Topic 9: Mental Health

Ideally, school would be a place of security and calm; but examinations, deadlines and difficulties with friends can result in pressure and stress for students (and teachers). This section of the Learning Zone will look at how stress and anxiety impact learning.

What do I need to know?

Student anxiety can take many forms. Some children come to school stressed and anxious because of difficult home lives, or problems with friendships and bullying. Other children have specific worries in school that are related to certain tasks or subjects. In all cases, we experience ‘stress’ when the challenges are greater than our available coping strategies, and a well-described pattern of neuroendocrine (e.g. increased cortisol), and physiological changes (e.g. reduced immune system function, increased heart rate and blood pressure, irritability of gastro-intestinal tract) occur (Vogel & Schwabe, 2016). While some ‘arousal’ and challenge is beneficial for learning, an inverted U-shape relationship between stress and memory exists, where high levels of stress interfere with cognitive functions, including flexibility and memory (Joels, 2006).

Although specific anxiety about schoolwork has been demonstrated in a range of areas including, drawing, reading out loud and learning a foreign language, we probably know most about ‘Maths Anxiety’. It is the feeling of worry about maths, and interferes with a child’s ability to do number work and solve mathematical problems. Estimates of how many students experience maths anxiety vary, but even the most conservative estimate (2-6% of secondary age students; Chinn, 2009) means that it is likely to affect a lot of people. The incidence of maths anxiety typically increases with through the school career, which typically happens alongside a decrease in attitudes towards the subject (Dowker, 2005).

There are small, but statistically significant, relationships between maths anxiety and both maths performance and general anxiety, but neither of these really explains why maths anxiety occurs. Maths anxiety might also impact on ability – either through avoidance of maths-related work (so reducing possible practice and learning opportunities), or by overloading students who are trying to work on maths problems (Ashcraft & Kirk, 2001).

School is not only a potential source of anxiety and stress for students. Teacher stress is an extremely important topic, and has potentially far-reaching impacts. The Education Support Partnership reported that 75% of teachers reported that their jobs had a negative impact on their mental health (ESP, 2017).

Prolonged stress in teaching is associated with feeling detached from work, absenteeism, and the decision to leave the profession – such outcomes have an important impact on students (McLean & Connor, 2015; TES, 2018). Teacher stress and burnout has also been associated with both academic adjustment and student mental health. It is thought that teachers who are able to build positive relationships with their students are more likely to engender a sense of resilience amongst their students (Oberle & Schonert-Reichl, 2016; Zee & Koomen, 2016).

What can I do in my classroom?

One intervention tool that requires no extra resources or costly training is the practice of ‘Writing out’. Drawing from research in clinical psychology, students (or teachers) spend ten or so minutes writing about their worries about a given subject or event (including examinations). Research suggests that for those who are highly anxious, this process might allow some reappraisal of the worry, and reduces anxiety. A short period of writing before examinations has been reported to be associated with increased performance for those who were highly anxious (but has no discernible effect for those who were not).

What should I be wary of?

Work on techniques like Mindfulness, mediation and yoga is fast emerging, but there are concerns that using these kinds of approaches in schools (for students and teachers) may not be particularly beneficial if they are not supported by appropriate training, or in the most optimal context. Professor Willem Kuyken, a research lead on a large study of mindfulness in schools outlines his concerns in an interview with TES (

Where can I find out more?

Credit: Dr Alice Jones, Senior Lecturer in Psychology