Student Well-Being

What Schools Can Do to Ease Students’ Anxiety

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 23, 2022 4 min read
Black students using laptop in the lab with white female teacher- including a female student with special needs.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Related

Image of happy and not happy face symbols.
ThitareeSarmkasat/iStock/Getty

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.”

Related Tags:

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Privacy & Security Webinar
K-12 Cybersecurity in the Real World: Lessons Learned & How to Protect Your School
Gain an expert understanding of how school districts can improve their cyber resilience and get ahead of cybersecurity challenges and threats.
Content provided by Microsoft
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Trauma-Informed Schools 101: Best Practices & Key Benefits
Learn how to develop a coordinated plan of action for addressing student trauma and
fostering supportive, healthy environments.
Content provided by Crisis Prevention Institute
Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Teens Are Struggling With Climate Anxiety. Schools Haven't Caught Up Yet
Schools generally aren't ready to handle an increase in climate anxiety among youth.
12 min read
Jia Sharma-Chaube, 15, left, and Croix Hill, 16, students at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans pose for a portrait at City Park in New Orleans, La., on Nov. 29, 2022.
Jia Sharma-Chaube, 15, left, and Croix Hill, 16, both students at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans, are among the substantial number of young who feel anxious about climate change.
Student Well-Being Opinion A Lesson in Gift-Giving, According to Research
Here’s a new way to think about the holiday spirit for young and old alike.
1 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Getty
Student Well-Being Subtle Ways to Check on Students' Well-Being
Students sometimes don’t get help because they don’t want to stand out.
3 min read
Illustration of holding hands.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Student Well-Being Flu, Colds, RSV: How Schools Can Help Keep Kids Healthy as Illness Increases This Winter
Drawing on lessons from the pandemic, schools can invest in air filtration and other tried-and-true health measures.
3 min read
Close-up of elementary student disinfecting hands at school due.
Drazen Zigic/iStock/Getty