‘The level of anxiety we’re facing in schools is unprecedented’

Primary schools in Greystones and Delgany join forces to recruit a play therapist for pupils

Anxiety among individual primary school pupils is not all that unusual, says principal Rachel Harper. What is new is a surge in the number of students in need of support to cope with issues ranging from school refusal to worries over body image.

“The level of anxiety we are now facing in schools is unprecedented,” says Harper, of St Patrick’s National School in Greystones, Co Wicklow. “In particular, children as young as 10 years of age are struggling with what would have been considered teenage issues at an earlier age.”

Calorie counting or cyberbullying are issues at primary level, she says, in addition to worry or panic over simple changes to the regular school routine.

Schoolteachers are doing their best to support pupils, she says, but often feel overwhelmed or unqualified to fully assist or offer adequate support.


“Time normally assigned to support children with literacy and numeracy is now used to provide support for emotional wellbeing,” she says.

“As non-specialists in this area, trying to support the children and families is also putting unnecessary stress on to the teachers ... These are children’s formative years and it is imperative that proper attention is given in order to equip children with the tools that will help them to thrive during their teenage years and beyond.”

Her school isn’t alone. Principals across all eight national schools in the Greystones and Delgany area have detected a similar pattern.

They organised a joint survey of parents to identify the scale of the problem over the past week. Of more than 800 parents who responded, more than half reported their children experienced anxiety or other mental health difficulties. Almost all teachers and principals said they noticed a rise in these issues in classrooms, with most feeling they had been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Almost one third had sought mental health assistance for children but said they faced obstacles due to long waiting lists, lack of accessibility and financial constraints.

The findings have culminated in a new community initiative to recruit a play therapist to work across all schools in the area to help equip children, parents, teachers and principals with the tools to navigate their way through these challenges.

The aim of having a professional on-site is to allow children to access support in a familiar setting and to bridge communication gaps with teachers, principals and parents.

The “It Takes a Village” initiative will also involve monthly talks from experts and a forum where parents, teachers, sports coaches and community groups can share their experiences.

A public meeting is due to place on Friday to launch the campaign with contributions from school principals, medical professionals, counsellors, political leaders and other community members.

Harper says she is hoping the Department of Education – which is due to trial an in-school counselling and therapy project this year – will support the initiative.

“The Department of Education already recognises the importance of early intervention for learning support and the positive effect that has to ensure students reach their full potential,” she says.

“It is time now for the focus to be on mental health and the importance of early intervention. Children’s wellbeing is our concern, as schools are seeing an increase of behaviour issues in response to some of the challenges that young children experience in their lives.”

Guest speakers on the night will include Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris, who is due to speak in a personal capacity as a parent. Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly and Social Democrats TD Jennifer Whitmore are also due to be in attendance.

At a national level, rising levels of anxiety have been linked to greater rates of absenteeism and school refusal among second-level schools, in disadvantaged areas in particular.

“The anxiety, stress, frustrations and anger that have built up are having a huge effect in our schools,” said John Barry, president of the secondary school managers group the Joint Managerial Body, last month. “Our absentee level has increased from 10 per cent pre-Covid which was around the national average to over 25 per cent post-Covid, despite us trying everything we could to bring it back to pre-Covid levels.”

If there is clarity over the scale of challenges, the question of what is behind the rise in anxiety less clear.

Many feel it is linked to Covid disruption; others say access to social media is a key factor; parental expectations or “bubble-wrapping” of children are also cited as influences by some.

Either way, Harper says principals are not claiming to be experts – but they are united in their desire to support pupils and their parents. The model they are adopting, she says, could be replicated in other communities struggling with similar problems.

“We are not trying to solve the issues,” she says. “However, by launching the ‘It Takes a Village’ initiative, each of us can help in our own way and together we can make a real difference now in our community for our young people.”