Our new Pearson School Report, shaped by the views of almost 7,000 teachers in England, reminds us all that schools do not operate in isolation. They are very much microcosms of the wider world, affected by broader global events themselves and by how they are represented in the news. And in an age when young people have access to social media, this is increasingly impacting on them and their expectations.
Teachers in both primary and secondary schools across the country have told us they’ve seen a rise not just in pupils’ awareness but in their levels of anxiety over this past year. Issues like the invasion of Ukraine, Covid-19, the cost-of-living crisis and climate change are among the causes. So too is worry about their own and their peers’ mental health. And the summer break is unlikely to ease things; Pupils will return in September just as a new prime minister is announced.
There is clearly risk here, but also opportunity. In their efforts to develop active citizens, schools will want to harness their learners’ interest in emerging issues. But they need to do so sensitively in order to manage their anxiety at the same time.
So this year we’ve supplemented our work on the school report with some additional free resources founded in clinical psychology. Here are some of our top tips for striking this difficult balance.
Approach topics openly and honestly
As the Pearson report shows, today’s learners are curious and care about what’s happening in the world. Many are accessing information through social media platforms – which are great for raising awareness and facilitating conversation but can also drive up anxiety by disseminating unhelpful information or misinformation.
It is therefore important not to try and pretend things aren’t happening or to lie to your pupils. When broaching these subjects, focus on providing the facts honestly, in a neutral way and tailoring them to your learners’ developmental age.
Allow children and young people to bring their issues to the fore too. If they feel they are being shut down or are unheard, they may be confused or angry. If it is not appropriate to talk about the issue at that time, it is OK to say so. But try to always provide an alternative opportunity for them to be open about their worries.
Avoid overwhelming them
Not all children will be at the same level of awareness or capacity to cope with these global issues. So it may be useful to provide opportunities for choice about how much they are engaged in discussions. For example:
- Allow pupils to remove themselves from conversations without judgment if it becomes too much.
- Start small and provide space for greater discussion out of normal class time, like in a lunchtime focus group.
- To avoid anxiety overwhelming information, contain discussions to certain specific times like when a member of staff is available to support discussion. All queries or outside of those times can then be directed back to that opportunity.
Young people are not apathetic. They are engaged, interested and want to make change.
We know that a lot of anxiety about global events is driven or exacerbated by a sense of lack of influence and control. Helping young people channel their interest and engagement in practical action is key.
Think about fundraising and partnering with local charities or organisations who are practically involved in these issues. You could appoint student ‘champion’ groups who can be supported to read up, find out facts, present assemblies or reports in school newsletters and run campaigns at school.
Some schools have done wonders to welcome refugees this year. When such direct involvement isn’t possible, the simple act of sending letters or messages of support can be very powerful.
Being part of the solution, even in the smallest way, makes a difference. We always feel better if we feel we are trying. And it’s the cumulative effect of all these small acts that results in big changes in the end.