Skip to main content
FREW Consultants Group        
Monday, July 25 2022


We first examined anxiety in a previous Newsletter (Number 234: Anxiety – 17 August 2020) however, it is time to re-examine this important topic!  The world, according to the news is not a safe place with COVID still raging, the war in Ukraine, floods and fires because of global warming, the list goes on.  Then consider other childhood events that add to this anxiety; things such as bullying, family break-ups, abuse and neglect - all at record levels and the stresses at today’s schools made worse with widespread absenteeism of teachers and the lack of consistent coverage of classes.  These situations are hard enough for adults but children are much more susceptible to suffer from anxiety in such conditions. 


Because of the sequential development of the brain during childhood, the very progressive organisation of their cognitive abilities, from an affective domination through to an intellectual makes it much more difficult to apply those cognitive support programs that are so popular in schools.


In 2015, 6.8% of children suffered from diagnosed anxiety disorders which would be an under representation of the real numbers as so many are not reported.  The Melbourne Child and School Psychological Services reports that ‘there is an epidemic of anxiety amongst children’!


To recap from the previous Newsletter a diagnosis of generalized anxiety is present if three or more of the following are experienced in a six-month period:

      • Restlessness 
      • Fatigue 
      • Concentration Problems
      • Irritability 
      • Muscle Tension
      • Sleep Disorders


In general, anxiety is described in three ways:

  • Panic Attacks – where there is an immediate fear that the child is facing a catastrophe and has nowhere to go.  These are generally short term and result in the child avoiding any situation that ignites that emotion.  However, these situations can be really traumatic and move well beyond anxiety.
  • Social Anxiety – This is the fear and avoidance of any situation in which a child thinks they may be the centre of attention that can lead to their embarrassment.  It is no surprise that social anxiety is the predominant form of stress in children, especially adolescents. 
  • Generalized Anxiety – This is where the child worries over everyday things for months at a time.  They are children who will avoid what we may consider to be mundane or are constantly seeking clarification or reassurance before they attempt any task.


Anxiety can be directly connected to fear and the stress that is a result of that fear.  However, this is not an appropriate response to a real-time threat but one that is imagined.  The ability to predict what will happen in the future has set us aside from other species.  We are capable of generating the same response if we think something will happen as when it does happen.  This predictability has kept us safe in a dangerous world. 


If for instance you are walking through a dark forest and you avoid an attack from a wild animal the next time you go into a dark bushland you will feel a bit anxious and if you hear a noise in those bushes I’m sure you wouldn’t go to investigate.  I daresay, for no real reason most of us have an inherited a sense of anxiety walking through a dark landscape!


This is described as anticipatory stress where we activate a stress-response because we anticipate a looming physical or social danger.  We generate the same response if we “think” we are about to be attacked when there is no real evidence!  If we apply this experience to the worrying situations outlined at the start of this essay it is little wonder the anxiety children suffer is a real problem for teachers. 


We have always advocated the need for creating calm and supportive classroom environments.  The illustration below demonstrates what happens when a child’s stress levels are elevated.


As can be seen the only time the child has full access to their cognitive ability is when they are calm.  As the stress levels elevate the child ‘gates-down’ on their ability to think in ways other than how they will defend themselves.  This general adaptive response is critical when faced with a real threat but is debilitating when the threat is imagined.  Anxious children rarely move past a condition of concrete thought, that is limited to what is already known because they are vigilant!  There is little capacity for creativity or the learning of new work.


To return to anxiety and the difficulties of dealing with this problem for children.  Three of the major assemblages of the brain’s structure are the amygdala, the hippocampus and the prefrontal lobes.  These have a major role in the management of our emotional state and therefore our level of anxiety.


The amygdala is a cluster of cells positioned either side of the brain towards the base.  Its main purpose is to regulate emotions.  This becomes very important when the individual is under threat.  The fear generated has the amygdala’s first reaction to be the initiation of the fight/flight response.


Unlike the amygdala which is functioning from birth if not before, the hippocampus doesn’t develop until about age three.  The broad function of the hippocampus is to link our emotional responses to various situations with an intellectual understanding. 


Part of these functions is to facilitate the creation of long-term memories, it has often been described as the brain’s ‘librarian’.  Another significant task is to link our emotional state with the prefrontal lobes where our reasoning occurs.  This means that the child’s ability to cognitively examine the situation that had provoked the stress is not available until about age three.  This does not mean there is no memory of the threat, there is an emotional association with that stimulus.  However, as the hippocampus develops it puts reason on to the association between the situation and the response.


