A recent study by NHS digital (Nov 2018) showed that one in eight 5 to 19-year-olds had at least one mental disorder when assessed (broadly grouped into emotional, behavioural, hyperactive and other disorders), and that there had been a 5.8% increase in emotional disorders from 2004 to 2017. Indeed it is widely reported that the current generation of youth is experiencing higher levels of anxiety, in part due to factors such as social media, political uncertainty and increased awareness. And yet there are cuts in funding for mental health services. Against such a backdrop it remains vital for members of the teaching profession to remember when and how to seek further support and guidance for working with students whose emotional wellbeing is of concern.
With this in mind, a vital characteristic for us all to develop and model to students is the capacity for resilience. Resilience has been described as ‘the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress’ (APA, 2019).
It is inevitable in the school environment that students of all backgrounds will be exposed to certain levels of stress as they encounter the challenge of learning, exposure to new tasks, interacting with peers face-to-face as well as in the unsupervised, online world, and negotiating relationships with teachers who have different personalities and expectations. All of this is in addition to any further challenges from everyday life such as mental or physical health issues, bereavements, a background of domestic violence, socio-economic difficulties, language or cultural challenges.
We need students to continue to function when they face a perceived level of stress. This does not mean dismissing or denying feelings associated with the stressor but it does mean being able to identify and acknowledge feelings that have arisen without necessarily being knocked sideways by them (for example, freezing from thinking/engagement with others or immediately diverting or distracting as a means to avoid feeling the emotions).
Resilience is considered to be, ‘not just a matter of constitutional strength or the possession of a robust temperament: it is also a product of how people perceive, appraise, approach and tackle stresses and challenges.’ (p.233, Howe et al, 1999). So when students begin to feel stress from a situation in your classroom and start to emotionally dysregulate, it will be critical that you step in and intervene to support better emotional regulation. (See ‘Attachment behaviours in the classroom’.) In doing so, you provide emotional first aid in the moment.
We also want students to learn and grow and this involves having gradual exposure to challenging situations in which they can stay emotionally regulated, stay calm enough and connected enough to themselves that they can continue to think their way out of the challenge in front of them. This may include knowing that they have a range of strategies that they can use for themselves to overcome the challenge – for example, thinking creatively about different ways to tackle the problem, seeing other people as a resource (being able to ask for help from peers or others adults), or perhaps leaving the challenge alone for a short period of time before returning to tackle it with ‘fresh eyes’.
NHS Digital (November 2018) ‘One in eight of five to 19-year-olds had a mental disorder in 2017 major new survey finds’
APA (2019) The Road to Resilience
Howe, D., Brandon, M., Hinings, D. and Schofield, G. (1999) Attachment Theory, Child Maltreatment and Family Support: A Practice and Assessment Model. Macmillan: London.
Tracy Godfroy works in a therapeutic school community, Tumblewood, and has an independent practice in Bath.