English and maths.

The 60,000 first years who entered post-primary schools around the country last year were the first to have well-being written into their timetables. This summer, in a policy document on well-being, the then Education Minister Richard Bruton spelt out the ways that it was to be centre stage in schools.

But just what has changed in the lives of young people in the space of a generation that has demanded such a move by schools?

Colman Noctor, a child and adolescent psychotherapist who works with St Patrick’s Mental Health Services in Dublin, says childhood is shrinking – and the stressors you used to see in 14 to 15-year-olds are now being seen in 11-year-olds.

He says the transition from primary school to second level is huge, and the greatest difficulty pupils have during this time is what he calls the leap into a “pseudo-mature discourse” where they go from “Marvel characters to discos and short skirts” in a short space of time.

Noctor also believes the ‘Instagrammisation’ of this generation is a great cause of stress and anxiety. “I work with children who wake up to 60 messages on their phone. It may be dross, but it’s leading to this need to be always on or the need to be cool. I’m not putting it all down to social media. Our expectations have been driven through the roof in terms of being the brightest and being the fastest runner,” he says.

“Expectations drive this unhappiness and parents are playing their part in this too in terms of a comparative culture. We are exposed to what everyone else’s kid is doing. As a culture, the sharing of information has become possible with technology. We tend to say more about ourselves that we did before,” says Noctor.

And he says the constant sharing of what our kids are up to can prey upon our vulnerabilities, leading us to think we’re not doing enough as parents. But in trying to be “perfect” parents, we are failing to give our children a chance to psychologically build up their immunity, he says.

“The epidemic of this generation is anxiety. I’ve never seen more anxious parents and children. We need to look at how we are relating to each other. If you’re answering emails over breakfast, you can’t expect a child to be any different.

“There’s a lot of pressure on schools and a lot of stuff has been subcontracted out to teachers to manage. The fact that we have prescribed well-being is a cultural indictment of where we are. I’m not knocking the initiative. These are all interesting strands to address the problem, but none of them is the silver bullet.

“There needs to be a collective response from government, schools and parents. I think we’ve been seduced into the cosmetic and have forgotten what’s important. It’s all about external validation – what you look like, and are you clever? This initiative is a brick in a wall that needs to be built but it’s only a brick. It’s not a great white hope,” adds Noctor.

At Moville Community College in Inishowen, Co Donegal, Principal Anthony Doogan says the landscape has changed utterly since his school first opened its doors to students 17 years ago.

He says an increase in families under stress or under financial pressure is leading to students exhibiting anxiety. “That is compounded by exam stress and living in an online world,” he says.

This year, the school’s 560 students will have access to a second qualified guidance counsellor after a staff member underwent further training. “There’s three aspects to their job – subject guidance, career guidance and personal guidance. The area of personal guidance has become all-consuming for them compared to 20 years ago when the focus was on education,” says Doogan.

So does he believe the new focus on well-being in the curriculum will equip him and his staff to deal with the issues students present with, and meet the education needs of the Junior Cert?

“The function of the junior cycle is to provide appropriate junior cycle education for 12 to 15-year-olds. It cannot cure the ills of society – and it doesn’t have the wherewithal to provide teachers with the tools to deal with all the issues that are now challenging them,” he says.

“I do believe it’s a step in the right direction. I do believe the teaching methodologies being espoused by the new junior cycle will significantly improve the life skills that these students will need to pursue a successful life to a far greater extent than heretofore,” says Doogan.

“You regularly hear a casual flippant remark: ‘This should be taught in schools’. My response to that is: ‘What should we drop? What part of the maths curriculum should we drop?’ The content of the curriculum is extremely wide and we are constantly being asked to expand the provision that is encroaching on curricular time,” he says.

Deirdre MacDonald, vice president of the teachers’ union ASTI, says teachers are ambitious for the well-being programme in schools but said consultation with them on its implementation has been very poor. “There’s no time given for one thing to be embedded before the next thing comes along,” she says.

According to MacDonald, teachers taking social, personal and health education (SPHE) classes will be a key contact group when it comes to discussing issues of well-being with pupils, but class sizes will restrict meaningful discussion.

“Effective group work dealing with issues around emotional well-being and health – the maximum group size should be 16. We are dealing with class sizes of 30. This is double what would be considered best practice, and that is a very significant factor. If young people are going to speak about issues that are difficult, they’re much more likely to do it in a small group. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that trying to build trust and confidentiality in a group of 30 people is not achievable,” she says.

