A ground-breaking new project will see principals, teachers, learning support staff and parents in dozens of NSW schools take part in a world first pilot program aimed at reducing childhood anxiety.
Developed over two years by the NSW Primary Principals’ Association (NSWPPA) in collaboration with Parentshop – Australia’s leading anxiety, child, teen and adult behaviour-change specialist organisation – ‘The Anxiety Project’ will help schools deliver “a whole of school community approach” in reducing anxiety of primary school age children.
The project was motivated by the findings of an Australian Primary Principals’ Association (APPA) survey in 2020 in which nine out of ten primary school principals said anxiety was placing strain on time and resources. Another key finding of the survey was that staff lacked training when it came to identifying and addressing anxiety in students.
The Anxiety Project aims to change that through delivering evidence-based training programs for 58 schools involving 62 school leaders, 87 specialist implementation coaches, 986 teachers and approximately 3,828 parents.
The project is being funded by schools directly and the initial pilot program is now up and running in 2023 across 58 primary schools in NSW and involves a whole of school approach involving teachers, senior leaders, support staff, parents, and students – 20,000 students will benefit initially – with the plan to roll this out across all NSW schools (both Primary and Secondary).
“When it comes to anxiety, there is usually nothing wrong with most children’s brains. In around 70% of cases anxiety is learned behaviour,” Michael Hawton, psychologist and founder of Parentshop, told The Educator.
“What this means is that if you change the environment, you can change the anxiety.”
Hawton said most anxious behaviour tends to get worse or better depending on what’s happening in the child’s interactions with his/her environment.
“The problem of what is driving an upswing in observable anxiety in children is that it is often complex, and we are dealing with multiple factors. The major of these tend be children not getting the right amount of sleep and too-early access [children under 13] to social media platforms which are based on addictive design features,” he said.
“We can also see parents at times being less willing to challenge or guide their children through uncomfortable emotional problems, compelled instead to take their children’s pain away or solve problems for them. If parents know what to do instead, they can use simple strategies to help their child deal with anxiety.”
‘A whole-of-population intervention’
Hawton said the main point of difference of The Anxiety Project is that it is “a whole-of-population intervention” while most wellbeing programs are not.
“These days the United Nations will only fund projects based on a theory of change process, which the NSWPPA’s The Anxiety Project is using, as such, it is a very well-designed and thought-out project that can effect change at scale,” he said.
“Not only does it skill-up children to be ‘the boss’ of their anxiety, it also uses evidence-based psychological techniques to reduce child anxiety using cognitive behavioural principles.”
Hawton said the program’s success does not depend on the provision of more psychologists, but rather it is based on helping many ‘key adults’ to become lay coaches of children’s anxiety in everyday moments at school or at home.
“These key adults can be taught ‘seemingly modest skills’ which, when repeated, can reduce children’s anxiety over time.”
Building up the resilience of school communities
Robyn Evans, NSWPPA president, called the new initiative “a proactive and responsive approach to an escalation of an emerging issue.”
“Preventative measures are the focus. Schools and parents have noticed an escalation of anxious behaviours in students,” Evans told The Educator.
“One of the outcomes of this approach is that each child will have a network of significant adults around them providing consistent messaging. We are talking about addressing anxious thinking, building mental strength to manage self-regulation, and returning to calm.”
Evans said given that teachers already have these conversations with students, the program’s approach will build children’s skills to manage anxious thinking which in turn enables students to focus on their learning and engagement.
“Through this, our greatest hope would be to further build a resilient school community where everyone is prepared to step forward and ‘have a go’.”