Children’s happiness drops as they approach secondary school, study finds

Landmark study finds pupils in primary school most often feel happy, good about themselves, cared for and safe

Children’s happiness tends to decrease as they progress through primary school amid growing levels of anxiety over friendships and school success, according to new research.

The findings are contained in the latest results from a landmark longitudinal study, Children’s School Lives, undertaken by UCD’s school of education, which is following 4,000 children across almost 200 schools.

Overall, pupils in primary schools most often feel happy, good about themselves, cared for and safe.

However, these positive emotions tend to decrease over time as the move to secondary school comes on the horizon.

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Friendships are a key source of happiness and support for children, providing them with emotional and academic support.

They are also a source of stress, however, as children navigate shifting dynamics in friendships. Pupils across all age groups use words like “sadness”, or “anxiety” when referring to difficulties in their relationships with their friends.

Children’s reports of feeling anxious increase from second class to sixth class, with girls reporting higher levels of anxiety compared to boys, with the gap between girls and boys widening over time.

For some children, “fitting in” and being included among their peers is a challenge.

Bullying happens infrequently, according to pupils, although it increases as they get older.

A quarter of older children reported being a victim of bullying at least once, such as name-calling, pushing and hair-pulling.

While bullying on social media is something children are familiar with, most say they had never been bullied online.

In sixth class, a majority (71 per cent) say they had never been bullied on social media, while a smaller proportion (26 per cent) say they have been bullied a few times or once a week or more (4 per cent).

Despite some negative findings, children in primary schools most often feel happy, feel good about themselves, feel cared for and feel safe

In addition, the study – commissioned by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment – found that teachers report low levels of emotional difficulties among children in their classes.

The study’s authors say this suggests that children may not always share their anxieties with teachers or that children’s worries do not detract from their overall engagement with their learning in school.

Interviews with teachers highlight their efforts to support children’s wellbeing, which was a particular focus following the period of pandemic-related school closures.

Children in second class in 2023 reported liking school more and having a more positive attitude towards learning than similar aged children in 2019, before the Covid pandemic.

Girls tend to report more positive feelings about school than boys, but also tend to be more anxious about schoolwork and friendships.

As children progress to the later stages of primary school, their overall ratings of school enjoyment and interest in most subjects decrease from first through to sixth class.

This study’s authors say this may reflect a change in the nature of teaching and learning as children get older and teaching grows more content-driven and less playful.

Yet, on a positive note, children’s academic self-image is relatively stable over time, suggesting that how children feel about themselves as learners is distinct from their enjoyment of particular subject areas.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent