With exam stress mounting and the ever-present pressures of social media, are we failing our children?
Ever-amounting pressure to receive high grades, exacerbated by a culture of intense assessment, is harbouring a generation of pupils who are increasingly at risk of suffering immense stress.
Beset by worry, unsure of where to turn for mental health advice, troubled by exam stress and unable to switch off from a digital world which is increasingly consuming their free time, anxiety and stress is rife in teenagers.
Could focussing on social stress and ‘growth mindsets’ be the answer?
The growth mindset theory is a general belief that one can improve oneself through effort.
Carol Dweck, a psychologist who has become famous for her growth mindset theory, believes there are two different outlooks to learning; a fixed mindset that intelligence and a person’s capabilities are predetermined by nature and, therefore, cannot be changed; and a growth mindset in which intelligence and capabilities can change, through effort and hard work.
It needs to be noted that a growth mindset isn’t just about effort and hard work. Perhaps the most common misconception is simply equating the abolishment of stress through sheer effort. Certainly, effort is key for pupils’ achievement, but it is not the only thing. Pupils need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they become stuck. They need this repertoire of approaches to learn, improve and help diminish any stress and anxiety they are fostering in relation to their ability.
It also needs to be remembered that effort is a means to an end with the goal of learning and improving. Too often nowadays praise is given to pupils who are putting forth effort, but not learning, in order to make them feel good in the moment. If the pupil does not evolve long-term, then the results could be futile.
Primary school teacher Emma Fearnley said: “We are constantly trying to teach children that to achieve their goals they need to have the correct mindset. If you put in the effort you can achieve more than you are capable of.
“I think a lot of children do not know what they are capable of until they can put their stresses and anxieties to one side.”
Albeit a possible solution to the epidemic, I can’t help but feel this approach slightly utopian.
Jake Burgess-Slater, a secondary newly qualified teacher said: “I’m going to flip this question back to you. If you were a teenager again do you think growth mindset would work for you? See, when I apply it to myself I just think of the stubborn, sassy teenager I was.
“I thought I knew everything, I knew who I was, I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, but it didn’t matter because I just had faith in myself. I personally believe that growth mindset only really works for those of a lower ability, and even then, would the pupil engage with it if they didn’t believe in the theory themselves?”.
It poses the question, is stress created from a bombardment of expectation, or is it from a lack of self-worth?
Self-esteem is often defined as an individual’s self-perception of their abilities, skills and overall qualities that guide and motivate specific behaviours. Although it is typically defined as a self-referent appraisal of character, ability and behaviour, sometimes individuals with low self-esteem can lack the coping strategies necessary to regulate environmental stress.
Rather than focussing on how to cope and manage stress, maybe we should shift our attention to prevention. Teachers and schools are so driven by results that they miss the very souls, and their mental wellbeing, that are sat in front of them.
Mr Burgess-Slater said: “Children are pushed by their parents, teachers and social conventions all to believe that they are defined by their intelligence and that a letter or number will define who they are and that it will determine their success in later life.”
Pupils of lower-ability can fall into a mentality that they are ‘lacking’ the standard tools to ensure their future success. In today’s hyper-connected world, children are vulnerable to a barricade of social expectations. Facebook statuses are adorned by friends who congratulate each other on their successes, yet fail to provide anything of substance. Since when did we allow a person’s standing in society to be defined by their academic achievements?
In contemporary society, success is defined by the job you do and the things you buy. We all have a burning desire to lead a richer and more meaningful life, and we are sold on the idea that achieving certain results and earning a certain salary will provide this. The reality is, we are not nourished by what grade we received in school, or the career path we fall into. The needs that children have are not artificial, but the answers they are being sold are.
Rather than focussing on how to teach coping strategies to children and encouraging them to take on a ‘mindset’ that they can change who they are and be who they want to be in order to achieve these grades, maybe we should just accept each person for who they are and assess them on a socio-emotional level. This too can be seen as utopian I agree, but this is rather a focus on stripping things back and focussing on the bigger picture, rather than building and amounting on preconcerted stresses.
With a stronger emphasis on acceptance and development of oneself as a person, and ultimately their self-esteem, and an elimination of such regard for academic endeavours, could this be a step to eradicate this growing problem?
 Emma Fearnley (2016) (Telephone communication regarding combatting stress in schools) [Personal communication: 20 October 2016]
 Jake Burgess-Slater (2016) (Telephone communication regarding combatting stress in schools) [Personal communication: 22 October 2016]