Over the past few years, many schoolchildren have taken an interest in climate change. Climate protests have attracted large numbers of young people who are passionate about addressing the climate emergency. But with this spotlight on the climate, many have started to develop climate anxiety, which is affecting their day-to-day lives.
Last year, Caroline Hickman surveyed 10,000 young people around the world aged 16-25 to find out how climate anxiety was affecting them. She had previously interviewed smaller groups of schoolchildren, so she had a general idea of their concerns, but this larger study underscored the extent of climate anxiety.
“What was really frightening to children was the failure of adults to act,” says Hickman, who is a psychotherapist and PhD candidate in Education at the University of Bath. “That was having a huge cognitive impact on children: a feeling that humanity was doomed, and that governments could not be trusted.”
“What was really frightening to children was the failure of adults to act.”
More than half of the respondents to Hickman’s survey said that they were very or extremely worried about climate change. And almost half reported that their concerns about the climate were affecting daily life and causing negative thoughts – in other words, they were experiencing climate anxiety. These results are in line with other studies, including a 2020 survey of 8- to 16-year-olds by BBC Newsround. In that survey, three quarters of respondents indicated that they were worried about the planet, and more than one in five were “very worried”.
There were some notable differences between countries: In the Philippines, where the effects of a changing climate are already clearly noticeable, young people were more worried about climate change than in other countries, and a vast majority of Filipino youth had climate anxiety.
The challenges climate anxiety poses for schools
Like other forms of anxiety, climate anxiety can have a knock-on effect in the classroom if pupils find it hard to concentrate on learning. Hickman’s survey showed that worries about the climate were affecting the daily lives of many children and young people, including their school lives.
But concerns about student learning are not the only reason schools should be paying attention. Schools can play an important role by demonstrating that adults do, in fact, care about the climate.
Hickman found that climate anxiety is closely related to children’s perceptions of a lack of action by adults in positions of power, including the adults they encounter in school. But various studies have shown that teachers have been largely unprepared to cope with climate anxiety in the classroom.
“Like other forms of anxiety, climate anxiety can have a knock-on effect in the classroom if pupils find it hard to concentrate on learning.”
“Schools are struggling, because it’s not embedded across the curriculum,” says Hickman. She has seen some schools try to make climate discussions part of the science curriculum, but that is not enough. “When schools have done that, it causes problems, because children come out of those classes upset and they’ve got nowhere to go. They need to have spaces to talk and process how this feels.”
What can schools and teachers do?
Based on her research and that of others, Hickman recommends three main steps that schools can take to support children experiencing climate anxiety: Make space for mental health, support teachers in incorporating climate education into their classrooms, and give children a voice.
She emphasizes that mental health is the most important point to address.
“The key message to give to children is that you only feel climate anxiety or distress because you care,” Hickman says, explaining that this helps them realize that they’re having a healthy emotional response. But schools need to be better equipped to support children, she adds. She has been running workshops to teach children about mental health and how to manage their own emotional responses, but argues that this should be a more regular part of school experience. “We need to have mental health teaching in our schools,” she says, pointing out that this could be beneficial for any aspects of learning that are affected by mental health.
In addition, Hickman believes that schools need to support teachers and help them fit climate education into the curriculum. Several studies have already shown that it’s important not to just leave it up to science classes to teach about climate issues.
Climate is important to all subjects, and everyone needs to be aware of climate change.
“We need to empower children.”
“There isn’t any future career that won’t be impacted by climate change,” says Hickman. Moreover, the emotional response that many children are having to climate change is not something that science classes alone can deal with. Hickman emphasizes the need for students to be able to engage with this topic in other school subjects as well. “It has to be a narrative, it has to be about storytelling. And it has to include emotion and feelings,” she says. For example, art and theatre projects are a good space to allow children to deal with climate anxiety.
Finally, Hickman suggests that schools can help to give children a voice, making them feel less helpless and anxious. Even if they’re too young to vote in their country’s elections, they can write to political representatives or take part in classroom elections to voice their opinions about climate policies. “And they can publicise those votes,” Hickman adds. “We need to empower children.”