It’s no secret that anxiety and other mental health challenges among young people are on the rise. Whether that’s down to the pandemic, growing use of social media or other factors is up for debate. However, it’s highly likely that you have encountered pupils suffering from mental health problems during your time in the education sector. Managing these issues can be highly challenging and requires a deft touch, but how can you alleviate pupil anxiety effectively and ensure that they are able to learn effectively in the classroom?
Anxiety on the rise
According to research from the National School Leaders’ Union, NAHT, 95% of teaching staff have noted an increase in anxiety levels among pupils since the start of the 2021 school year, and, worryingly, only 23% felt that they could regularly access specialist support for pupils who need it. Other mental health issues are also becoming highly prevalent, with 86% noting an increase in low self-esteem, 76% in depression and 68% in sustained feelings of anger. For staff working in secondary schools, 72% have noticed an increase in self-harm, 61% in suicidal thoughts, and 56% in eating difficulties among pupils. Clearly, there is a wider issue at play that is contributing to these challenges; however, teachers are on the front line and need to manage them effectively if they are to be able to deliver positive educational outcomes for their pupils.
But what can be done, and how do you identify and work with young people suffering from anxiety?
Identifying pupils who are struggling
The first step is to identify those who need help. This is particularly challenging for supply staff who may not have been in a position to develop longer-term relationships with the pupils under their tutelage; however, equally, pupils may be more willing to open up to supply specialists than they would with their regular teacher. Young people often lack the ability to vocalise confusing emotions like anxiety, meaning that it may manifest itself in physical symptoms, and those suffering from these feelings might not necessarily be the type of pupils who would normally appear on your radar. Tell-tale signs often include causing disruption to classes, a reluctance to attend school, overly negative thoughts or being distracted. Some will suffer from panic attacks but not all pupils dealing with anxiety will experience this.
Once you’ve identified pupils that are suffering, there are a number of methods or coping mechanisms that you can utilise:
Outlining that anxiety is a common and normal experience can help to reduce confusion and worry and empower the pupils themselves to manage their anxiety and to recognise the triggers that cause it.
Establish a routine
When taking on a new role at a school, you should work with the existing staff to understand what the existing routine looks like. Unexpected changes can lead to a rise in anxiety levels, and while there’s no such thing as a ‘regular’ school day, sticking to the outline of this routine can help to alleviate stress and worry amongst pupils.
Remain calm and positive
Overreacting to the issues that you face won’t help, and pupils that see that their supply teacher is becoming flustered by the challenges they are dealing with will only make things worse. It’s your responsibility to lead from the front, so try to avoid projecting any worries or insecurities onto such pupils and encourage them to think positively; model being optimistic while in their company.
Positioning and movement
On a more physical level, enable those pupils that are battling anxiety and stress to sit at the back of the room so that they can see everything happening in front of them and try to avoid unnecessary distractions by shutting doors and windows if the temperature allows for it. Equally, incorporating movement breaks into lessons is an effective way of ensuring that pupils can remain fresh and able to concentrate on the tasks they are presented with.
Finally, teaching children some breathing techniques that can be utilised when anxious feelings or emotions arise can be highly effective. These can be found on the internet, particularly on dedicated websites like the NHS, Healthline, and even YouTube, and will enable pupils to manage their emotions, leaving you to concentrate on teaching the rest of the class.
There’s sadly no one-size-fits-all solution to dealing with pupil anxiety, and, unfortunately, it’s fairly likely you will encounter these challenges wherever your next role takes you. However, keeping these tips in mind will go a long way and will enable you to step into a new school feeling as you can effectively handle any issues you’re faced with. What tips do you have for dealing with pupil anxiety and other mental health challenges as a supply teacher?