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‘Anxiety project’ builds resilience in students and improves teacher confidence

A NSW Primary Principal's Association (NSWPPA) initiative is training teachers and parents how to manage the anxiety and stress in students that can cause disruption in the classroom and adverse learning outcomes.

The Anxiety Project is a two-year program that's running in 113 NSW public primary schools, and extends to 39,000 students, that offers to build the capacity of school staff and parents to reduce children’s anxiety.

It follows an Australian Primary Principal's Association 2020 survey that found 90 per cent of public school principals say increasing levels of student anxiety is stretching school resources beyond their capacities.

Initial research has found that teachers who are more confident in dealing with student anxiety, and teachers who encourage school students to build resilience when managing feelings of mild anxiety, reap better results in the classroom.

“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,” the project's lead psychologist Michael Hawton said.

"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, and this has not been the case."

Staff and parents are taught how to identify anxious behaviour in students and how to teach students about their own anxious behaviour cues, and how to manage them.

The project is in partnership with ParentShop, a childhood anxiety and behaviour specialist.

Early research results say 72 per cent of schools involved saw a reduction in anxiety levels in their students, teacher confidence to help children manage their anxiety increased from a baseline score of 44 per cent to 66 per cent, and a baseline number of 20 per cent of students that reported ‘high levels’ of anxiety at the commencement of the project decreased to 15 per cent.

“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," Mr Hawton said.

Poor mental health in students has been identified as a barrier to students receiving a quality education and teachers having the proper time to teach classes.

Premier Chris Minns pledged $75m to recruit specialist support staff for students in his election campaign, committing to a target of one school counsellor per 500 students, up from the then one per 650 students.

The program will continue into next year in another 50 to 100 schools.

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