By: Simon Collins

Schools are stepping up to ease an “epidemic of anxiety” among their students, smashing a taboo that teachers shouldn’t be social workers.

A new programme for intermediate-aged children has found that 47 per cent of children in the first eight pilot schools were “at risk of mental unwellness” on two standard testing scales.

That number dropped to 36 per cent after the 10-week “Jade Speaks Up” programme which teaches children how to recognise and “name” their emotions, how to keep themselves safe in scary situations, and how to support each other through problems.

But it is still far higher than Ministry of Health data showing that 8 per cent of NZ children aged 3 to 14 had “concerning” social, emotional and behavioural difficulties across its last three surveys from 2012 to 2016.

Altogether, 28 per cent of children had “concerning” scores for at least one of the four categories of emotional symptoms, peer problems, hyperactivity or conduct problems.

“This is an epidemic that we are dealing with,” said Jade Speaks Up co-author Elaine Dyer, a former chief executive of Violence Free Waitakere.

Her co-author Andrea O’Hagan, a Whakatāne educational consultant, said schools could no longer ignore students’ mental health.

“If you are stressed or sitting in a place of anxiety or worry from the past, you can’t apply yourself so well to any new learning,” she said.

Yet Jenni Rodan, a teacher at one of the pilot schools, Waikōwhai Intermediate in Mt Roskill, said teachers were not trained to help anxious and stressed children.

“It’s such a difficult subject that sometimes it can be put in the too-hard basket,” she said.

An evaluation of the first year of Jade Speaks Up found some schools discouraged teachers from trying to help children with personal problems.

“Teachers would get messages like, ‘you are a teacher not a social worker’,” it said.

Unlike other programmes run by visiting experts, Jade Speaks Up trains classroom teachers to do the work because it helps children to identify people they can trust when they need help. One of those people needs to be their teacher.

Children learn calming strategies such as “breathe, think and do” before reacting to a threat, and strategies to keep safe such as learning the phone numbers of trusted adults.

A lot of it is done by storytelling and drama. At Waikōwhai Intermediate, students role-play comforting each other when their parents argued.

“Putting yourself into other people’s shoes helps you realise what you could do if you were in that situation,” said Luke Stroh, 12.

“It has, like, helped me as well. Sometimes if my parents are having an argument, I just give them space. Sometimes if I was in an argument with my friends I would carry the argument on. Now I realise that you just need to leave it and let it go.”

Brooke van Houts, also 12, said fights at the school were now resolved quickly.

Keira Ng, 12, added: “Before when there were fights there were no people with the courage to stop them. Now people stop them.”

Ponsonby Intermediate counsellor Rachel Maitland-Smith has pointed to social changes making many children more anxious.

“Parents are under a lot of pressure. Kids are on technology, parents are on technology, they don’t switch off, in some houses there is never eye contact,” she said.

Jade Speaks Up has made only a small difference so far. The children’s average scores on the two mental wellbeing scales improved from 75.8 out of 100 before the programme to 78.5 after it ended.

The cut-off point for being “at risk of mental unwellness” was 77, so the slight improvement in the average score showed up as a bigger drop in the numbers falling below 77, from 47 per cent to 36 per cent.

But Dyer sees it as a good start. The three-year pilot funded by the Accident Compensation Corporation ends this year and she hopes the programme will be taken up by more schools.

“All of these things, they take generations to change,” she said. “We are pretty confident that we have got a good beginning here.”

Source: NZ Herald

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