Wicklow teachers ‘overwhelmed’ as anxiety rises in primary schools

Rachel Harper, principal at St Patrick's National School in Greystones. Photo: Owen Breslin.

Tom GalvinBray People

The principals of eight schools in the Greystones and Delgany area met to discuss the alarming rise in the levels of anxiety among primary school children, at an event in the Whale Theatre, Greystones, on Friday May 12, which was also attended by local TDs Simon Harris, Stephen Donnelly and Jennifer Whitmore.

Spearheaded by Rachel Harper, principal of St Patrick’s National School, in Greystones, the It Takes a Village initiative initially aims to prompt a conversation around the unprecedented levels of anxiety among children as young as 10, who are now struggling with mental health issues normally seen in teenagers.

Ultimately, the hope is that a model for support systems can be created for children, which can then be shared with other schools around the country.

Ahead of the meeting in the town, the schools organised a joint survey of some 800 parents to identify the scale of the problem, and more than half reported their children experienced anxiety or other mental health issues. The majority of schools also said they noticed a rise in these issues in classrooms, with most feeling they had worsened during the pandemic.

Ms Harper said that the volume of cases led to her reaching out to other schools in the area to ascertain the extent of the malaise and the responses from the principals of the other seven schools were universally similar.

She said school teachers are feeling “overwhelmed and unqualified” to offer adequate support to struggling children.

“Class teachers, SET and SNAs are doing their best to support the wellbeing of all the pupils. Time normally assigned to support children with literacy and numeracy are now used to provide support for emotional wellbeing.

“As non-specialists in this area, trying to support the children and families is also putting unnecessary stress onto the teachers. These are children’s formative years and it is imperative that proper attention is given in order to equip children with the tools that will help them to thrive during their teenage years and beyond,” she added.

Speaking on Upfront with Katie Hannon on Monday night, Ms Harper spoke about the huge rise in anxiety issues she has witnessed first-hand in her own school, as well as the number of parents who have approached her to share their concerns of mental health within their own homes.

Covid, the war in Ukraine, the cost of living, issues that children should be sheltered from as they go through their primary education, are being filtered down through the devices like tablets and mobile phones and creating havoc with their mental health, the audience heard.

A GP from Greystones in the audience, Cheryl, pointed to the increase in the numbers of children and adolescents coming into her surgery, an issue she said that is replicated across other GP services in the town.

From primary age children to teenage children, a pattern has begun to emerge whereby individuals are starting to withdraw from everyday life, to the point where they no longer even wish to attend school.

While she said that as part of the consultation with these young patients, lifestyle factors such as sleep, exercise and diet were raised, “without exception” screen time was averaging at 10-12 hours per day. This not only exposes them to the harmful barrage of information, but is also taking them away from the positive pursuits that should make up their daily lives.

As a mother of three children (14, 12, and 7), Cheryl said she sets very strict boundaries on phone use, with time limits on apps and a total ban on phones being brought into the bedroom.

The GP said that in 2019, she introduced a Smartphone Code in Delgany National School, which gave parents the option of choosing not to buy a phone for their children, to empower parents to make a collective decision in the best interests of their children, and to reduce peer pressure in the classroom where every child felt they needed to have a phone to fit in.

The It Takes a Village initiative will involve monthly talks from experts and a forum where parents, teachers and groups in the community can discuss their experiences. It is also being supported by the principals of the three secondary schools in Greystones – Temple Carrig School, St David’s Holy Faith and Greystones Community College.

With Mr Donnelly confirming at the meeting that he is planning to liaise with Minister for Mental Health, Mary Butler, to discuss the issues, Ms Harper is also hoping to get the backing from the Department of Education, which is due to trial an in-school counselling and therapy project this year. The stakeholders also hope to recruit a Play Therapist to work across all eight primary schools in the catchment area of Greystones and Delgany.

“The Department of Education already recognises the importance of early intervention for learning support and the positive effect that has to ensure students reach their full potential,” Ms Harper added. “It is time now for the focus to be on mental health and the importance of early intervention.

“Children’s wellbeing is our concern, as schools are seeing an increase of behaviour issues in response to some of the challenges that young children experience in their lives. We are not trying to solve the issues – however, by launching the It Takes A Village initiative, each of us can help in our own way, and together we can make a real difference now in our community for our young people.”​