The beginning of the end: student stress and anxieties

Phew, I had a tough first week back after half term.  I seemed to spend most of my time talking to students who were experiencing quite raw emotional difficulties.  Some were already on my radar, but others seemed to fall out of the woodwork and were waiting for me in the office.  At times, it felt like one crises after another and the turmoil of the day stayed with me for some time afterwards.

Each individual had their own story and narrative but I wondered whether some of this might be triggered by the combination of a half term break and the fact that their teachers are beginning to gear them up for the summer exams. The countdown has begun.  There is nothing like a bit of high-risk, all eggs in one basket-testing to make the wheels fall of the cart.  To be honest, I am starting to feel a bit wobbly myself when I consider how little time we have left.  It feels like we have reached the beginning of the end and I wondered whether the ending was beginning to play on all of our minds.

For some, school was not the major issue in their lives, but as we enter the final furlong and their exams loom ever closer, the sticking plaster that was holding them together finally gives up the ghost.  Some of these students will require serious therapeutic intervention by trained professionals, I know my boundaries and when the issues are bigger than my capacities and skills.  Although, for many young people I fear that unless they are in crises there is so little help available but I should save that rant for another blog post.

For others, they will require a bigger band-aid, a stronger sense of emotional containment.  This is not to act like a sponge or a cushion, we cannot absorb all their anxieties or wipe them all away.  We are also not trained counsellors, so we should refrain from offering therapy sessions.  However, there is something therapeutic, preventative and helpful about our everyday interactions.  We are ideally placed to offer this sense of containment.  We can help describe the feelings, give them language to describe the ‘dread’, rationalise and make sense of the overwhelmedness and provide a safe space for this type of thinking.

This will require a more intensive pastoral approach.  It can be felt in our daily routines and interactions.  It will require lots of unconditional positive regard, resetting of their mindset, challenging their negative and dysfunctional thinking about themselves and their abilities.  Our primary task remains one of adolescent emotional and intellectual development.

If we remain connected to the emotional factors that surround teaching and learning we will be able to help students overcome these anxieties and develop some sense of being held.  However, to do this well, we will need to experience some form of containment for our own anxieties to prevent us from splitting and projecting them into the student body.

I am lucky, I work in a team of people who have become quite good at taking my emotional temperature and helping me put my worries back in the box.  There has been so much change in education this year, I wonder whether the anxieties about the beginning of the end will start to overwhelm us all and who will be able to hold them?