Introducing lessons in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to children in primary schools would significantly reduce anxiety levels among 9-10 year olds, according to new research published in The Lancet Psychiatry.
The study, involving researchers from Oxford, in collaboration with the Universities of Bath, Cardiff and Exeter, suggests that anxiety prevention programmes given to Year 5 pupils in school significantly reduce anxiety symptoms. Moreover, it highlights that such lessons benefit all children, regardless of their initial anxiety level.
Lessons in CBT involve teaching children how to identify and manage their emotions, replacing their anxious thoughts with more helpful ways of thinking. It also involves developing their problem-solving skills to better confront and cope with anxiety-provoking situations and events. The paper says anxiety in children is very common and impairs their day-to-day lives as well as increasing the risk of severe mental health disorders in adulthood. It mentions previous research that suggests that by the age of 16, 10 per cent of children are affected by an anxiety disorder.
Through their project, ‘Preventing Anxiety in Children through Education in Schools’ (PACES), the researchers conducted a randomised controlled trial to test the effectiveness of CBT lessons for 9-10 year old children. The researchers enrolled 1362 children from 40 primary schools in south-west England and followed them for one year. School year groups were assigned to receive either classroom-based CBT lessons led by teachers, CBT lessons led by health facilitators, or standard school provision. Nine one-hour CBT lessons were provided to whole classes of children as part of the school curriculum. The researchers found that training teachers and school staff to deliver CBT lessons was not as effective as delivery by health professionals from outside of the school. The team is now assessing whether these reductions in anxiety are maintained after children transfer to secondary school.
Professor Harry Daniels, from the Department of Education at the University of Oxford, said: 'These are important findings. The intervention offers an affordable and practical response to the challenges of promoting emotional health in schools. The need to improve the mental health of children is being increasingly recognised as a global priority given the associated health risks, and the economic and social costs, if such anxieties are not dealt with early on.'
While effective psychological interventions are available, the paper says comparatively few children with anxiety disorders are identified and referred for treatment. It adds that poor reach and availability has led to increased interest from education leaders and policy-makers to establish more proactive, preventive approaches.
Lead author Professor Paul Stallard, of the University of Bath’s Department for Health, explains: 'Schools provide a convenient location to deliver emotional health prevention programmes for children. Whilst there are a number of school based programmes, few have been scientifically evaluated to determine what effect they have on children’s emotional health. The results of our study are very encouraging and show that FRIENDS, a CBT programme, teaches children skills to effectively manage their anxiety.'
The project is funded by the National Institute for Health Research Public Health Research programme.