Family issues and exam stress behind rise in anxiety in primary school children

Landmark study examines lives of 4,000 children across hundreds of schools

Teachers are concerned about rising levels of anxiety among primary school children linked to issues such as parents’ working lives, family breakdown and the growth of standardised testing, according to a major survey.

The findings are contained in Children's School Lives, a landmark study which is following 4,000 children across almost 200 schools. It was carried out by researchers at UCD's school of education.

It shows that about half of teachers feel standardised tests – which are mandatory in second, fourth and sixth class – are causing anxiety among children and parents.

The impact of digital technology was also noted as a concern in terms of the impact of extensive screen time on learning and safety.


“There’s a huge rise in anxiety and it’s related to family issues, family problems... just little children unsure of their arrangements in the evenings, worried about a lot of things,” one teacher told researchers.

When asked about their home lives, two-thirds of second class pupils reported that they were “never” or rarely read to. A similar proportion reported never or rarely practicing counting at home.

Mobile phone

The survey found that more than one-third of second class pupils had a mobile phone, while the vast majority said there were more than two computers or digital devices at home.

Only 2 per cent of children said they had no access to a computer or device at home.

Many children reported having access to a range of out-of-school activities, with about half involved in team sports while slightly fewer were involved in music, art, dancing or swimming.

The research was commissioned by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) and led by Prof Dympna Devine, associate professor Jennifer Symonds and assistant professor Seaneen Sloan.

Arlene Forster, chief executive of the NCCA, said the findings will feed into a review of the primary curriculum by ensuring full account is taken of children's experiences.

She said it will help ensure the new curriculum can provide a “strong foundation for children to thrive, flourish and realise their full potential during childhood and into the future”.

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