Is It Possible to Find Out How Stressed Children Are in a Primary School Classroom?

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Is it possible to find out how stressed children are in a primary school classroom?

Submitted by Graham Ramsden

Date of Submission: January 2008

Word count:: 5929

Course: EdD (Educational Psychology)
University of Sheffield: Department of Education

Abstract

The recent publication of a Cambridge research paper on high stress levels amongst UK primary school children made national headlines. It told parents of an uncomfortable truth that primary classrooms are not the places of fun and learning that typifies an idealistic notion of education in the UK. It spoke of stress, anxiety and worry in classrooms, where children show signs of distress due to high expectations, excessive workloads and having to shoulder unrealistic responsibilities. But just how accurate is this picture? Is it possible to expect young children to understand the complexities of the manifestations of stress and the inaccuracies of self-appraisal given possible low levels of emotional literacy? This paper explores how feasible it is to collect accurate data from children about their own stress and evaluates how such information can be collected. It concludes that there are a variety of ways of gaining information about stress from children, some better than others, but leaves no doubt that children can be ideal subjects for such research if the design and execution of the study is given due consideration.

The world of primary education, it would seem, from anecdotal evidence from parents of primary school pupils, is not what it used to be. Clichés such as ‘its not like it was in my days!’ or ‘school was much easier and more fun in the olden days!’ can often be heard echoing across parents groups in school yards or in local supermarkets. But is school such a difficult place for children today? A recent paper, published by a Cambridge University research group would suggest that life in a primary school is not as stress free as most parents would want to assume. In order to help understand this uncomfortable notion, this paper will explore whether children are capable of giving accurate information about their stress levels and how this could be collected. Stress research is a well established field spanning eight decades, from Walter Cannon’s seminal work in 1927 on flight and flight, to Mark Kovacs’ recent paper on ‘Stress in the Workplace’, (Kovacs 2007). It fact it seems that there are very few areas of modern life that stress research has not touched upon. In relation to everyday activities, research covers stress at work (eg Kovacs 2007, McCarthy & Sheehan,1996), stress in the street (Brennan,1993), paradoxically there has been studies around stress in leisure activities (Noakes 1991) and crucially for this paper, stress in school environments (eg Williams & Gersch, 2004; Murray and Harrison, 2005 and the recently published Cambridge Primary Review paper 2007). The subject base for stress research has also been highly eclectic, ranging from stress in the elderly (Hodgson, Freedman &, Granger, 2004), to stress at birth and even stress levels in individuals not yet born, (Graham, Heim, Goodman, Miller and Nemeroff 1999). There is a case to be argued however, that very much like the Freudian theory of psychosexual development, there appears to be a relative ‘hiatus of interest’ in the levels of stress in children between the ages of 6 and 11. This crucial period of education covers the majority of Key Stage 1 and all of Key Stage 2 and it would seem to be a pivotal juncture in a child’s education. It is in this period that most children will be structuring their leaning patterns and assimilating vast amounts of knowledge in all areas of the school both academic and social. It could be considered somewhat remarkable therefore that there is relatively less stress research done in education at this age. It is particularly pertinent when we consider that this...
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