Secondary students say anxiety, stress, and depression are derailing their ability to get back on track academically as the pandemic recedes, and they need more support from their schools and teachers.
Mental health issues top the barriers to learning for middle and high school students, according to a report released last month by YouthTruth, a nonprofit that surveys K-12 students and families for school districts. Fewer than half of students in the survey said their school has services to help them with issues like anxiety or depression, and only 1 in 5 had access to a school counselor or therapist.
Rates of anxiety in particular have skyrocketed in the last few years. Studies find this chronic stress not only interferes with learning and memory and social-emotional development, but can lead some students to avoid school entirely—worsening chronic absenteeism.
Educators and researchers at an Education Week virtual summit last week discussed ways that schools can ease anxiety and other mental health burdens for their students to boost their learning and social engagement.
“We’re not trying to necessarily cure students from their anxiety,” said Jessica Gluck, assistant director of special services for the Westwood regional school district in New Jersey. “It’s helping them deal with and cope with and understand that it’s OK to be anxious. You can still work through it.”
Consider the data
Chronic absenteeism sparked the Westwood district’s mental health initiatives, according to Ray Renshaw, Westwood’s director of special services.
“We look at some of our students who exhibit school refusal now in high school, and if you look at the data of their absences and tardies in elementary school, then they jump to be more in middle school, and then they skyrocket come high school. So I think that was a real eye-opener for us when we started this whole initiative, really trying to get back down to what supports students need at each grade level.
The Westwood district partnered with a local mental health agency to provide family mental health outreach at elementary levels, as well as on-site counselors in middle schools and a secondary grades wellness center, with a clinician and a private room for students to take a break.
Check your biases
Experts also advised administrators to monitor how students who show signs of anxiety and other mental health issues are being disciplined in the classroom or referred for special education.
A study out earlier this fall on the pandemic experiences of students of color who have disabilities found that Black children make up about 18 percent of children with individualized education plans, but about 23 percent of students classified as emotionally disturbed. The report, by the research firm Bellwether Education Partners and the nonprofit Easter Seals, and prior studies also found teachers are more likely to discipline Black students for classroom behavior, such as outbursts or disengagement, that they often see as signs of a need for mental health supports for white students.
“Students of color with disabilities, especially Black students, are more likely to be identified with disability classifications like emotional disturbance that focus more on managing behaviors than they do on things like cultivating academic rigor,” said Harold Hines, an associate partner at Bellwether and co-author of the report.
Hines said teachers need more professional development on how to reach out to students who seem to be having mental health issues in ways that do not stigmatize them.
Gluck agreed, noting that Westwood’s teachers learn to take “Don’t judge” as the first rule of working with students who show symptoms of anxiety or depression or absenteeism.
“Anxiety and depression are really hard because you can’t see them and they display symptoms differently in every different student,” Gluck said. “So it’s often just ... be open, welcome them with open arms, be kind to them and just meet them wherever they are. It’s not on us to place a judgment ... if you’re being shared with that they have anxiety, believe it.”
Ask students what they need—and keep asking
Westwood staff studied research on ways to make school environments calming, Gluck said, but their mental health initiatives really started to take shape when staff started interviewing students about why they weren’t coming to school.
“We really got down to that root cause as to what was keeping them home: mental health challenges, but also, what was wrong with the typical classroom?” Gluck said.
They found students had negative associations with many aspects of the typical classroom environment.
“The class sizes were too big. They were stressed out about what their peers would think, what their teachers would think; they didn’t want to speak in class,” said Gluck. “So it was nice to have a much smaller environment that was comfortable, cozy and, and relaxing and that kind of exuded calmness and, and serenity.”
In response, the district created a drop-in wellness center, as well as the TEAM (Targeting Emotional Aptitude Mindfully) Day School, a special school-within-the-school for classes of five to six of the most highly anxious and school-avoidant students.
“The space that we created [for the wellness center and TEAM] doesn’t look like a traditional classroom environment at all,” Gluck said. “There are oversized beanbag chairs, couches, positive quotes [on] the walls, different plants. We have a therapy dog that comes about once a month for a few days. ... [It] just makes it feel more like a hangout space.”