Anxiety disorders are highly prevalent psychological disorders among children. Anxiety negatively affects a child’s sense of self-esteem, leading to underachievement in school. Moreover, anxiety may exacerbate low self-esteem in children who already experience it.
This increases their likelihood of avoiding socialisation, indulging in negative interactions with their peers, and remaining absent from classes. If left untreated, anxiety can lead to severe psychological disorders over time.
To remedy this, a preventive intervention based on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for children – ‘Journey of the Brave’ – was developed and introduced in Japanese schools in 2014. Their findings were published in the journal BMC Psychiatry.
While the programme was somewhat effective, each CBT session took 45 minutes to complete over a span of 10 weeks, during which the regular class time was lost. In Japan, school-going children have busy schedules due to a packed school curriculum, and it is quite difficult to set time aside for a preventive programme.
Recently a team of researchers led by Dr Yuko Urao – a specially appointed lecturer at the Research Centre for Child Mental Development, including Dr Eiji Shimizu and Michiko Yoshida from the Graduate School of Medicine, Chiba University, and Dr Yasunori Sato from Keio University School of Medicine, Japan developed a streamlined and shorter version of the Journey of the Brave CBT programme.
“The effectiveness of the CBT-based anxiety prevention program “Journey of the Brave”, aimed at Japanese higher-grade elementary school children has been confirmed by previous studies. But to implement and spread it on a large scale was problematic due to difficulties in securing an extensive class time of ten 45-minute-long sessions,” said Dr Urao while discussing the motivation behind the study.
The team spent 14 weeks and designed the sessions to only last for 20 minutes. They conducted them during homeroom activity time in the morning instead of after school hours, for children aged 10–11 in a Japanese school. This age group was targeted since children of these ages experience class shuffles and tend to take on new responsibilities as school or class leaders.
Further, the children were divided into control and intervention groups, with the former not attending any CBT-based sessions. The team assessed the children at the pre-intervention and post-intervention stages, as well as during a two-month follow-up period. Their anxiety-based symptoms were measured using the Spence Children’s Anxiety Scale (SCAS), and the behavioural problems were measured using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ).
The findings suggested a statistically significant reduction in the SCAS scores during the 2-month follow-up period, as well as a reduction in the SDQ scores. These findings suggest that the children benefitted from the CBT-based programme when it was delivered in a short and divided format.
“Since this version of the program is shorter, a greater number of schools will be able to implement it. In addition, the greater number of schools participating, the more teachers will be able to focus on children’s anxiety. Moreover, it will lead to an improved school environment where children will retain their peace of mind.” Dr Urao said while discussing the findings.
Why is it important to prevent symptoms of anxiety in schoolchildren? Dr Urao muses, “When CBT-based anxiety prevention programmes prevail and help children learn self-control over their anxious feelings, their mental-health related problems will decrease, allowing them to grow to their full potential.”