Finally, the prefrontal lobes do not develop until about age eleven.  Much has been written about the teenage brain and most of these developments are because at this time the prefrontal lobes become influential enough to project solutions to difficult situations back onto the hippocampus and amygdala.  These advanced functions allow us to examine the situation with reference to our memories of what we have experienced in the past and predict what will happen in our current situation if we act in certain ways.  The more strongly we have developed these associations the more confident and therefore more composed we will be.  In essence, those who have had an assured childhood will be less susceptible to anxiety!


This process has been described by Joseph E. LeDoux an American neuroscientist.  The illustration is a modification of his theory.

What can be seen that an incoming stimulus goes through the cerebellum to the thalamus which then feeds to the various parts of the brain particularly the hippocampus and amygdala.  If it is an immediate threat the amygdala takes over, a lower threat can go through the hippocampus on to the prefrontal lobes which over-rule the immediate response. 


As can be seen, this ability to rationalise away anxiety is not available until early adulthood which means children are much more vulnerable to anxiety.  In the first three years there is no pathway for low level threat, infants are very emotionally driven!


As always, our focus is on those children who have suffered early childhood abuse and neglect and for these kids, anxiety is almost a given.  In a previous Newsletter (192. Early Childhood Trauma - 7 March 2022) we discussed the physical alterations of various parts of the brain.  The three areas of direct concern regarding anxiety are:

  • The Amygdala which is sensitive to fear, has increased in size which makes the child more vigilant and therefore very anxious.
  • The hippocampus is reported to have a 12% reduction in size which impacts on their ability to comprehend incoming stimulus and the formation of memories.
  • Prefrontal lobes are 20% smaller and have lesions on the surface.  It is in this area of the brain, often referred to as ‘the executive’ where complex decisions are made.

These real changes to the capabilities of each part result in a tangible loss in their ability to deal with anxiety!


The conclusions to these Newsletters may appear repetitious but there is a reason for this.  To address anxiety, along with all other forms of neuro-atypical challenges such as early childhood PTSD requires the expertise of mental health professionals.  Teachers do not have these qualifications nor the time to address these on an individual basis.  However, we still have to manage these children in our classrooms.  We do this by providing a learning environment that minimises the probability of the student being stressed!  Therefore, we need to establish positive relationships with all our students and an environment that is structured, expectations are known and consequences, both positive and negative are consistent and persistent!

Posted by: AT 04:22 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Wednesday, July 13 2022

Behind the News - The Decline of Public Education

The Minister’s idea that the offer of an increase in pay would solve the complete systems failure of NSW’s Public School’s education department reveals her inability to grasp even the fundamental problems facing our schools; the inadequacies that exist have reached crisis point.  There are many obvious explanations of what is wrong primarily the insufficient funding which Trevor Cobbold from the Save our Schools - public schools advocacy group persistently identifies.  Another evident problem is the exhausting, non-teaching duties and administrative workload that has grown in recent years.  It would seem, if the political will existed these problems could be easily solved.  However, the contemporary education bureaucracy is underpinned by a faulty belief system that is the corner stone of all public services, the dependence on the principles of neoliberalism.

The erosion of the prevailing system began back in the swinging sixties when western society made a valiant attempt to break the repressive shackles of conservatism and ‘the church’.  This contest between the policies of the establishment and this desire for freedom fuelled the intense coverage of the war in Vietnam.  The emerging youth culture that questioned the actions of the existing authority led to a decade of social upheaval.  The rear-guard actions of the establishment, desperate to keep their hold on their society culminated in the political assassination of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King.  


People, especially the youth wanted to take back their ‘power’ and the obvious enemy was the State and ‘Big Brother’.  The focus for change shifted to the individual taking personal responsibility!  In a time when the Cold War had divided the western world into two camps, this notion of individual responsibilities and choice was embraced as the antidote by the west as the antithesis of the Soviet Block. 


What followed was an enthusiastic adoption of an economic paradigm referred to as neo-liberalism.  This model had emerged in the 1930’s, following the Great Depression when liberal scholars adopted this non-interventionist approach to the economy as a safeguard against the social move to centralisation.  Their ideas centred around the need for competitive market places instead of the state controlling commerce. 


Neoliberalism remained little more than an economic theory until the sixties when the urge to individualism was enthusiastically wedded to this economic model.  The protagonists of this time who promoted this marriage of the power of the individual and the free-market were that ‘loving couple’, Reagan and Thatcher.  As Thatcher pointed out, her goal was to “change Britain from a dependent to a self-reliant society – from a give-it-to-me to a do-it-yourself nation. A get-up-and-go, instead of a sit-back-and-wait-for-it Britain.”  The responsibility for success was determinedly connected to the effort of the individual! 


