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Supporting children's development
Supporting children's development

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3.3 Symptoms potentially indicating mental health issues

Schools are increasingly adding emotional health to policies and providing staff training around this issue. It can be fairly easy to tell when a child is physically ill – they may have a temperature above the norm or spots, for example. However, it can be much harder to determine mental illness, or lack of emotional well-being. This is not only because of the focus on feelings and the ability to cope with stress and life’s ‘happenings’, but the symptoms are much less obvious, particularly in the early stages.

One common mental disorder is anxiety. Anxiety can be triggered by a variety of things and as a teaching assistant you should have an understanding of how to support children when they are feeling anxious.

Anxiety and panic – signs and symptoms

Anxiety can cause both physical and emotional symptoms. This means it can affect how a person feels in their body and also their health. Some of the symptoms are:

  • feeling fearful or panicky
  • feeling breathless, sweaty, or complaining of ‘butterflies’ or pains in the chest or stomach
  • feeling tense, fidgety, using the toilet often.

These symptoms may come and go. Young children can’t tell you that they are anxious. They become irritable, tearful and clingy, have difficulty sleeping, and can wake in the night or have bad dreams. Anxiety can even cause a child to develop a headache, a stomach-ache or to feel sick.

Case study: Anxiety

‘I don’t know about you, but I have always been a worrier, like my grandmother. Every year, we would plan our family trip to India and it would start … worrying about the plane journey … worrying about falling ill, … and just before take-off I would get those horrible “butterflies”, sweaty hands and the feeling that I couldn’t breathe. Sometimes I would feel my heart beating and I thought I was dying or going “crazy”.

Last year, before my exams, my worrying got really bad. The pressure in secondary school has been high and everyone in my family has always done well and gone on to university, so I knew I had to study extra hard. It got so bad that I couldn’t concentrate. I felt shaky and nervous at school and even started to cry most days. I wasn’t sleeping well because I was so nervous and was too embarrassed to tell Mum and Dad.

I ended up pouring my heart out to the school nurse which was the best thing I ever did. She got in touch with my mum, and after seeing the GP, I went to see a team of specialists at the hospital.

Don’t worry … I didn’t want to be the “girl who sees the shrink” either but it’s not like that. The team can have all sorts of people like doctors, nurses, psychologists and social workers. They reassured me and helped me and my family to see that my symptoms were real (just like when you have asthma). I went on to have a talking therapy called CBT. This involves a number of weekly sessions with the therapist. I didn’t even need to take medication. Although I will always be a worrier I feel so much better, and I’m even looking forward to this year’s India trip.’

(Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2015)

Activity 10

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

Having read the description above of the typical symptoms displayed by children with anxiety, now think about how as a teaching assistant you could support a child with anxiety. Make some notes and then read our comments.

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When thinking about a child’s behaviour, you need to build up a picture rather than just focusing on a particular behaviour. In addition, think about the frequency or intensity of the behaviour and whether there are any obvious reasons for the behaviour.

You may have considered whether the child’s well-being was affected by the behaviour. For example, a child who is abnormally clingy and is reluctant to let their parent or carer leave them may find it difficult to form relationships or friendships with others. Or they may find it difficult to participate in normal social situations, which would affect their social and emotional development.

Some behaviours are appropriate at certain ages or stages of development but could mean a problem in an older child.