Addressing anxiety in children as early as kindergarten could reduce its harmful effects

Summary: Early childhood anxiety has been linked to persistent anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues throughout life. Researchers say treating anxiety in kindergartners could help reduce its impact and improve mental health.

Source: The conversation

Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental disorders in children and young people. They appear and can be diagnosed as early as preschool age, with half of them being diagnosed before the age of six.

Early childhood anxiety has been consistently associated with anxiety symptoms throughout childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, and with a lower quality of life.

We are researchers at the Offord Center for Child Studies in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at McMaster University. With colleagues, we undertook a population-wide study of preschool children attending public schools across Canada between 2004 and 2015. To our knowledge, this study provided the first pan-Canadian snapshot of the symptoms of anxiety in children entering school.

Our results demonstrate that a child showing signs of anxiety in kindergarten should not be ignored. Children with high anxiety symptoms are three to six times more likely to be vulnerable in other areas of their development than those with very few of these symptoms.

This study also provides an estimate of the prevalence of anxiety symptoms among kindergarten children in Canada. These could, in the future, serve as a benchmark for comparing groups of children after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Negative effects on development

Anxiety can have adverse effects on child development, even if a child’s anxiety level falls below what clinicians would consider an anxiety disorder. Anxiety symptoms can also interfere with children’s functioning, for example, if children avoid situations that make them anxious.

With anxiety rates increasing in children and young people since 2020, early identification and intervention are important to reduce long-term impacts.

Information on the prevalence of anxiety disorders in young children is quite limited compared to what is known about older children. There is also limited evidence on how symptoms of anxiety in young children may be linked to aspects of their development that are important for success in school.

Academic results

In a 2008 study, psychology researchers from Laval University and the University of Montreal found that kindergarteners with high levels of anxiety were more at risk of not completing high school, compared to their non-anxious peers.

This was the case even when taking into account other risk factors such as aggression, hyperactivity, academic achievement and family problems. These results indicate that how children act, behave and feel in kindergarten can predict academic outcomes years later.

Our study aimed to understand on a larger scale the anxiety of children of kindergarten age. Our results could also be used to study subsets of the population. For example, in Ontario, we have linked some early childhood development data to standardized test scores in grades 3, 6, 9, and 10, but we have not yet completed our study.

Anxiety symptoms

We sought to determine the percentage of kindergarten children in publicly funded schools across Canada with symptoms of anxiety. We collected data from children in 12 of the 13 Canadian provinces and territories (excluding Nunavut).

We used data collected through the Early Development Instrument (EDI), a teacher-completed checklist that measures five main areas of development: physical health and well-being; social competence; emotional maturity; language and cognitive development; and communication skills and general knowledge.

Beneath these five domains are 16 subdomains, including an anxious and fearful subdomain that falls under the emotional maturity domain and includes symptoms of anxiety. We used it in our study to classify children as very anxious.

The study population included 1,038,354 children attending public schools whose teachers completed the EDI between 2004 and 2015. Most of the EDI data in this study comes from comprehensive provincial or territorial data collections funded by the government.

The way provinces and territories collect EDI data varies: For example, in Ontario, all schools participated once every three years in three different data collection windows (2004-06; 2007-09 ; 2010-12). In 2015, however, the province switched to a one-year model and collected all provincial EDI data in one year.

Relationship between anxiety, vulnerability

We found that almost three percent of kindergarten children were judged to be very anxious by their teachers.

Rates varied somewhat across the country, ranging from 1.1% in Prince Edward Island to 5% in the Northwest Territories.

We also examined the association between anxiety symptoms and vulnerabilities in other developmental domains.

A child is considered vulnerable in a given domain if their EDI score is below the 10th percentile value based on national EDI scores.

See also

A child classified as vulnerable is struggling in a certain area. Overall, anxious children were 3.5 to 6.1 times more likely than their non-anxious peers to be vulnerable in four developmental domains: physical, social, language/cognitive, and communication.

Child subgroups

Children classified as highly anxious tended to be younger and were more likely to be male than their non-anxious peers, but the differences between these groups were quite small.

A greater percentage of children classified as very anxious had special needs and English or French as a second language than non-anxious children. Other research has also documented associations between anxiety and second language learning and between anxiety and special needs. We have found:

  • 14.2% of children considered very anxious had English or French as a second language. This rate is considerably higher than the 12.9% of non-anxious children who spoke English or French as a second language;
  • 11.1% of children classified as very anxious were classified as having special needs (compared to 3.4% of non-anxious children). The EDI captures “special needs” when a child has a medical diagnosis or the teacher has observed that the child needs help in the classroom beyond what the average child needs.

To put these figures into perspective, most of the children considered to be very anxious speak the language of school instruction as their mother tongue (85.8%) and have no special needs (89%).

A valuable source of information

Our study demonstrates that teachers’ reports of children’s behaviors at school, an environment that might make some children anxious, can be a valuable source of information about anxiety in kindergarten children. Our study supports the idea that anxiety and other aspects of development are closely linked.

This shows a group of kindergarten children
Signs of kindergarten anxiety should not be ignored. Image is in public domain

The results of this study can provide important information for policy. For example, schools with high rates of anxious children can be encouraged to practice classroom-level activities to reduce the long-term effects of kindergarten anxiety.

Or, curricula, educational services or board-wide programs could be developed and monitored to determine how well they meet the needs of particular groups of children: experts in language learning and early childhood education may be able to suggest interventions to reduce anxiety for students whose home language differs from the language of instruction.

Finally, this study also provides baseline estimates of anxiety symptoms among kindergarten children in Canada. These could, in the future, be compared to data collected with the same method from kindergarten students across Canada post-COVID-19.

About this childhood anxiety research news

Author: Caroline Reid-Westoby and Magdalena Janus
Source: The conversation
Contact: Caroline Reid-Westoby and Magdalena Janus – The Conversation
Image: Image is in public domain

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