Leiden University Fund.

nl en

Training anxious children should help prevent disorders and depression

Scared to read aloud, put your hand up, answer a question or make a mistake at all: many primary school children suffer from anxiety and their numbers are increasing. Psychologists from the Knowledge Center Anxiety & Stress (KAS) are therefore developing and researching preventive training.

Childhood anxiety problems can lead to an anxiety disorder or even depression. KAS psychologist and researcher Jeanine Baartmans explains that five to 20 per cent of children meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder. She believes the preventive training she provides is sorely needed.


‘I sat out in the sun this weekend’, says Baartmans in a small room in the basement of the Pieter de la Court Building. Around 15 health professionals from the Ambulant Educational Service (AED) and Leiden Region Youth Teams stand up. For each statement made, they have to act: stand up if they agree and sit down if they don’t.

Today is the first day of the Leer te durven! training, which the health professionals will soon be giving to anxious upper-year primary schoolchildren. Baartmans’ first tip for the future trainers: build in plenty of action because young children can’t sit still for an hour and a half (the length of the eight sessions they have to attend) and they will only overcome their fears by practising a lot. The exercises also help the group bond in the way needed to discuss sensitive topics.

Gift from the H.M. Derwort Fund

The Leer te Durven! training was made possible thanks to a donation by the H.M. Derwort Fund. Fund founder and alumnus, Jeroen Derwort, previously explained in Leidraad (in Dutch) why he wanted to support KAS. 

Participants learn about the training they will soon be giving to children

Increasing anxiety

And there are plenty of sensitive topics, participant Hanneke van der Salm notes. She works as a special educational needs adviser at AED and is called in by schools when pupils are having problems in or outside of the classroom. Anxiety is increasingly a problem, she says.

‘I see more and more pupils who have stopped doing their homework because they are afraid to make mistakes’

‘All children get a bit nervous before giving a talk or having to read aloud. But I see more and more pupils who have stopped doing their homework because they are afraid to make mistakes. Or, for example, children who are afraid to go to school or no longer dare to eat there. For us very irrational fears but for these children they are very real indeed.’

Primary schoolchildren who already score a little higher on the anxiety scale will soon be able to work together on those feelings. One way is to try to understand where their anxiety comes from, for example in what is known as a 4G model (from cognitive behavioural therapy).

Vicious circle

For instance: a child wants to get something from the shed (event) and thinks there are spiders there that will jump on them (thought). The child feels anxious (feeling) and no longer dares to go to the shed (behaviour). This is a vicious circle that needs to be broken. In the training course, the children learn to deal with anxious thoughts and how to handle situations they find scary.

Jeanine Baartmans explains an exercise on helpful thoughts

In the room, the future trainers have started an exercise. A participant stands in front of the group and the others must pretend to be children.

- ‘It’s my turn for show and tell today.’
- ‘What did you think when the teacher told you?’
- ‘The whole class will laugh at me.’
- ‘And what did you feel?’
- ‘Panic. I’m not going to prepare because I don’t want to do show and tell.’

Show and tell

There is a bit of bumbling and laughter but mostly a lot of practising. Because how can you give a child a positive, helpful thought to reduce their anxiety? ‘Is there anyone who has done show and tell and really enjoyed it?’ asks the trainer. ‘Yes’, someone from the group replies. ‘I did it about my dog and I really liked that because I could bring him to school.’ ‘Well done!’, says Baartmans. ‘Sometimes it can help to ask the group for help if a child can’t come up with a helpful thought on their own.’

Exposure and rewards

Reviewing the exercise is the last activity of the day. Next time the participants will practise controlled exposure to anxiety. Rewards, resilience and boundary setting are also on the agenda. The idea is that the trainers will start working with real groups as soon as possible afterwards.

'We know that the sooner the intervention, the easier the mental health issues are to treat'

And if you ask Baartmans, this can’t happen soon enough. ‘Stress and anxiety are increasing in the young and they can only get worse. Avoidance can easily become a habit for the youngsters and those around them. That helps in the short term but in the long run, avoidance actually amplifies the problems and can lead to low mood and depression. The waiting times for mental health support don’t help at the moment either. We do know that the sooner the intervention, the easier these mental health issues are to treat.’

Value of KAS

Baartmans thinks it is a huge advantage that KAS can now offer this training − and it demonstrates the importance of the centre. ‘KAS has people working here who combine the world of university research with the practice, or at least have an affinity with that. We can conduct research or in this instance develop a course that the practice needs. That’s something to be proud of.’

Would you like to know more about the options for setting up a named fund? Or are you considering making a contribution to an existing fund? Please contact Eliane Cohen via e.c.cohen@luf.leidenuniv.nl for more information.

This website uses cookies.  More information.