Stop asking children how they feel

‘Why are children so unhappy? Or, why are they feeling so unhappy, which may be a different question altogether?’

Angela Ritch

The mental health crisis in schools is as overwhelming as it is misunderstood. In a survey last year by the National Education Union 83 per cent of teachers reported significant rises in anxiety and self-harm among their students. From eating disorders to gender dysphoria, via self-harm—the array of mental misery is striking. I have witnessed students displaying hundreds of self-inflicted (and thankfully superficial) injuries online and in classrooms; I have lost count of the number of children with crisis identities and rotating pronouns, many of whom openly talk about suicide.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the source of the data, austerity, lack of training and poor services were singled out as the obstacles to solving this growing crisis. But given my experience in schools and as a parent, I am more inclined to look at this problem from the other end of the telescope. Why are children so unhappy? Or, why are they feeling so unhappy, which may be a different question altogether?

Britain’s children and teens of today have not, en masse, suffered traumas any different from earlier generations. Despite panics concerning violence, grooming and abuse they are not in any graver danger than those 10 or 15 years ahead of them; or their parents and grandparents, for that matter.

The thing that is different in these young people’s lives is that they are asked to think about how they feel all the time.

My own daughter was seven or eight years old when she was first trained in “growth mind-set” which encourages children to be focused on their own thoughts and words. I have witnessed countless assemblies and PSHE sessions on resilience and mindfulness, which ask students to reflect and shape the way they feel; students have completed an online questionnaire and have been profiled based on their emotional responses to school. Unruly children are no longer “isolated”, they are placed in a “reflection room”. When they swear at teachers they may no longer be asked to apologise and placed in a detention; instead they are invited to a restorative justice session so we can tell them how we felt when they swore and they can tell us how they feel about that.

A pivotal time for feelings seems to have come in 2013. That year Facebook introduced its “feeling” function to its status feature. We were all encouraged to reflect on how we felt in that moment, choosing a single emotion from a simple drop-down menu. In that same year, a secular version of Buddhist meditation “mindfulness” was being spun out across society as a silver bullet for happiness. In 2013 Britain’s politicians were offered mindfulness training in Parliament and that same year off-the-shelf mindfulness courses were marketed at UK primary schools. Mindfulness for schools is simplified into encouraging internal awareness of feelings and emotions. Jargon abounds: practitioners describe developing “meta-awareness”. Devotees and sales executives of mindfulness (and its education cousins: resilience training, growth mind-set and restorative justice) point to qualitative evaluative studies in support of their work. They measure the levels of awareness of mental health issues and the positive perceptions of participants—and unsurprisingly score highly in these areas.

However, the long-term impact on a whole cohort have not been measured. The impact of heightened awareness on future mental health is unknown. As a professional working with young people and a social scientist with an interest in developmental psychology, I am concerned that we have been tinkering with young brains without due diligence.

It is easy to see why schools have bought into such programmes with abandon. Cheap training and resources are offered by private providers and consultants, all keen for a slice of the academy-school free marketplace.

Mindfulness, resilience, growth mind-set and restorative justice are helpful buzz-words if one is an embattled headteacher having to prove on a tick-box form that the wellbeing and safety of her students is paramount. It is a heady combination of short-term opportunity and quick fixes. But is it not much more complicated than this?

Whilst some might suggest that the world’s half a billion Buddhists have been trying and testing mindfulness for us since the sixth century (and who could doubt the Dalai Lama’s sanguinity?) other voices have begun to enter the debate, with the Australian psychologist Nicholas Van Dam asking in 2016 whether our adoption of Eastern meditative methods, divorced of their spiritual context, has led to “oversell and hype”. Employing a method asking for a spiritual mindset from a largely secular cohort, delivered by an education system devoid of any other form of spiritual life, riven with contradiction. Young people do not enjoy grappling with contradictions. Their interior lives are already consumed with the business of growing up.

The education system and its various odd ideas and fads is merely one part of the story of a young person’s wellbeing. Which brings me back to 2013 and Facebook’s “feeling” epiphany, which followed hard on the heels of that platform acquiring Instagram, arguably the most self-referential form of social media in a crowded field of narcissism.

Policy-makers in this field have little influence over the market forces which drive the multi-billion dollar, almighty social-media platforms; but when the “feelings” industry is in our schools, we all can and should think very carefully.

I do not advocate a return to the stiff-upper-lip Britain of yore, but we urgently need a serious evidence-based approach to messing with mental health in education. We should start to row back from silver-bullet thinking. It is possible young people just need our education system to be a place where they can take a break from the pressure to feel or be meta-aware, whatever that means. Perhaps they just need us to give them space to be and learn.

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