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Asking teachers to teach and become therapists is misguided

Originally published November 26, 2021 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Teachers are not therapists, but it might look a little more like that these days. Since the pandemic kids have been through many changes in environment, routine and sometimes even family structure. After 22 long months we can now see the effects that unprecedented isolation and schedule disruption had on kids and adolescence … and the results are a little unnerving.

School administrators and educators are seeing behaviors that are characteristically more immature than age level, getting up out of seats, more talking during class, lack of respect for peers and others personal property. These behaviors aren’t abnormal for students, but the level of their behaviors appears to match significantly lower ages in respect to their current age. This phenomena of stunted development is not new to those familiar with childhood trauma.

Unfortunately, delayed development is just the tip of the iceberg. According to Center for Disease Control and Prevention, statistics on child mental health, children have exhibited elevated rates of anxiety, depression and overall psychological stress. There is a 22% increase in worsened overall mental and emotional health of kids, 31% increase in trips to the emergency department due to mental health related emergencies for those ages 12-17, and a 51% increase in injury reports in hospitals due to suspected suicide attempt by adolescent girls.

As schools being the primary source of stability other than home environment, this is nothing to be ignored by school systems. Poor behavior in schools is merely the canary in the coal mine regarding our kids’ mental health.

As a society, have we been afraid to call the pandemic ‘traumatic’ for children because we have simply been trying to make it through and rehearse for normal again? Or is it that we ourselves are somewhat traumatized by the last 22 months and are experiencing many of the same things as our kids?

Parents can and should advocate for their kids’ mental and emotional health with their health care providers and schools. Listening to children is the first and most important step to assessing and addressing what our children are dealing with and going through internally. Oftentimes, kids do not have the emotional resources to verbalize sadness, worry or loneliness so it comes out in the form of aggression, inattention, apathy, disinterest or other maladaptive behaviors.

If your child previous to COVID-19 was a bouncy, chatty 10-year-old and is now withdrawn and quiet, behaviors should be addressed. As in anything in parenting, overreactive alarm causes more harm than good. Instead of sounding the emergency broadcasting system siren on max volume within your home, try calm assertion. Instead of driving junior straight to the therapist’s office, try talking with him first.

One thing that cannot be forgotten is 22 months of development within the developing years of childhood is massive in the broad scheme of young children on normal curves. Child behaviors ebb and flow with maturity and should be looked at in terms of holistic development, not merely attributing every change in a child’s behavior to COVID-19 related reasons.

Across the nation schools have sought ways to help kids. The National Association for School Psychologists recommend four courses of action to address child mental health within the school environment. They describe four prescriptive activities that can help schools maintain the health of the student body and help kids individually.

  • Offer a continuum of school and community mental health support. Many schools are fortunate to have at least one, if not a few trained counselors on staff. Schools should use them to offer education on emotional and mental health coping skills.

  • Broaden access to school mental health supports beyond special education. Focused preventative care for emotionally or behaviorally volatile children should be offered not only if you have an IEP (Individual Education Plan) for a longstanding disability, but rather appropriate access can be offered in less intensive formats.

  • Improve school-community collaboration to provide integrated and coordinated mental health care. Schools should have a list of certified and licensed mental health care providers, private along with free-community mental health, and refer students freely to these. Information lines should be open and readily available for counselors, teachers and parents.

  • Empower families to manage the myriad decisions and resources they need to meet their child’s mental health needs. Parents and caretakers play the most involved and influential role in children’s lives and clear communication and education about the needs, behavioral norms and signs of risk in their kids are imperative.

Parents are the most important advocate for their children and are in the best position to see signs of anything awry in social, emotional or behavioral life. As they say in sports, the best defense is a good offense and the same holds true for assessing the risk of child mental health.

Educators coming together to inform the students of coping strategies, community mental health partners educating parents on ways to spot anxiety and depression in kids, citizens voting for legislators who will pursue funding for increased numbers of social services in schools.

It takes a village to raise a child and addressing the current needs of child mental health is no different. Spending millions on standardized mental health assessments for all kids who already take too many expensive standardized assessments is misplaced. Asking teachers to not only teach but become therapists is misguided.

The approach in the classroom and out of the classroom to mental health must be much like offering quality academic education, high expectations and personalized attention from all; from the parent, to the teacher, to the school counselor to the voter.

Kids can rebound from adversity, let’s give them the best chance possible. If we listen, respond and educate we can not only teach children to cope with anxiety and depression in and out of the classroom, but help kids thrive.


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