The anxious children who are too stressed to learn

Parental conflict can have a devastating effect on school achievement. In the first of a two-part series, Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer looks at what schools can do to encourage resilience in children

Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer
Wednesday 29 September 1999 23:02 BST

Imagine the following: you are six years old; one night you are woken by raised voices, and not for the first time; you know that shouts and screams will follow and continue until your mum falls silent, bruised and battered by your dad. You are awake for the rest of the night, not daring to go in to offer comfort, yet desperate to check that she's safe. In the morning he takes you to school because she won't or can't. She hides under the covers when you go in; you'd rather not have left her.

At school, you are told off by the teacher for not listening; the scolding voice brings it all back. Too tired and anxious to concentrate or get into playground games, you stay on the edge. Nobody knows why...

It happens. Behind this month's pleasing primary results lies another story: of children, hindered by unhappiness, who don't make the grade, who misbehave, who underachieve - not because they are ill-disciplined or stupid, not because their teachers are incompetent. But because they are troubled at home and devise, usually unconsciously, a repertoire of disruptive tactics to keep academic and social challenges at bay and avoid further stress and humiliation.

Most people who have professional dealings with children believe that the numbers are growing. Certainly, more such children are being noticed. Does the "measure everything" culture, including teacher performance, help or hinder them? Why does distress affect achievement? More important, what can primary schools do to support isolated, withdrawn or disruptive children, and divert them from longer-term mental ill-health and exclusion?

These are some of the questions being discussed today at a seminar of specialists gathering in London at the invitation of Coram Family and the National Pyramid Trust for Children. The NPT runs after-school clubs for primary children who cause concern - one of several models of early intervention being reviewed at the seminar - and Coram Family provides services for vulnerable children and young people to promote resilience, and support children and families in the care system.

The seminar is the result of growing concern about the amount of mental distress experienced by primary-age children and its potential impact on their behaviour, their learning and their longer-term health and happiness. Not everyone will agree with the seminar's agenda. Some still argue that children's mental health has little to do with schools; that primary children are too young to get depressed or suffer mental disorder, and that what's needed is not more mollycoddling and social skills but more and better teaching or tougher discipline. The idea that some children are too stressed to learn is derided as patronising. They point to research showing that children who achieve at school often escape the cycle of deprivation, and claim this is the best way out.

Indeed it is. No one is saying that children don't need to learn. The issue is, once a particular child's learning problem is identified - whether it be poor concentration, withdrawn, dependent or disruptive behaviour, or an unwillingness to trust adults - what should be tackled: the cause of the behaviour, the behaviour itself, or the resulting educational deficit? Government clearly favours the third, with some emphasis on the second if behaviour is unruly. Others want more emphasis on the causes, believing that once these are dealt with the learning will follow. They also believe teachers are, generally, ill-informed about child development and therefore fail to recognise tell-tale symptoms. Often the problem for teachers is time. "As teachers, we are trying to get the children to work and learn. We may know they have difficulties, but we don't have time to talk to them at that level," explained one.

It's not a straightforward debate. Emotions and learning should not, and cannot, be separated let alone polarised, for three reasons. First, emotions interfere with learning, as Sebastian Kraemer, a child psychiatrist at London's specialist Tavistock Clinic, explained. "An anxious child is less likely to learn. Anxiety inhibits curiosity which engenders learning. Secure relationships can protect children against anxiety which can be caused by all sorts of things including restlessness, fear and tiredness." Get the relationship right and the learning will be right. Anxiety also inhibits concentration in listening and remembering, both of which are vital for academic progress.

Second, learning is itself an emotional activity, and how children feel about themselves and their work can make a big difference. Kathy Sylva, professor of educational psychology at Oxford University, has written: "The learning of specific knowledge and skills is a direct result of classroom teaching. However, social cognitions and feelings are also influenced by school and these may be just as powerful in predicting later outcome as intelligence or school curriculum." We all know that children do better when they like a teacher, but they also need to see themselves as capable and, crucially, to be able to cope with failure: emotions and feelings lie at the heart of learning and striving.

Third, doing well makes you feel good. Success at school can do wonders for a child's self-esteem and emotional health.

There is no doubt that children who struggle to achieve have often had family trauma or poor-quality relationships. Carol Hayden, a senior researcher at Portsmouth University, studied 265 children excluded from primary schools. The majority had significant and multiple stresses in their lives, with 83 per cent being on the books of educational and family support agencies. Among 38 randomly selected cases, Hayden found 87 per cent had birth parents no longer living together, 60 per cent had experienced multiple moves and disruption involving schools and homes, 24 per cent lived in stepfamilies, compared with 6 per cent in the population as a whole, 45 per cent had spent time being "looked after" by the local authority and 47 per cent were noted as having special educational needs.

Why do so many vulnerable children underperform at school? Apart from trauma impeding concentration, children who feel let down by significant adults are more likely to be wary of teachers, feel a loss of control over their lives and lose faith in themselves. Those who are constantly criticised or put down will develop a strong sense of failure and incompetence that will inhibit their confidence in school work, as well as socially. Those who have chaotic lives will have problems with self-discipline, managing routines and planning ahead. Research on resilience - the capacity of some children to thrive despite difficult experiences - shows that those who do well have good communication skills, a positive outlook, planning, problem-solving and reflective skills, high self-esteem and a strong attachment to someone who cares for them, preferably formed early in life.

Targets, tests and literacy hours may seem the antithesis of nurture, but some educational therapists acknowledge their value, if implemented sensitively. Paul Greenhalgh, author of Emotional Growth and Learning and senior inspector for the London Borough of Merton, says: "Children need clear expectations, boundaries and structure, to receive constructive feedback and to practise reflection. The new agenda can pressurise rather than support children, but when implemented well children can benefit, provided they also have planned time for open-ended creative and imaginative work in English and the arts. It is wrong to dichotomise emotional growth from educational achievement."

Ruth Robertson, an educational therapist from Hackney, agrees, though she knows children who can't access the benefits, owing to second language difficulties or severe emotional problems. She thinks schools are less tolerant and nurturing today because of the pressures. Nevertheless, many schools do care and do well with little or no help from overloaded educational social workers and psychologists, and much depleted local child and adolescent mental health professionals. They may do one-to-one work to rekindle a child's trust in relationships, small group work where children learn to develop their confidence and sociability, or work with whole-class groups to encourage positive talk and self-esteem. Some after-school activities encourage success and friendships; and some promote "mastery" learning, giving children more say in target-setting, planning and assessment, skills that we know help develop resilience.

Research shows that two weeks' off school through exclusion can set a child back permanently. Troubled children unwilling or unable to listen, concentrate, try or even play may be present in body but not in mind for far longer than a fortnight. Today's seminar organisers want schools to sharpen their awareness, step in early, and evaluate what they do. If they don't, it won't be just these children who are troubled; they could be a trouble to us all.

Hindered by Unhappiness is the writer's seminar paper that is being discussed today. Her book, `Motivating Your Child', is published by Vermilion

Next week: What can happen to children's work when parents split up


n Being withdrawn or having a lonely appearance

n Sadness, tearfulness

n A tendency to fall asleep at a table or in corners

n Preoccupation, inability to concentrate

n Reluctance, through fear, to attempt work

n Fear of mixing with other children

n Aggression to others

n Tendency to be bullied

n An inability to follow classroom routines

n Clinginess and needing constant reassurance

n Contrived helplessness

n Cheating, lying and stealing

n Tendency to destroy work on completion

n Attempts to destroy other children's work

n Rejection of teacher's offers of help

n Lateness and regular absences

n Wish to be a class clown

n Reluctance to state choices or to agree targets

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