Scared at school? : a child-centred perspective on fears and anxieties experienced by adolescents in South African schools.
South African children have been exposed to chronic adversity which has resulted in psychological distress and high levels of fear. Violence against children is ubiquitous and injury is common. Children have been found to be ‘scared everywhere’, not only at school but also in their homes and communities. Yet no systematic attempt has been made to explore this. The aim of this study therefore is to conduct a systematic investigation of how children conceptualize and understand their own fears and anxieties. It is an exploratory study designed to gain baseline information from a child’s perspective. Although this study focused on the school context, it was part of a broader research project that also included the family and community contexts, guided by Ecological Systems theory to gain an integrative perspective. A quantitative approach with a cross-sectional survey research design was employed. This study utilized stratified random sampling in terms of the quintile system, involving random selection of schools proportional to the size of each quintile. The sample consisted of 312 children ranging between the ages of 13 – 18 years from seven schools in the North West Province. The research instrument consisted of open-ended questions to explore the content of children’s fears and possible solutions, and a rating scale to survey their level of fear. A coding strategy was developed to establish the scariest events based on Hobfoll’s Conservation of Resources theory, which states that “fear results when valued resources are threatened or lost”. Three categories of fears were identified: Primary (threats to survival and physical integrity); Secondary (threats to financial and interpersonal resources); and Tertiary (threats to competence and social standing). Krippendorf’s Content Analysis was used for the open-ended questions. The findings indicated that fears associated with the primary resource domain were experienced the most frequently and rated the highest in terms of levels of fear. Although some dominant fears were found to be universal, variations were found in the manifestations of specific fears which were related to the school context, including ‘problems with peer relationships’ and fears related to ‘gang activities’; ‘violence or threat of violence from a teacher’ and ‘failure and underachievement at school’. Females were found to experience significantly higher levels of fear than males as a result of ‘interpersonal disputes’. Based on the findings, Conservation of Resources theory would appear to have significant implications for future research investigating normative childhood fears, as it can be successfully applied in predicting fear outcomes as a result of adversity across different childhood developmental levels and in a variety of contexts. Recommendations are made for intervention, including looking beyond the child’s immediate school environment to how the interrelation of multiple levels will influence the developing child.
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