MacDonald, who is a maths and SPHE teacher at Coláiste Eamonn Rís in Wexford Town, says the Well-being Policy Statement and Framework for Practice published by Minister Bruton refers to a “whole school approach” and the “school community”. She says teachers are often expected to function in the system for many, many decades.

“There’s no systematic approach to teacher welfare, which is the case in Finland, a country often quoted in education. There’s a concept in health promotion called ‘caring for the carers’. If you don’t care for the carers, they won’t be able to fulfil the potential of their role. I’m sure parents appreciate that to be a good parent, you need to be in a good place yourself. It’s the same for teachers,” she says.

“Teachers are ambitious in their vision of well-being in schools. They are co-operative but realistic in their approach to whole school well-being. Initiative overload is a real problem in schools. They are doing amazing work with their students despite a huge lack of resources to support well-being in schools,” says MacDonald.

In response to questions about staff training for the well-being programme, a spokesperson for the Department of Education and Skills said some 10,827 teachers have already had continuing professional development (CPD) in the 2017/18 school year.

By the end of the 2018 calendar year, all post-primary schools will have had the opportunity to avail of a whole school day on the new well-being area of learning, the spokesperson said. New six-hour workshops focusing on SPHE, civic social and political education (CSPE) and PE for junior cycle will be run throughout this academic year.

As part of the well-being policy, the department also promised that more educational psychologists would be recruited to work with schools in the coming academic year.

Ten new posts will bring the total number of psychologists working in the country’s schools to 194 as part of the department’s National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS). This represents an 8pc increase on the previous year’s numbers and a 19pc increase on the number working in schools during the 2012/2013 school year.

Some schools have come up with their own innovative ways to help young people cope with the pressures of life. Alan White, a teacher at Bishopstown Community School just outside Cork City, pioneered ‘Changes: 30-day mental well-being challenge’ in response to the struggles of students in his classroom. Other schools have also adopted the programme.

“The challenge helps young people to take control of their own mental well-being. With mental well-being, I liken it to physical health – you do certain things to keep yourself physically fit. You can do pro-active things for your mental health, too,” says White.

“The challenge looks at things like taking a break, getting enough sleep, eating well, exercise and the amount of screen time. What I have found is that teenagers’ stresses and anxieties are the same as we would have had, they’re just amplified because of the culture they’re living in. It’s an ‘always on’ culture where you’re always contactable,” he says.

‘Best self’ posts

White believes that social media heightens anxiety around the typical teenage angst over ‘who likes me’ and ‘am I popular’? The programme reminds students that when someone posts something online, it’s their best self – and encourages them to start setting goals and focuses on the importance of having a purpose.

“When you have these, you’re less likely to compare yourself to others. It’s promoting the idea of personal responsibility and it’s about encouraging positive decisions rather than negative decisions. Everyone understands physical fitness. I’m keen to show that you can take steps to become mentally healthy as well,” says White.

For Jigsaw, the national centre for youth mental health, the move to put well-being at the heart of the curriculum is a step in the right direction.

However, the organisation’s spokesman Mike Mansfield says the feedback from workshops they deliver in schools is that teachers need more support so that when a young person comes to them with a problem, the teacher has the tools to respond.

In recent years, Jigsaw has seen a 47pc increase in demand for its services. While Mansfield says a lot of this is down to the fact that more and more young people now see it as okay to ask for help, the big issue is anxiety with 39pc of young people presenting with this.

“One of our key messages is ‘one good adult’. It’s a really simple concept and we know that one good adult in a young person’s life has a positive influence on their mental health. While the issues a young person may be going through are complex, the solutions don’t always have to be,” says Mansfield.

“Young people tell us that one key area for them is having someone in their life that will listen to them. Through Jigsaw’s new Schools Framework, currently under development, we are looking to increase the confidence and knowledge of the entire school in order to ensure a stronger listening culture,” he says.


School for well-being: in numbers


Number of hours to be allocated to well-being over the three-year junior cycle by 2020

1 in 3   

young people aged 12–25 who reported feelings of depression and anxiety (My World Survey 2012)


The number of specialist psychologists working with schools as part of the Department of Education’s National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS).

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