Research over the past 20 years certainly seems to suggest that childhood anxiety is on the rise, and that there are much higher rates of anxiety in children today than in the 1950s. The combination of pressure at school and societal changes seems to be fuelling this upward trend. So what changes can be made to make childhood ‘fun’ again?
With the introduction of NAPLAN and the compulsory attendance of Prep in Queensland schools, our children’s primary years seem increasingly focused on academic achievement. This push has brought great results, with Queensland students being most improved in several NAPLAN areas. But is this coming at a price, and is there a better way? Play-based learning is at the centre of the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF)—the national framework for early childhood education and care: “Through play babies and young children explore and learn to understand the world around them as they come to communicate, discover, imagine and create.” (Early Years Learning Framework Guide 2016.) Lindsay Cote, Psychologist at Sunshine Coast Psychology Clinic, explains that play is a very important part of how children learn.
“Play fosters creativity, builds problem-solving skills and is critical for social-emotional development. Additionally, because young children’s brains are very much still developing, it is difficult for young children to regulate themselves for extended periods of time. This means that regular opportunities to get up and move and for free play are very important and developmentally appropriate.”
Play is also an essential development tool as it provides children with the opportunity to interact with their peers—to find ways to get along, to negotiate and to problem solve differences, all things that create social competence. “Children who feel competent and confident are much less likely to be anxious and more likely to try new activities. When children learn by doing things for themselves, they develop a sense of competence, resilience and confidence.”
So why, once children reach formal education is this philosophy so quickly abandoned for rote learning and teaching by instruction?
Three years ago, St Andrew’s Anglican College (Sunshine Coast) challenged the traditional pedagogy of the mainstream classroom, introducing the Walker Learning program. Now embedded across all primary classrooms, their classrooms are transformed into exciting, engaging, and very active learning spaces. Through active investigation and personalised learning, children build knowledge based on their experiences rather than through passively receiving information.
“This is really important because no two children develop at the same rate, in the same way and at the same time,” said Prep Teacher Fiona Scurfield.
The Walker Learning Approach encourages the children to be problem solvers, deep thinkers and creative learners. It also facilitates the development of a rich vocabulary as children discuss, question, hypothesise and negotiate their learning. “The open-ended nature of investigations encourages a true and lifelong love of learning and it is a really effective way of ensuring that every child begins the day with a smile on their face”, said Ms Scurfield.
Lindsay Cote believes that while the data is unclear about rises in more recent years, there have certainly been significant societal changes that could be conducive to increased anxiety. “Two meta-analyses from several years ago examined anxiety in children and adolescents between 1952 and 1993. What they found was that increased anxiety was associated with decreased social connectedness and higher perceived environmental threat.”
In simple terms, that means that compared to 60 years ago, we are much less connected. We are less likely to know our neighbours well, and it’s less likely that our extended family is involved in the upbringing of children as we tend to live further away. She believes these trends have eroded a strong sense of community for many people.
“Additionally, the rise of the Internet and social media means that we are constantly bombarded by information, including information about bad things happening in our country and around the world,” Lindsay explains. “Children, therefore, are a lot more exposed to information about things like terrorism, shootings, kidnappings and severe weather events, creating a sense of danger and unpredictability for many children.”
There are several things you can do as a parent to prevent or improve anxiety in your child. Lindsay explains, “It starts with modeling—that is, teaching by example. If a parent is struggling with anxiety him or herself, it is important to manage it appropriately and to try not to fret or worry excessively in front of your child, which undermines your child’s sense of security.”
It is also important to be aware of your child’s age in terms of how much he or she is exposed to. “It is not appropriate to tell a four-year-old not to talk to strangers ‘because someone could take you and kill you’. It would be more helpful to say: ‘Most people are good but some people are not nice to kids and that is why you should not talk to strangers’.”
Also, let your child make mistakes and take acceptable risks. Your child will learn more from getting it wrong than from getting it right. Encourage your child to have a go, particularly if he or she is avoiding something, and most importantly, praise your child for taking small steps. It might be easier to put their bag away for them when in a rush every morning, but they will learn more if they do these things themselves, and feel more confident in their abilities next time they are faced with doing something new. Lindsay says,
“Many parents ask me, ‘When should I push my child and when should I pull back?’ This is more art than science, but use your best judgment as a parent. If your child is showing a little reluctance, some prodding may be in order. If your child is hysterical, let it go and try again next time.”
It is understandable that we all want the very best for our children and no parent enjoys seeing their child upset. However, when we try to manage our children’s difficult feelings and swoop in to ‘fix it’ for them all the time, our children have fewer opportunities to work through it themselves, building competence at managing their own emotions. Competence then leads to confidence, that feeling that ‘yes, I can handle the things that come my way’, as well as resilience, or the ability to bounce back when things go wrong.
Lindsay Cote is a fully registered Psychologist at Sunshine Coast Psychology Clinic. She effectively delivers services to children and adolescents experiencing mood and anxiety difficulties, including those with severe and complex mental health challenges. Find her at www.sunshine-coast-psychology.com.au.