The belief in individualism, became embedded in media and popular culture producing two supporting philosophies.  The first, popularised in the best-selling book published towards the start of the 1960’s was Michael Young’s ‘The Rise of Meritocracy’.  This work reinforced the ideas of individuality that could be traced back to the teachings of Confucius and Plato in his book ‘The Republic’.  If you adopt the values of meritocracy then not only is it the individual’s responsibility to care for themselves but to succeed you must earn that success!  The second assumption that supports neoliberalism is the concept of ‘grit’!  If you accept the meritocracy premise you are rewarded on merit then the message that ‘determination and passion’ for long-term goals was a better predictor of success than intelligence must also follow!  Together, the philosophies of ‘meritocracy’ and ‘grit’ determined that any failure was because the individual just didn’t deserve to succeed. 


There is an assumption made that would make this reliance on the individual a successful model and that is the concept of equity.  That is every member of society has the same abilities and opportunities.  This unintelligent belief is embedded in the US Constitution - “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.  Therefore, the inference that appeals to those in power is that if the individual fails it is their fault!

What has become clear since the adoption of this approach to all aspects of social and economic management is that, in aggregate terms things have become a great deal better; the growth of the economy has been spectacular.  However, the returns from this burgeoning economy have not been shared equally.  

The emergence of a new class of extremely successful individuals – I use success in this context to mean wealth.  It is difficult for these successful individuals not to support the concepts of neoliberalism, their success infers they have deserved it, they are meritorious and gritty!  With this wealth comes power and they use this power to perpetuate this approach to governance.

Returning to education, parallel with the rise in neo-liberalism has been the continual ‘renewal’ of education based on the practices all underpinned by the ‘rationalist’ approach.  Successive reforms have been imposed on schools and individual teachers all of which demand economic efficiency, the idea we can get more for our dollars if our staff work harder and that if the teachers do work harder they will be rewarded.  Of course, this concept continually re-emerges with nauseating regularity in the hoary old ‘performance payments’ mantra being repetitively trotted out by governments! 

A cursory examination of the ‘reforms’ made in NSW reveals a sequence of interventions designed to make the teachers ‘better’.  At first the education bureaucrats introduced ‘productive pedagogy’ - make the lessons more efficient.  Then teachers were taught ‘increase their capacity’, that is train them to do more.  These were followed by that magical feature of efficiency, goal-setting presented under the guise of personal performance profiles where each teacher had to single out four areas where they identified their goals that would track their improvement.  Of course, their efforts would be monitored.  Schools were also targeted for improvement with external teams of ‘support’ staff to scrutinise their performance and in true competitive spirit these results were published so parents could reward those schools who played the game.  None of these reforms did little to break the continuous slide into the prevailing chaos which is the current situation in NSW schools.

Along with the direct action of management, there has been some recognition by the department on the wellbeing of the staff and it is interesting that even associations that represent teachers have adopted this mantra by focusing their supporting activities both on improving staff capacity and looking after their wellbeing – a healthy teacher is a productive teacher.

There is plenty of advice on how to improve teacher wellbeing.  Acton and Glasgow present an excellent synthesis of these theories in the Australian Journal of Teaching Education.  They defined it as “an individual sense of personal professional fulfilment, satisfaction, purposefulness and happiness, constructed in a collaborative process with colleagues and students”.  They contend that for teachers to be supported there is value in their inclusion in the decisions that influence their work.  This inclusion will allow them to better negotiate the systems that are imposed on them.  They suggested the following concepts that support teachers’ wellbeing:

  1. Reconnect to your purpose
  2. Adopt a growth mindset
  3. Focus on kindness and gratitude
  4. Create clear boundaries between home and school
  5. Set-up effective debriefing and mentoring structures
  6. Establish good sleeping habits
  7. Build-up your emotional resilience
  8. Keep focused on your goals


Even a cursory examination of these tips illustrates the fundamental flaw in this approach.  That is, it’s the teacher’s responsibility to make things better!


Acton and Glasgow almost get to the same conclusion as I have when they assert, and I paraphrase, that ‘the possibilities for supporting teacher wellbeing are mediated by neoliberal policy considerations.’  Every piece of advice offered on this list requires the teacher to take action, that is, all change must be in the teacher’s approach to their work!  


The system is at breaking point, vacant positions are not being filled, graduates are turning away from education as a career and teachers are leaving in record numbers.  There is a real crisis but the impediment to introducing sensible changes remains locked in the philosophy of neoliberalism and that is, if we can deal with the efficiency and the wellbeing of the existing staff the problem will go away. 


After the decades of efficiency improvement and interventions to improve wellbeing it is blatantly obvious that neoliberal approaches to education have been an abject failure!  Until the government takes a critical look at how they are supporting schools nothing will change.

Posted by: AT 08:58 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Latest Posts


John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance

ABN 64 372 518 772


The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service.  After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.

Create a Website Australia | DIY Website Builder