Ask educators about the mood in their schools and many will tell you families are hitting a wall. Parents and students — and teachers too — are experiencing an extreme version of the typical December slump, as the back-to-school excitement fades and they face the reality of piled-up homework and dark days ahead.
The disruption, stress and isolation of the pandemic resulted in a spike in behavioral and mental health issues among kids and teens. Now that students are back in school, educators report seeing a variety of problems, from depression and anxiety to fighting and violent behavior.
Three major children’s health organizations, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association, released a statement in October declaring the situation a national state of emergency.
“As health professionals dedicated to the care of children and adolescents, we have witnessed soaring rates of mental health challenges among children, adolescents, and their families,” the statement says, adding that, “across the country we have witnessed dramatic increases in Emergency Department visits for all mental health emergencies including suspected suicide attempts.”
Experts agree that now is the time to support students’ mental health — and to shore up parents and educators whose stability is crucial for children’s well-being. Solutions range from simple steps like teaching students social skills to dramatically expanding counseling and other mental health services in schools. Parents also have a major role to play.
“Students are struggling with friendships, relationships, studying, and measuring up,” says child and adolescent psychotherapist Katie Hurley, author of “The Stress-Buster Workbook for Kids.” “While many educators are doing their best to walk these kids through this critical period, they are carrying a lot of weight on their shoulders. In some schools, teachers find themselves acting as teachers, therapists, college counselors and more as they attempt to calm the worries that enter their classrooms every day.”
An Increase in Troubling Behavior
While it is too early to quantify with nationwide statistics, educators across the country say they are seeing behavioral trouble.
As the pandemic drags on, students in the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District have been breaking into physical fights, according to Deidre Roemer, director of leadership and learning.
Glen Perry, a high school teacher in the district, says the change from virtual to in-person learning has increased tension in some cases. For example, some students are prone to fights over hurtful texts. Kids were used to sending texts in a virtual school environment, where they would not see the recipient and there were fewer repercussions. Now, Perry says, the in-person consequences sometimes catch them by surprise.
Others are simply stressed by pandemic-induced events. In Georgia, Oliver Lewis, associate superintendent of accountability at DeKalb County School District, says they’re also seeing a spike in behavioral concerns. “This is something that we’ve never experienced before,” he says.
Many students have lost family members or loved ones, which causes emotional problems in the classroom, says Lewis. Others have parents who lost jobs.
Of course, stress does not always result in disruptive behavior. Sometimes, it appears as a lack of engagement.
Paula Renfro, chief academic officer at Duval County Public Schools in Florida, says many students find it difficult to pay attention in class or feel motivated to work on their assignments, and they can’t always articulate why. “They just know that they don’t feel 100%,” she says.
Teachers experience it too, often lacking the time to manage distressed parents and a classroom full of children, many of whom are still catching up after a year of virtual school.
“If you’ve been teaching for a while and you have an expectation of what a freshman is like or an expectation of what a kindergartener’s like, that’s not the same anymore,” says Diana Ely, executive director of teaching and learning at Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas.
Increasing Mental Health Services in Schools
Even before the pandemic, youth advocates were seeking more school-based mental health support. Suicide among children has been rising for years. But the American Civil Liberties Union published a landmark report in 2019 finding that many U.S. schools employed more police than counselors.
“Kids’ mental health has been a concern for a long time,” says Katherine Cowan, director of communications for the National Association of School Psychologists. “Many of the problems we’re seeing today were in existence before. The pandemic escalated them and opened people’s eyes to them.”
Existing mental health services for students vary widely. Nationwide, each school counselor served an average of 424 students in the 2019-20 school year, but that caseload was as high as 848 students in Arizona and as low as 201 in Vermont, according to an analysis of federal data by the American School Counselor Association. The association recommends a ratio of 250-to-1.
The pandemic has prompted some districts to increase support. The West Allis-West Milwaukee School District, for instance, has added extra youth advisors who roam the halls and intervene when tensions arise between students, Roemer says. Students can also connect with a licensed mental health therapist at any time during the school day.
Leaders in the district also encourage teachers to take a moment of pause in the classroom. Melissa Christensen, a reading specialist at Pershing Elementary, focuses on this with her students. “They are not going to learn if they don’t know that we love them,” she says.
Similarly, Perry starts every class with his high school students with a candid conversation about how things are going. The idea is to communicate openly about what’s happening now, rather than trying to force a normal, pre-COVID classroom environment. “A lot of teachers are starting to do that,” Perry says. “They’re just saying, ‘It’s not English class today. Today, let’s have a conversation.'”
Schools in San Francisco, California, shortened their class periods in order to add time at the beginning of the school day to practice deep, slow breathing, according to Michele Borba, an educational psychologist and author.
Borba says that teachers also need that kind of time in order to manage and eliminate stress. “All those things that we’re teaching the kids — we often forget to add them to the plate for ourselves,” she says.
As psychotherapist and author Tina Payne Bryson put it, “We can’t be the calm in the storm if we’re the storm.”
How Parents Can Help
Education experts say that parents, too, have a role to play in ensuring that their children’s mental health needs are addressed and that they are getting proper support. Here are some strategies to consider, according to experts:
— Look for indicators of depression, anxiety and other problems. These may manifest physically in the form of stomachaches, headaches or problems sleeping, Hurley wrote in Everyday Health. They can also show in emotional changes, such as increased anger or irritability, or in behavior, such as isolating or missing school.
— Talk to your children about what they are experiencing. “A straightforward way to start the conversation is by letting your child know what you have observed,” writes the Polaris Teen Center in California. “For example, let them know you have noticed a drop in grades/mood changes/isolation from friends/etc.”
— Communicate with teachers and counselors. Educators can be more effective if they know what you know, and you can benefit from their insight regarding how your child behaves and interacts while at school. Stay in regular touch.
— Consider professional help. “Guide them towards treatment by opening the door and then waiting patiently for them to walk through it,” writes Stephanie Dowd, a clinical psychologist, on the Child Mind Institute website. She suggests being ready when they do. “Find two or three therapists they can interview and tell them that they can choose the one that they feel most comfortable with, and think will help the most.”
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