I have been working intensively across five Scottish secondary schools in the last few weeks. Here are my observations about what our teenagers need just now to thrive in this challenging time. These days, it is more necessary than ever to have this sense of balance, perspective and maturity in our discussion about the challenges that young people face just now.
Firstly, young people’s self-reporting of stress is high at the moment. It seems that the pressure to perform as they did pre-pandemic is almost relentless for many in our society. I have also experienced a lot of classes of younger pupils who are quieter than usual.
Teenagers are masking their anxiety
In this context, teenagers are becoming adept at masking over how stressed and anxious they are. They tell me things like ‘we get stressed about the work no matter what we are doing, whether it is exams or coursework, at home or even just in class’. The masking of emotions in front of peers makes it hard for teachers to pick up that a pupil is stressed. For some people, this feeling of anxiety may be well-founded, but for others, the sheer volume of conversation on social media serves to create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Secondly, teachers are under tremendous pressure to maintain academic attainment and feel the pressure of exercising teacher professional judgement & gathering the necessary evidence. Many teenagers have significant learning gaps in the past few months. These pupils are now falling ever further behind in their learning. There’s a shadow hanging over our systems of education, and young people are picking that up.
Thirdly, teenagers are still struggling with what it means to be a teenager or young adult. The world’s expectations for them are high, and yet they still need some significant emotional support and some guidance and direction to help them navigate these challenging times.
The current situation we are in at this stage of our pandemic life means that they require us to be unwavering in our support for their resilience and wellbeing. We need to double down on our efforts to project calm, and acknowledge their struggle and equip them with strategies that they can use to manage their stress and anxiety. We need them to know that we won’t shame them for being anxious or stressed. We need to affirm that anxiety and fear are everyday human experiences, and part of being human and requiring our support at this point in their lives is okay. I can’t emphasise enough how important it is for us to communicate that to them with compassion.
In a recent conversation with a group of very able teenagers, one pupil replied – ‘I am just like you, but inside I am an anxious mess’. There it was. I needed to give them the support they need at the moment. I felt I had failed by not acknowledging that they struggle to manage how they think about their learning and life. Young people need us to let them know we see them and recognise that they are having a tough time.
In my experience, young people talk most passionately about what matters most to them, be it exam results or something else. We need to make sure that they know ‘feeling anxious’ is just like every other human emotion we might experience, such as being angry or depressed. Their anxiety and fear is not a bad or wrong thing. Programmes such as the iheart curriculum can help our young people work out the relationship between their thoughts, feelings and actions.
Take the time to connect deeply with your young people despite how busy we are and how stressed you are feeling yourself. We must model optimism and hope by taking the time to listen to our young people. We must walk in their shoes and acknowledge their struggle. Once we do that, we have a window of opportunity to help them understand their feelings & emotions and equip them with coping strategies to move from surviving to thriving. By making ourselves available to them and choosing to respond with empathy & compassion, we can help them deal with the feelings of things being out of control.