Teacher training program sees big drop in student anxiety levels

Teacher training program sees big drop in student anxiety levels

When teachers are struggling, their ability to support students' emotional needs becomes greatly diminished. In many cases, this can lead to increased anxiety and disengagement among students. Conversely, behavioural issues in the classroom have shown to contribute to the stress levels of those educating them, creating a negative feedback loop that impacts both teacher and student.

However, one project set out to break this cycle – and so far, it’s seeing some truly remarkable results.

The project, initiated by the NSW Primary Principals Association (NSWPPA), was motivated by a 2020 study by the Australian Primary Principals’ Association (APPA) which found 90% of NSW principals experienced a strain on their school’s time and resources because of student anxiety.

Another key finding of the survey was that staff lacked training when it came to identifying and addressing anxiety in students.

To address this, The Anxiety Project trained selected school staff to implement the program by supporting teachers, key staff and parents in the growth of skills and confidence to identify anxious behaviour in children; skilling them on how they can, through everyday conversations, help children to recognise their own body cues and discuss how they can better manage their emotions.

According to a new study of the project by Hilton Educational Research, in the two years since the Project was trialled, teacher confidence and competence to help children manage their anxiety increased from a baseline score of 43.8% to 66.4%.

A significant 72% of schools involved in the project showed a decrease in the levels of anxiety in students from the baseline scores recorded at the commencement of the project. The baseline of 19.6% of students reporting ‘high levels’ of anxiety at the commencement of the project decreased to 14.6%.

Project leader for the NSWPPA, Deputy President Rob Walker said two of the most powerful techniques school staff learn through the project are the skills to identify cognitive distortions [such as ‘all or nothing’ thinking, catastrophising, over thinking, disqualifying the positive, mind reading and emotional reasoning] and how to best help the child reframe or restructure the unhelpful thinking patterns.

In ‘hot’ moments, when there is an event running for the child, staff use ‘serve and return’ conversations to achieve this,” Walker told The Educator. “In ‘cold’ moments [away from the heat of an event], students learn to use the content from their lessons on how anxiety presents, the role of their amygdala and how they can manage their feelings.”

Walker said staff refer to this learning with the students so that they develop their own coping and thinking skills.

Of surprise to the project team has been the positive improvement in reported anxiety from students across the participating schools. The initial belief being that by removing the unhelpful accommodations that adults have traditionally placed around children when faced with discomfort, we would see an initial increase in feelings of anxiety amongst students.

Given the challenge the removal of these accommodations may present to students, there was an expectation that feelings of anxiety would increase initially, but this has not been the case, say the project’s team.

“Through participating in the project school staff and parents are able to find their confidence to feel comfortable to better deal with a child in emotional discomfort,” The Anxiety Project’s lead psychologist, Michael Hawton, said

“Every instinct in us as parents and teachers when we see a child in emotional discomfort is to solve the problem for the child – when what is needed is for us to help the child solve the problem for themselves – as this is what builds confidence and resilience.”

New training will begin for another group of 50-100 schools to enter the program in 2025 with further data soon to be available on how the program is helping parents to better assist their children in coping with feelings of anxiety.

Walker said while more data is needed to verify the drop in student anxiety levels, the project seems to be bearing fruit.

“The early signs appear to be showing that the increase in confidence and the skills being developed by teachers and parents to better help children deal with their feelings of anxiety is correlating with a reduction in anxiety levels in students.”