Some 40% of US parents are “extremely” or “very” worried that their children will struggle with anxiety or depression at some point, according to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center. In the face of this and other daunting statistics about children’s mental health, we as a society need to step back and ask ourselves some difficult questions about our youth.
What are we missing? What can parents and educators do to provide extra support? Perhaps the most critical thing we can do is ask children, rather than guessing or telling them. As an educator, when you see a dramatic change in a child, there’s usually a traumatic event that has occurred. Knowing how to spot warning signs and respond in a supportive way is essential to helping students understand how to reduce anxiety, stress and other issues.
What are the warning signs of anxiety or depression?
Weight gains or loss: One of the common reasons that young people gain weight is actually abuse, so weight certainly is something educators should be paying attention to. The idea is not to call students out but rather to find an indirect way of supporting students’ mental health.
So, for example, a district in Naperville, Illinois, had students do some exercise around a track before school. They found that if students could get their resting heart rate up to one-and-a-half times their resting rate, they actually did better on standardized tests
Severe mood swings/lashing out: As with weight gain, something has triggered these behaviors. Whether students are modeling something that they’ve seen at home or having a shame-based response, people who feel exposed are more likely to act out in rage.
Teachers’ first response here should be to understand how much information they can get from the child about what they are experiencing. Next would be an invitation to the parents, saying, “These are some of the things that are going on at school. Could you help me understand what’s happening at home?” It’s also informative to ask, “What are they saying about school at home? Are they talking about frustrations?”
The goal is not to make the parents feel like they’re doing something wrong.The goal is to create an alliance with parents so that you can all understand the root of the issue. Is the student being bullied at school? Is something happening on a bus or on the way to school? When you see extreme mood swings, there’s almost always a story behind it.
Disengagement/sleeping in class: Sleeping in class is a clear warning sign, but teachers should also be on the lookout for students who have their heads down every day. They’re disengaged, they’re not making eye contact, and usually a lack of eye contact is shame-based, right? They don’t want to be seen. These individuals who don’t feel part of the class are more likely to start skipping class. Kids can fall through the cracks, and post-COVID a lot of kids are having a hard time going back to school because they were actually comfortable doing everything online.
Excessive screen time: Based on research, the No. 1 thing that is triggering adolescent anxiety today is screen time. Educators (and certainly parents) should do everything they can to be aware of how much a child is using a device. I know some schools have made the choice to not have phones in the classroom. This may help students focus during course time but it doesn’t address the cause of excessive screen time, which is often an emotional issue they’re struggling with.
It’s important to note here that there’s a difference between being an adolescent and being depressed. To some degree, mood swings and anxiety are a normal part of adolescence. The warning sign is when a student is anxious or depressed to the point where they say, “I just can’t get up.” If they’re coming up on finals or other key events, they need time to work through the stress but if concerning behaviors continue for a month or more, they need to be addressed.
How districts can support students’ mental health
Build a support team: Schools have the opportunity to influence the children’s minds in many ways, but it has to be a team effort. Teachers and the school counselor should be a part of the team. Districts can also help by setting up peer support networks. My children have been a part of a national peer-to-peer suicide prevention group called the Hope Squad. Giving students the opportunity to connect with someone their age may be the most powerful way districts can support their students’ mental health. The more support students have, the more connected they feel and the better off they are.
Create ways for struggling students to succeed: When students who are struggling with mental health are in school, teachers can really help by creating moments for these individuals to succeed. It may be as straightforward as saying, “You know what? You came to school today and I know what was hard.” Having somebody pay attention to the fact that they stepped through those doors matters because when students are suffering, having somebody paying attention can make an enormous difference.
Hold community-building events: When it comes to fostering social connection, districts have a unique capacity to hold activities and events that bring students, teachers and families together. I think what we did here in Utah during the pandemic was actually quite incredible. Even throughout the year when everyone was out of classrooms, our schools continued to host sporting events and as many other activities as possible. I believe our state held something like 95% of scheduled activities, which really helped maintain some sense of normalcy and community.
Meet students and families where they are: Of course not all students attend events, so the next challenge is identifying those students who are struggling and reaching out to their family members so they can get the support they need. Working parents may have a hard time connecting with school or district leaders in person, but tools like ParentGuidance.org can be an enormous help. It’s a free resource for parents created by licensed therapists (including me) and districts across the country use it to provide families with information about mental health and practical steps they can take to talk their child through tough issues such as bullying, self-harm or when to report something suspicious to a trusted adult.
ParentGuidance.org also offers informative courses for parents. For example, we recently finished up a course to help parents understand ADHD and share some things they can do to help children with ADHD. Sharing resources is not enough, though. It takes more time and more energy. Why not periodically do Zoom meetings with parents, not only the ones whose children are struggling, but the ones who are thriving?
Creating these opportunities to connect over time shows families that you value their feedback. I believe that if schools, families, students and mental health professionals work with each other harmoniously, we’ll see much more effective learning for every student.