Managing the elephant in the classroom: stress & anxiety

The University of Sydney recently surveyed 18,000 teachers, and found they are “drowning under increasing amounts of paperwork”.

On top of that, teachers are struggling to manage an overcrowded curriculum with a generation of students who have poorer self-regulation than ever before. Add to this the very real threat of increased violence in schools, and we have an environment that is creating teacher resignations and burnout at record levels.

The stress is very real.

Many students aren’t doing very well either in terms of mental and emotional wellbeing. Recent reports have exposed the alarming impact badly behaved students have in Australian schools, both on staff, school leaders and other students.

Poorly behaved students have been a part of the schooling scene forever however it seems the numbers are increasing, and the stress and angst this causes is adding to declining standards of education.

We need to name the elephant in our classrooms — unhealthy anxiety, driven by stress.

With increasing numbers of 4- to 6-year-old children being suspended or expelled — mainly boys — and growing concerns of parents around anxious primary school children, we need to have the conversation in our school communities about how to reduce the stress that is drowning many of our children.

It isn’t just children either. The numbers of adolescents struggling with mental illness continue to climb — some reports suggest anxiety is an issue for one in three teen girls and one in five boys.

Leaving high school with a mental illness and a predisposition to anxiety is not the sign of a valuable education system. The massive increase in self-harm and school disengagement is another sign we need to make serious changes.

I have heard from many high schools and communities who have multiple deaths from suicide — and many of the students were high achievers, academically capable, achieving high standards in sport and the arts.

We must change this relentless pressure for high grades for grades’ sake.

In the past decade, we’ve seen large numbers of children diagnosed with depression and behavioural disorders such as ADHD, ADD and oppositional defiance disorder. Research shows though that the symptoms associated with these disorders are often an indicator that a child is suffering from anxiety.

Dr Lynn Miller from the University of British Columbia has found that as well as common and known symptoms of anxiety (stomach aches, headaches, difficulty sleeping, avoiding school, nail biting and physical reactions such as increased heart rate or breathing), there are many frequently overlooked symptoms — such as:

  • Angry outbursts
  • Irrational silliness.
  • Oppositional and refusal behaviours
  • Temper tantrums
  • Aggression
  • Attention-seeking behaviours
  • Hyperactivity and difficulty sitting still
  • Attention and concentration problems
  • Scholastic underachievement or excessive resistance to doing work
  • Frequent visits to school nurse
  • High number of missed school days
  • Difficulties with social or peer group.
  • Unhealthy perfectionism.

We need to stop kneeling at the altar of high grades, without accepting the huge cost on mental health and while also not recognising and valuing the need to develop the attributes of good character, resilience and a hunger to make the world a better place.

The aftermath of 10 years of NAPLAN-driven testing and accountability has ended up with Australia continuing to drop on international education scales and a massive increase in levels of stress and anxiety for our student, teachers and parents.

We must address this elephant in our classrooms before we can improve our students’ educational outcomes.

Daniel Goleman wrote this many years ago in his book Emotional Intelligence that “happy calm students learn best”.

Stressed students will struggle to make good choices around behaviour and learning — and many of our traditional responses to poor behaviour need to be reviewed.

With the increasing research coming out around ACEs — adverse childhood experiences and trauma — we need to reframe the way we see inappropriate behaviour from early childhood through to secondary school.

The capacity for an individual to self-regulate, and to manage challenging situations and human relationships without being spontaneously triggered by their primitive brain will certainly not improve if punishment is still the primary option used in schools.

Some students who exhibit poor behaviour that is disrespectful, disruptive and inappropriate do so for many reasons that can be directly linked to stress and anxiety.

I have long been fascinated with how we learn and, with neuroscience we have discovered so much about neurotransmitters that influence arousal states. There are intricate complexities of how energy ebbs ands flows in the human body and massive diversity in brain integration that impacts focus and how we think — or not. I published my first book Saving our Children from our Chaotic World in 2003, exploring much of this for parents and teachers.

Simply punishing these troubled students rather than helping them explore what is triggering that behaviour will have limited success because it increases stress.

As Associate Professor Anna Sullivan from the University of South Australia writes in The Conversation:

“Schools need to avoid practices that mistreat, exclude and denigrate students and are based on intimidation, anxiety, threats and retribution.”

We can create meaningful learning outcomes and healthier, happier students and staff but only if punishment comes last not first on the list. Why?

It is over 40 years since I was at university however I embraced and still remember Maslow’s hierarchy and the wonderful wisdom of the late Dr William Glasser, who discussed ‘Choice Theory’.

It seems that in our digital world, we may be forgetting the importance of the basics of human survival. Humans cannot thrive and flourish when they feel unsafe — and so many of our students do feel unsafe.

School cultures that focus on building inclusion and positive relationships create successful learning environments.

The Positive Schools movement is doing fabulous work showing how wellbeing makes a huge difference when it is placed as an intentional expectation of schools.

This approach values the “doing with them” rather than the “doing to them” approach and has a better chance of making students feel they matter — a key to improving how they behave and, ultimately, learn.

Mindfulness programs, such as Smiling Mind, are a great and manageable place to start, and incorporating small moments of silence and stillness in your classroom has proven benefit for teachers and students.

With the pressures on teachers now, it is bordering on impossible for them to have capacity to create a sense of genuine belonging in our classrooms and wider school environment for students who come from diverse backgrounds, with differing needs and learning challenges.

It takes time to create human connectedness and there is very little of that in the classrooms of today. Unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety need to be addressed.

Educators across Australia need to be heard and they need to be consulted so the changes that need to happen can.

We cannot continue to allow this pressurised system of schooling to continue. When our very best teachers are walking away from the first profession they love — just like Gabbi Stroud, whose recent book Teacher captured in a raw and honest way the reality of teaching today — we must question how we can fix this.

Education Ministers and Australian Government, please acknowledge the elephant in the classroom, and be bold and brave and send that elephant back to the jungle.


Image credit: ©️ zsirosistvan /Adobe Stock –