In 2000 The UK Millennium Cohort Study (UK MCS) started to collect data aimed at exploring the effects of early family experiences upon child development and its outcomes. Of over 18,000 targeted families, 11,000 provided data and this has been drawn upon in various studies, one of the most recent of which, is some work carried out by researchers from the Universities of Cambridge and Manchester. Young people, aged 11 to 14 years across the UK, were asked to rate how they felt about their friends, school and family and found, irrespective of “economic circumstances and family life”, and balanced for factors such as “bullying”, that their satisfaction with these areas dropped significantly between when they left primary school at the age of 11 and three years later. An emotively titled article by Nicola Woolcock in The Times, from the 23rd of November 2022, claimed: ‘Children became much sadder when they moved to secondary school.’ The terms satisfaction, wellbeing and happiness are used interchangeably throughout the article. Although I have read about the UK MCS, I haven’t been able to get hold of this specific study on young people’s perceived life satisfaction, so I am supposing the inconsistency of terms is mainly a journalistic device.
According to the article, by 14 years of age, “the wellbeing scores of 79 per cent of the teenagers was less than the average score for the entire group three years earlier” and this linked to the transition to secondary school” (“and relationships with peers”),” but that it could be mitigated through initiatives that strengthened self-esteem in early adolescence.” The main conclusion of the research, published in the ‘British Journal of Developmental Psychology’ and led by Ioannis Katsantonis of Cambridge, was that along with tackling poverty and bullying, students in the early years of secondary school needed more support for nurturing self-esteem. Ways of doing this included “celebrating achievements and avoiding negative comparisons with other pupils.”
I was asked to comment upon this study for the Trisha Goddard programme on Talk TV and as the wellbeing and support of teenagers is a strong interest and something about which I have written (https://psychologistthinkingaloud.home.blog/2020/10/13/why-would-anyone-write-about-parenting-teenagers/), I agreed.
It was the usual, fairly surface-level, few minutes but the questions were well thought out and refreshingly constructive. Firstly, we discussed our own experiences of early adolescence, both personally and, in my case, professionally. As many have said before us, we agreed this was a challenging time of life for the everyone involved. Young people are at a critical period of intense and rapid physical, cognitive, emotional and all-round change and added to this there is a cultural expectation that they will be both challenged and challenging. One developmental theory, Life Span Theory (Erik Erikson), places the quest for identity as central to adolescence. This quest often takes the form of extreme introspection and self-focus so we would expect young people to be particularly preoccupied and often overwhelmed with their emotional states. Throw into the mix, the fact that social comparison is integral to contemporary social behaviour, i.e., the rise and expansion of social media, and it is hardly surprising that youngsters may have an idealised expectation of how happy they should be. In addition, add the fact that as part of their general induction into society and expanding social networks, they must change from a relatively small, very familiar and usually quite nurturing primary school to a much larger, more formal and often quite interpersonally challenging secondary school.
Does this mean we should accept that young people will become less happy or are there things that can be done? The research that triggered my conversation with Trisha is a great way of making credible the concerns that parents, professionals and young people themselves have had for as long as our age-demarcated education system has existed. I very much welcome it but at the same time, because it is stating the obvious, the practical implications for schools and for young people’s self-esteem, must be precedented in the reporting of the study, its findings and the ensuing discussion and actions.
This brings me to the part of the television discussion that I thought was most useful, where I could mention a school measure that could be considered. For quite a few years I worked in secondary schools for several Local Authorities. One of the most successful and positively evaluated interventions I was able to implement with teaching and psychologist colleagues, was that of pupil support groups. The hardest aspect of these was getting the Local Authorities and school management teams to agree to time in the school day when pupils could come together in small groups of (eight to twelve) and be supported in talking about their school experiences and find ways of improving this. They were not curriculum-related, although you might argue that happier and well supported pupils are likely to learn and grasp curriculum better. They were not an instant or easily measured fix or treatment, but I was told by many pupils and their teachers, sometimes even years after the groups had run their usual half or full-term course, that they had made the difference in many ways to many young people.
I asked the question, slightly tongue-in-cheek, in the title of this post: “should we be sad that our young feel so sad?” The answer, in my view, is: yes, of course, but also not necessarily, and the reason I write this is that by responding to this sadness and by hopefully listening better to what the young are communicating, we stand a chance of making things better. The research verifies what we already know but it also might enable and help support resourcing a more humane secondary education system that is reflective of and responsive to the social realities of our time.