Primary teachers say the number of pupils with anxiety and mental health difficulties has soared since the pandemic disrupted children’s education.
The annual congress of the Irish National Teacher' Organisation (INTO) in Killarney heard claims that social media and cyberbullying may also be factors behind a 40 per cent increase in referrals to child and adolescent services over recent years.
However, more than 2,000 children remain on waiting lists at any one time, with many waiting more than a year to be seen by experts, delegates were told.
Dublin-based teacher Órlaith Ní Fhoghlúsaid a lack of early intervention means that young children with less serious issues may often present with more acute problems as older adolescents.
“No child deserves to sit on a waiting list as a number in a queue. As our general secretary said this morning in response to the Minister, it is absolutely deplorable that there is a lack of access to professional services for children.”
INTO president Joe McKeown said Covid-19 has had an immeasurable impact on the lives of every child in the country, but it has especially affected children in receipt of additional supports.
“Schools must be provided with appropriate professional supports and services for children presenting with mental health issues in a timely manner to meet their ongoing needs.”
Fiona Garvey, a delegate of the Cork city southeast branch, said children's "addiction" to the use of social media such as TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram can also lead to friction within the classroom.
She said the issue of mental health at primary school was a “gaping wound” which schools were ill-eqipped to deal with,
Delegates at the congress voted to back a motion calling for increased funding for children’s mental health services and improved access to appropriate supports for children.
Members also called for the development of counselling services for primary schoolchildren and the introduction of on-site school counselling in line with international best practice.
Delegates also called for all necessary supports to be made available to Ukrainian students, such as language teaching, counselling and free school transport.
Helping new pupils
INTO general secretary John Boyle said union members have "opened their hearts and their schools to Ukrainian families arriving on our island".
He added: "Our history provides us with a unique appreciation of the fight for independence and the bravery of those who seek to challenge Russia, in Ukraine and around the world.
“We will work closely with the Department of Education to meet this challenge head on – to equip our schools, support our teachers and most of all, to help our new pupils.”
Delegates also backed a motion calling for concerted action to cut class sizes which remain the largest in the European Union.
While the pupil-teacher ratio will fall to to 23:1 in September , the lowest on record, it lags behind the EU average of 20:1
Michael McConigley of the INTO Sligo branch said teachers need to identify the specific strengths, interests and needs that each student may have to be effective.
“In large classes, this may be a challenge for educators. Not because their teaching strategy may be wrong, but because they don’t have the resources and time to do so,” he said.
“ We have highly diverse classrooms that can include children with special educational needs, children with English as an additional language, children from backgrounds of disadvantage, children of different ethnic backgrounds and so on. Many of these children are in classrooms of 28, 29 and 30-plus pupils.”