Eco-anxiety: how teacher training benefits children and young people - Earthwatch

Eco-anxiety: how teacher training benefits children and young people

The constant news of rapid decline of biodiversity, rising temperatures, land degradation and ocean depletion can make anyone feel anxious. But for a child or a young adult, whose emotion regulation processes won’t fully develop until the age of 25, the current global ecological crisis feels particularly overwhelming. This is why it is crucial to equip teachers with the ability to help their students find creative and expressive outlets for their feelings and guide them towards tangible solutions. Our Learning & Engagement Coordinator, Hanna Mroczka, explains how. 

 

Teach Earth In the Field, July 2022. Image credit: Yoke Creative 

What is eco-anxiety? 

In 2017, the American Psychological Association (APA) defined eco-anxiety as “chronic fear of environmental doom.” Although not an official medical diagnosis, eco-anxiety can be harmful to young people’s mental health, triggering symptoms of ongoing stress, worry, hopelessness, obsessive thinking, as well as feelings of guilt, anger and panic.  

Eco-anxiety can impact people of all ages anywhere in the world, but it particularly affects those who already experience, or are likely to experience, the cascading effects of climate and environmental change first-hand. With global temperatures increasing faster than scientists had predicted, and an inadequate response from the world governments, the next generations feel understandably anxious about their future.   

How do students feel about it?  

In a study conducted by researchers from a range of institutions including University of Bath, almost two-thirds of the 10,000 16–25-year-olds they surveyed in 10 countries around the world reported feeling “very or extremely worried” about climate change, while 84% were at least moderately worried. More than 45% of young people in the survey said their feelings about climate change “negatively affected their daily life and functioning”. In a similar report commissioned by Friends of the Earth, over 70% of 18-24-year-olds reported feeling more worried about climate change than they did a year ago. Recent findings by Force of Nature, a predominantly youth-led organisation, further confirm that a majority of young people experience feelings of hopelessness, loss, and powerlessness when they think about climate change.  

How do teachers feel about it?  

According to environmental charity Global Action Plan, one in three teachers are noticing high levels of climate anxiety in their students, while feeling ill-equipped themselves to deal with mental health impacts related to the ecological crisis. These findings align with our observations during one of our recent Teach Earth Teacher Training Programme sessions organised in partnership with London East Teacher Training Alliance (LETTA). When asked what the participants would like to learn more about, one of the most common answers was eco-anxiety and ways to talk to their students about the state of emergency without adding to the worry they might already be experiencing.  

[I would like to learn more about] child-friendly explanations of climate change – how to talk about it without unloading too much worry or fear onto the children.”James Vickery, a trainee teacher from Stebon Primary School, London  

 

Trainee teachers sharing their climate concerns in our Teach Earth Teacher Training Programme workshops on ecoanxiety and wellbeing (February 2023). Image credit: JJ Hunt Photography

What sits at the core of eco-anxiety? 

Powerlessness, hopelessness, and frustration are some of the prevailing feelings linked to eco-anxiety. The idea that not much is being done to stop the imminent environmental catastrophe is leading children and young people to feel like they are being let down and that they themselves have little agency to create change. As Caroline Hickman and others highlight in their study, “climate anxiety in children and young people should not be seen as simply caused by ecological disaster, it is also correlated with more powerful others (in this case, governments) failing to act on the threats being faced.” It is not only governments that are failing to act. 91% of the students surveyed by Global Action Plan would like to see their school doing more to engage with them about the issues around climate change.  

At Earthwatch Europe, we believe that schools and teachers have an incredible potential to empower children and young people to recognise and tackle the root causes of environmental and climate changes, while helping them channel their anxiety and associated feelings towards meaningful action. 

 

Connection to nature is one of the most powerful tools in addressing climate anxiety. Last year’s Teach Earth in The Field participants could experience this first-hand in Oxfordshire’s ancient woodland. Image Credit: Yoke Creative

What can be done: Teachers as role models 

At the heart of our Teach Earth programme lies the recognition that teachers are role models who – when given sufficient support – are able to show their students that a lot can still be done to save our planet. Through a variety of workshops, Teach Earth equips teachers with the necessary knowledge of the various aspects of the environmental and climate crisis as well as practical actions and resources that would help to steer their students towards solution thinking. Eco-anxiety is both a visible thread throughout all the sessions as well as a separate topic on our agenda, where we can share the difficult emotions that both the teachers and their students might experience. Through well-researched and experience-based strategies, we show how to give students space to express their feelings and concerns, helping them understand their own scope of action, while staying connected to like-minded others.  

“Climate anxiety was [a] hugely impactful [session], hearing each other’s stories created a feeling of togetherness.” – Sophie, Teach Earth 2022 Participant 

“There are young people out there who have the same worries about climate change. I can be a role model. I can impart knowledge, share knowledge. I could be the person they share those worries with.” – Lydia, Teach Earth 2022 Participant 

Nature connection as a crucial tool 

Connecting to nature is another powerful tool in addressing climate anxiety. The therapeutic nature of nature has been proven to reduce feelings of anxiety and depression, while generating positive emotions such as joy and calmness – especially among children and young people. Being in nature also provides a chance to discover and engage with nature-based solutions, which are one of the most effective strategies for mitigating carbon emissions, adapting to a warming planet, and restoring biodiversity. Our Teach Earth programme demonstrates the importance of nature by allowing teachers to experience its benefits first-hand, providing examples of nature-based solutions they can explore with their students as well as simple ways to build curriculum-based outdoor learning.  

“The sessions [I found the most beneficial were those] where I had to personally reflect on how I utilise nature to deal with challenges in my life and the work around climate anxiety.” – Carol, Teach Earth 2022 Participant 

It is important to highlight that not all students and teachers have access to quality green spaces to build and nurture a beneficial connection to nature. Children and young people living in underserved communities face many barriers, including limited access to nature. By offering the Teach Earth programme to educators free of charge, Earthwatch Europe can work with teachers from underserved communities to ensure that their young people feel more connected to nature and learn how to act for the planet.  

Get in touch with us to support our mission to reduce eco-anxiety among children and young people. 

If you’re interested in attending a Teach Earth programme, please visit our website for more information Teach Earth (earthwatch.org.uk). 

If you’d like to support teachers and children by sponsoring Teach Earth, and discover the impact your organisation could make, get in touch here: Teachers can’t teach what they don’t know…. (shorthandstories.com)   

 

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