Generation no hope? Tackling students' anxiety

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

From Brexit to Trump and the economy to school life, research suggests young people are under pressure and anxious about the future. Karen Sullivan asks how we can help them

Last year was an unusual year, with Brexit and the Trump victory changing the political landscape and creating a period of flux, and a great sense of unease. Fuelled by the media, this has led to great speculation about the future – jobs, economic prospects, ability to travel freely, and more. Not surprisingly, this has affected young people, and, according to the Prince’s Trust Macquarie Youth Index, released last week, some 28 per cent of people between the ages of 16 and 25 don’t feel in control of their lives.

This national survey assesses the wellbeing of young people across numerous criteria, including family life and physical health, and the latest report shows that happiness is at its lowest level since the index was first commissioned eight years ago.

A snapshot of the results suggests the following: 18 per cent of young people feel trapped and do not believe they can change their circumstances; 16 per cent think their lives will amount to nothing; 61 per cent feel that a lack of self-confidence holds them back.

Some 58 per cent of young people feel that political events are causing them to become anxious about their future (41 per cent feeling more anxious than a year ago), and (rather like most of the population) 44 per cent claim they don’t know what to believe because of the conflicting media reports.

Living costs are a concern, with 34 per cent believing that they will have a worse standard of living than their parents, and 42 per cent worried that traditional goals, such as getting a steady job or owning a house, are unrealistic.

On top of this, 12 per cent of young people say that they don’t have anyone who “really cares about them”, 37 per cent feel stressed about how to cope at school (or work) and 45 per cent feel pressured about body image.

These are a worrying set of statistics, and these issues can all affect learning and motivation. And while this study focused older students, there is no doubt that the uncertainty and negativity experienced will feed through the younger years as well.

Dame Martina Milburn, CEO of the Prince’s Trust noted: “The potential consequences of failing to help these young people who are so clearly in need of support have huge implications for our nation’s future. We simply cannot allow them to be paralysed by their circumstances and self-doubt.”

A wealth of research suggests that educational achievement and attainment is inextricably linked to wellbeing – for example, a 2011 Department for Education (DfE) study found that successfully attaining GCSEs (five or more A* to C) is strongly associated with higher levels of life satisfaction among young people.

Interestingly, too, confidence and feeling in control can have an impact. For example, in Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential, Professor Carol Dweck found that children who are confident about their learning and have a growth mindset, which involves the belief that their abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work, are much more likely to persist when faced with challenges and, more importantly, success. The same was shown in Improving Academic Achievement: Impact of psychological factors on education (Aronson, 2002).

Another landmark study found that students who can manage stress, set goals and organise their school work achieve higher grades, and that social and emotional competence is a more significant determiner of attainment than IQ or basic ability levels (Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents, Duckworth & Seligman, 2005).

Moreover, Morrison-Gutman and Vorhaus’ (2012), found that more school engagement at age 13 is a significant predictor of greater academic progression from key stage 3 to 4, “highlighting the importance of sustaining school motivation for academic achievement in adolescence”.

While we can’t change collective and perhaps global uncertainty, we can work on improving the wellbeing of our students and help them to feel in control of their lives. In 2012, the annual report by the Chief Medical Officer of England noted that: “Promoting physical and mental health in schools creates a virtuous circle reinforcing children’s attainment and achievement that in turn improves their wellbeing, enabling children to thrive and achieve their full potential.”

In 2013, Ofsted’s well-known PSHE report found a strong correlation between schools that achieved a high grade for PSHE education and those that were graded outstanding for overall effectiveness.

Encouraging self-belief, managing stress, promoting positive self-image, confidence and peer and teacher relationships are just some of the ways to increase the wellbeing factor in our students, and we can also work on problem-solving skills that will not just help students to feel more optimistic about the future, and allow them to create strategies to set and meet goals, but will also improve their wellbeing and emotional health on a number of levels.

This will feed through to enhanced academic achievement, which reinforces wellbeing further. In my next article, we’ll look at practical ways to achieve this in a school setting, and how they can be most effective.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email kesullivan@aol.com. To read her previous articles for SecEd, including in this series, go to http://bit.ly/1SNgg00

Further information

  • The Prince’s Trust Macquarie Youth Index (2017) http://bit.ly/2jHzyOa
  • Youth cohort study and longitudinal study of young people 2010, DfE, July 2011: http://bit.ly/2igm8Z7
  • Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential, Dweck, 2012, Robinson Publishers.
  • Improving Academic Achievement: Impact of psychological factors on education, Aronson, 2002: http://bit.ly/2jzApvR
  • The Impact of Pupil Behaviour and Wellbeing on Educational Outcomes, Morrison-Gutman & Vorhaus, (DfE) 2012: http://bit.ly/2jaWlks
  • Our Children Deserve Better, Chief Medical Officer’s annual report (2012): http://bit.ly/2jzGw3x
  • Not Yet Good Enough: Personal, social, health and economic education in schools, Ofsted, May 2013: http://bit.ly/2jb1jhp


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