Emotional Fragility

Mental ill-health, anxiety and depression, and emotional disengagement

Image by Suvajit Roy from Pixabay

This article explores the reasons why ‘The Emotions’ is one of nine key learning priorities in the proposed MAC life-based learning programme for 5- to 11-year-olds.

The importance of emotional resilience to life

Emotional resilience is a key component of an individual’s makeup, along with a healthy body and an alert mind.

Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions, as well as the emotions of others.

Emotional intelligence is generally said to include at least three skills: emotional awareness, or the ability to identify and name one’s own emotions; the ability to harness those emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problem solving; and the ability to manage emotions, which includes both regulating one’s own emotions when necessary and helping others to do the same.

Psychology Today: Emotional intelligence

Emotional resilience is a coping mechanism that helps individuals to manage high-pressure, stressful situations. Sometimes described as ‘inner strength’, being emotionally resilient means that you can adapt to distressing or stressful situations, rebounding from these challenges afterwards feeling stronger for doing so.

Tradewind: Emotional resilience

The problem

The problem is the high incidence of mental ill-health in the UK.

Many mental issues affect children’s wellbeing and ability to function positively at home and at school: depression, anxiety, conduct disorder, apathy, PTSD, lack of confidence, home circumstances and emotional disengagement in school.

Mental ill-health increases as children grow into adulthood. Inability to cope is widespread across the adult population, whether they have a diagnosed mental health condition or not. There are a large number of mental conditions affecting individuals to a greater or lesser degree:

Anger, anxiety and panic attacks, bipolar disorder (mood swings), body dysmorphic disorder (related to body image), borderline personality disorder, depression, dissociation and dissociative disorders, drug related – recreational drugs and alcohol – eating problems, hearing voices, hoarding, hypomania and mania, loneliness, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic attacks, paranoia, personality disorders, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychosis, schizoaffective disorder, schizophrenia, seasonal affective disorder, low self-esteem, self-harm, sleep problems, stress, suicidal feelings, tardive dyskinesia (jerky movements) and trauma.

Mind: extrapolated from: Types of mental health problems

The evidence

There is a mental health crisis across the nation:

Britain is facing a mental health crisis. Research by the Mental Health Foundation found that three-quarters (74%) of Brits felt they were ‘unable to cope’ because of stress at some point last year. Consequently, every year, millions of working days are lost due to stress. But most shockingly, the number of NHS admissions for stress and anxiety is increasing annually.

Report on mental health and stress reduction by Tap Warehouse, November 2019: Stressed out Britain

A quarter of children show signs of mental health problems:

The most recent Public Health England survey of the mental health of children and young people in Great Britain found that up to 25% of children show signs of mental health problems with more than half of those issues continuing through into adulthood.

Bright Sparks: Why resilience is a skill all children should be taught

Six in 100 preschool children may have a mental disorder:

For the first time, we have large survey data on the mental health of children aged 2 to 4. This is experimental data, to be used cautiously. The results suggest that 5.5% (1 in 18) of preschool children may have a mental disorder. The rate was higher in boys (6.8%) than in girls (4.2%).9

Gove.UK: Children and young people – updated 25 October, 2019: Children under five

More statistics:

1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health issue at some point in their life.

That’s 16 million people experiencing issues such as depression, addiction, anxiety and PTSD.

At any one time, 1/6th of the population will be experiencing a mental health problem.

This means that right now there are at least 10 million children and adults having issues with their mental health and well-being.

1 in 10 schoolchildren have a diagnosable mental health condition.

If children aged between 5 and 16 don’t get the support they need, their problems will get worse. And it’s vital that they get help with their issues now

The Children’s Society: Mental health statistics in the UK

Emotionally disengaged children don’t learn

Emotions are a key component of learning:

The fact that emotions trump reasoning isn’t new. What is new is knowing why this happens. Thanks to advances in brain science and imaging techniques, researchers are uncovering the biological links between our emotions and our ability to learn, remember, make wise decisions, and think clearly.

Scholastic: 5 Emotions that can block learning

When children are suffering mentally, both their thoughts and their emotions are taken up by what is mentally preoccupying them. Indeed, mental ill-health affects more than learning:

Mental health is as important to a child’s safety and wellbeing as their physical health. It can impact on all aspects of their life, including their educational attainment, relationships and physical wellbeing

NSPCC: Child mental health

There are many reasons for children’s mental preoccupation:

  • changes in their lives (moving house, a parent leaving home, a parent or close family relative dying)
  • related to personality and upbringing (unable to adjust to school life, antisocial, unable to self-regulate emotions, switched-off learners)
  • more endemic, affecting a child’s emotional stability and ability to learn (disharmony in the household, mental and/or physical abuse, bullying by peers)

 Mental preoccupation can exhibit itself as lack of motivation:

A lack of motivation is a major barrier to student’s learning and without the desire to achieve; students often end up doing the bare minimum amount of work in the classroom, enough to get by but not enough to really enhance their learning. A lack of motivation to study typically results in students going through the motions of learning and not retaining information.

Success at school: Common barriers to learning in school

The reasons for lack of motivation are complex, ranging from an emotional upset on the day to deep-seated causes:

Lack of motivation in students can be attributed to many factors, starting from academic pressure, emotional problems, early adolescence, lack of love, unhealthy home environment, and often even the lackadaisical attitude of teachers.

EduZenith: Lack of Motivation in Students

The answer

The first step is to recognise what emotional wellbeing is and the benefits to self and others.

The World Health Organisation puts this well in its definition of positive mental health:

… a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.

World Health Organisation definition1

Teachers work hard to remove barriers to learning. Success at School gives practical advice on removing barriers to learning:

  1. Motivation or “availability to learn”
  2. School and cultural barriers
  3. Emotional factors that affect learning
  4. Personal issues that affect learning

The PSHE Association has a ‘mental health’ programme of learning as part of Core Theme 1: Health and Wellbeing.

The obstacle

In the National Curriculum in England and similar curriculum constructs around the world, learning is organised as a number of subjects to be mastered, each largely disconnected from the other.

The PSHE programmes of learning are another subject to be learned, with perhaps two hours a week given to lessons.

The result is a lack of focus and attention on what matters, in this case children’s emotional development.

A further problem is the lack of research into — and the practical application in the classroom of what is already known about — the emotional blocks to learning and how to overcome them.

We know emotion is important in education—it drives attention, which in turn drives learning and memory. But because we don’t fully understand our emotional system, we don’t know exactly how to regulate it in school, beyond defining too much or too little emotion as misbehavior. We have rarely incorporated emotion comfortably into the curriculum and classroom.

Success at school: What are the most common barriers to learning in school

The solution

The solution is to raise the profile of emotions education in primary schools.

The Merged Action Curriculum (MAC) is an example of a life-based curriculum for children aged 5 to 11, giving focus to emotions education as one of nine equal learning domains.

Presence + Focus + Attention = Results

The results in this case will be children growing up with greater self-confidence and stronger self-identity, coupled with a better understanding of the emotional dynamic operating within them; this in turn leads to an improvement in mental health and wellbeing, whether they have a diagnosed mental health condition or not.

You can read more about the emotions education through the indicative Emotions Study Action Areas:

  1. Learning about emotions
  2. Developing self-awareness
  3. Learning self-regulation
  4. Promoting feelings of self-worth

Learning emotional resilience will combat mental ill-health and help limit permanent mental scarring. But the learning must be brought centrally into the curriculum and not treated as an add-on.

Michael Mac


  1. http://origin.who.int/features/factfiles/mental_health/en/