Teen anxiety: Getting back control

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

With recent research suggesting that many teens don’t feel in control of their lives, Karen Sullivan continues her discussion on what role schools can play to reverse this trend

In my last article, we looked at the results of The Prince’s Trust Macquarie Youth Index, which showed that some 28 per cent of people between the ages of 16 and 25 don’t feel in control of their lives, resulting in the lowest level of happiness and wellbeing in young people since the index began (Generation no hope? Tackling students’ anxiety, SecEd, January 2017: http://bit.ly/2k6wOcW).

While there are no easy solutions to this, there are things that we can do to encourage students to feel in control and happier, and, through that, achieve better academic results.

The first and most important thing to consider is the role that a school has to play in supporting the emotional health of students. A good 700 hours per year are spent in the classroom and a third more on school-related activities, so it goes without saying that this environment is fundamental to creating and maintaining happiness and feelings of control.

In fact, it is possible to create something of a microcosm, a secure place where children can flourish, and extend those feelings of contentment and security into the rest of their lives.

A 2013 study (Goldweber, Wassdorp & Bradshaw) found that “school belonging” is higher in schools where children feel safe (and have lower levels of bullying), making a strong anti-bullying programme critical to the creation of a haven for children. In fact, bullying at schools is, according to a 2008 report by Gutman and Feinstein, one of the strongest predictors of wellbeing.

But there’s more. In a 2010 study, Cemalcilar found that positive relationships between teachers and pupils, and between the students themselves, are not just important but critical in promoting pupil wellbeing and encouraging the avoidance of risky behaviours. This is something I think we have to take seriously.

This is a factor in all Ofsted assessments, and rightly so, but it is the relationships and not just the sense of belonging that should be considered. Teachers and other members of staff are, without a doubt, stretched in dozens of directions, and time is at a premium. However, to support students in today’s climate, it may be important to restructure the timetables slightly in order to facilitate the development of relationships.

Tutor and SEN groups, clubs, extra-curricular activities, PSHE classes and both structured (day and residential trips, sporting activities, etc) and unstructured leisure activities (see below) can all play an important role in establishing bonds between students and teachers, and between students themselves.

The more relationships that a child can develop within the framework of his/her school life, the greater their sense of security and wellbeing. Making use of these opportunities and some of the time devoted to them to create a sense of being part of a “team” or a “club” or even a group with a collective focus and set of goals, can go a long way towards this.

Give groups and teams a name, create a framework for leadership and decision-making in which everyone can become involved. A 2013 study (Jamal, Fletcher, Harden, Wells, Thomas & Bonell) found that children who feel that they have a “stake” in their school or other activity, and are involved in the decisions that are being made, are much more likely to establish and create positive relationships and to feel more happy and motivated. Moreover, it improves that all-important sense of “being in control”, even if it is in a small area of their lives.

Go out of your way to befriend students, not on an unprofessional basis, but simply showing interest in their lives and sharing a bit of your own. Talk about your own experiences that might be relevant to their own – for example, if you were bullied, talk about it. If you struggled to make the A team for football, how did you feel? What books did you love, and why?

Engaging students on a personal level – sharing non-intrusive personal details – will help them to relax and to trust, to feel more confident expressing themselves, to understand the nature of relationships themselves, and through that comes the sort of bonds that create deep and trusting relationships.

Allow them as a group to share a soft drink or a cup of tea and a biscuit occasionally, and make sure the door is open for individual chat. Take them outside on a sunny day and forget the curriculum or scheduled lesson for an hour. Just chat, share, discuss – anything that might interest them and encourage them to open up. Taking them beyond the confines and strictures of the classroom by creating unexpected opportunities for engagement can make a big difference to the way everyone relates.

Similarly, too, consider opportunities for leisure time. Create more clubs and get involved in them. When students are relaxed, they are more likely to engage. Ask them what they’d like to do. In a less-pressured environment, they will open up and feel that sense of control.

All of this goes above and beyond the role that we have as educators. However, we can achieve a lot by using school and after/before-school time wisely. Even just 10 minutes at the start of a class or an hour or two a month outside the classroom can engender hope and happiness, and a sense of belonging and control. Through that comes higher attainment and the confidence that we are playing a small role in creating happy and functional citizens of the future.

  • 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


  • The School Environment and Student Health, Jamal et al, 2013: http://bit.ly/2k6zNlB
  • Schools as Socialisation Contexts: Understanding the impact of school climate factors on students’ sense of school belonging, Cemalcilar, 2010: http://bit.ly/2k6Ddoq
  • Examining the link between forms of bullying behaviors and perceptions of safety and belonging among secondary school students, Goldweber et al, 2013: http://bit.ly/2kwf07m
  • Pupil and School Effects on Children’s Wellbeing, Gutman & Feinstein, 2008: http://bit.ly/2j7FqjF
  • Social and emotional wellbeing for young people, NICE guidance: http://bit.ly/2kmJV6R


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