School anxiety: Moving into the fast lane!
One fifth of school children in the UK suffer from school phobia/anxiety, with a high percentage of these eventually being classified as ‘school refusers’ (Ledwith, 2013). Whilst the highest reported cause of school phobia is bullying, many other factors can be involved.
In this article, I provide an insight into one perspective on how school anxiety might develop.
Imagine the following scenario:
You have passed your driving test and are now ready for your first independent journey! Trundling along, you feel relatively safe, after all, you’ve driven on of these roads during your lessons. Then you take a wrong turn… your heart rate increases, it starts to thump in your chest as you realise that you’re on a motorway! Your legs turn to jelly, you feel sick. Your inner voice calms you and you find a comfortable spot... the middle lane! You’re keeping to the speed limit, 70mph, when suddenly cars start flashing their lights, tooting their horns and drivers raise a fist at you. You question your driving skills, your eyes fill with tears, your palms are clammy. Eventually a junction appears and you exit, vowing never to do that again. Then circumstances dictate that motorway driving is a necessity! You find that comfortable spot in the middle lane again, but still cars beep angrily, drivers shake their fists… you don’t realise why! Eventually things become so bad that you change your sat nav to ‘avoid all motorways’.
How an inability to recognise and/or realise implicit school rules might result in anxiety
Just like learning to drive on motorways, when children move from primary to secondary (or sometimes infants to junior) everything is often much bigger, faster and the rules are different. Most children navigate this transition smoothly and are able to recognise even the most implicit rules in their new environment. For example, teaching styles may differ, as well as school displays, and these can convey certain meanings such as displays in one school might suggest a school values academic attainment whereas in another they might suggest the school values social well-being (Learoyd-Smith, 2012).
Whilst many children can recognise these difference, some don’t. The latter often struggle to know how to behave in that new environment. Alternatively, some recognise the implicit rules, but find that the expectations in this new environment are in conflict with home values/behaviour or with how they feel comfortable behaving/learning.
For some children, this perceived inability to behave as expected leads to increased feelings of anxiety which, if left unchecked can result in a fear of school. Even then, it may be sometime before a child changes their ‘sat nav’ to ‘avoid school’. When problems are recognised before this stage, very often children and young people struggle to articulate what the real issue is; it took me four years of doctorate research to see this pattern of behaviour and the effect it can have! As a result, it is difficult to know how to help.
How can therapy help?
Hypnotherapy is an excellent way of helping the children and young people to understand what the real issue is, helping them to desensitise to aspects of schooling they may find traumatic, and providing them with the knowledge that they do have the resources within them to cope with so many situations.
And finally, just in case you’re still unsure… the middle lane is for overtaking!
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About Sue Learoyd-Smith
Sue works as a Clinical Hypnotherapist at SFS Therapy. She specialises in working with anxiety, particular student anxiety, and has also successfully helped clients (both young and old) with issues including weight loss, depression, panic attacks, fears/phobias, addiction, motivation and many other issues.