By Cristy Vogel Bohlen - Clover High School Trigger Warning: This post deals with symptoms and challenges of anxiety in teens.
The work of an educator takes dedication, perseverance, and a thirst for lifelong learning. When we consider everything to be cognizant of on a school campus, the list is extensive. In this post, I will focus on health, which is one of the five tenets of the ASCD Whole Child Framework, because mental health issues, in particular, can impact our learners' day to day ability to succeed in all facets of the journey to a high school diploma.
The statistics on mental illness in adolescence are staggering. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), "one in six youth in the United States experience a mental health disorder each year, and fifty percent of all mental illness begins by age fourteen..." Educators, administrators, and anyone else who plays a role in the life of a school are likely to work with youth who may need resources, services, and support as they navigate the demands of life in a school setting. To find out more on this topic, I interviewed Dr. Larisha Young, school counselor at Clover High School, in Clover, South Carolina. The communities the school serves are both rural and suburban with the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, bordering to the east.
---- Will you tell me a little bit about yourself?
I am a counselor at Clover High School, and this is my thirteenth year here. I earned my Master's degree in School Counseling at Western Carolina University, and then my Doctorate in Educational Leadership in 2020 at the University of the Cumberlands. I have one daughter who attends high school.
What is one of the biggest mental health concerns leaders in K-12 education are seeing right now?
Anxiety is one of the biggest mental health issues we see, whether it's general or social. In fact, we have seen an increase [in anxiety] since Covid.
In the classroom, what are some observations that teachers might make regarding general or social anxiety?
Teachers might see a student shut down, and this may appear in the form of disrespect or combativeness or another noticeable change in behavior. Sometimes, anxiety can be triggered by just being in a particular classroom. For example, students might feel anxiety if they have a male teacher or a teacher who reminds them of their mother. It could also be triggering when a student has all small classes, but then one of them is large. It can also be little things, like shaking one's leg or being super quiet. Some students with anxiety just want to pretend like nobody can see them and then fade into the background. They may not want to be noticed. This may look like a person who is really shy, but a lot of times, those are kids who struggle with anxiety. They may feel anxious about speaking or being called on in class.
These students who seem to be super quiet in class, and do not really talk much to their teachers can often be the ones who seem to fall through the cracks. Furthermore, teachers may not decide to report to school counselors that a student is extremely quiet. What can teachers do for those students in the classroom environment?
You never want to address noticed behaviors within the group because that may make students nervous. It's good to ask students if they can speak in the hallway or after class for 60 seconds. Say reassuring things like, "If you ever need help, and you're not comfortable coming to me during class, you can send me an email or leave me a note. I just want to make sure that you know that this is available to you, if you're not comfortable talking in the group. I check my email." Students do not always think about email as an option to communicate with their teachers, so it can be reassuring for them that teachers are available to communicate in a variety of ways. As a teacher, it is helpful to be open to the possibility that a student who does not cause any problems, but also does not ask questions in class, may be struggling with anxiety.
This point about participation in class reminds me of our faculty book discussion on Grading for Equity by Joe Feldman. Participation grades based solely on spoken contributions can be perceived as an inequitable practice.
Yes, it is good to offer a variety of ways to participate. A student with anxiety might engage in a game of Kahoot!, but maybe not in a class discussion. Another challenge in the classroom for students with anxiety can be presentations. It helps to be proactive rather than reactive: there are going to be students who do not want to present, so it helps to be ready to offer alternatives, like recording the presentation or staying after school to present one on one to the teacher.
What can teachers, administrators, and other adults on campus do to support learners who are experiencing mental health challenges?
[People in education can] definitely have conversations about anxiety. Like here at Clover High School, one of the great things we do is have student support teams where there are two school counselors, an administrator and a social worker on a team. So we're really able to get names of students [via a Google Form] from the teachers who see the students in the classroom every day. The team meets weekly to discuss the information on the spreadsheet and to determine next steps. This student support model that we have here has been a blessing because we normally can only see students' grades. If we don't see what's going on in the classroom, it's hard for us to identify students with concerns. Our teachers have really bought into our student support system. They let our counselors or administrators know that something is going on with a student.
OK, so it's a system to ensure that students are seen and supported, especially in such a large high school like ours.
Exactly. As counselors, we get calls from parents sometimes, and sometimes we see the students, but then there are those students who suffer in silence. This is where teachers come in, and report that they see a difference in a student maybe from the beginning to the middle of the year. Teachers have done a really good job of letting us know that something has changed. We have some good discussions with the teachers and the parents, if we need to, to determine if there is, indeed, a concern that needs to be addressed. Teachers should not necessarily talk about concerns with the students because [teachers] should not be making diagnoses.
What specifically can school administrators do to support students with mental health challenges? Since they are not in the classroom to get to know students, how can they best serve these learners?
I really think that having some sort of student support model is key. Administrators deal with so much discipline, so they do not always have time to sit down and say…"This is what I've learned about this student." What I've found with student support teams is a counselor, an administrator, and a social worker can sit down as a team to discuss what each team member knows about an individual student. In fact, despite school administrators not being able to be in the classrooms building relationships, they can be in the loop about students who struggle with mental health because of this type of student support model. When working as a team, school leaders are better equipped to meet the needs of the students.
Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?
For anyone in education, I would just like to say that we need to be open-minded, and know that mental illness is real, and that we will have students in our classrooms who are dealing with mental illness. We cannot assume that students will be able to handle things like an adult. Their brains are still developing, so imagine dealing with these things while that is also going on. We must ask ourselves, "What if this was my child?"
Thank you so much for sharing. This has been an informative discussion.
You are very welcome!
Whether educational professionals are just coming into the field or have been serving their learning communities for years, there is always something new to be discovered. Dr. Larisha Young shared valuable insights that are very much appreciated, and can serve as a springboard for further discussions on how we can improve our support of the Whole Child as defined by ASCD: healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged.
I'll leave you with a few takeaways from this interview with Dr. Larisha Young:
1. Have an open mind when deciding how to best support the needs of your learners.
2. Consider developing a model for student support teams, if your school does not already have one in place. As they say, it takes a village to raise a child. A team with clear pathways for communication has the potential to support more young people.
3. Remember to ask yourself this question when feeling challenged by a student who may not fit the mold that you may have envisioned for today's K-12 learner: What if this was my child?
About the Author:
Cristy Vogel Bohlen is currently one of the French teachers at Clover High School, the fourth largest high school in the state of South Carolina. She presents sessions on World Language teaching and learning at the local, state, and national levels. She has served on the board as president of the SC chapter of the American Association of Teachers of French and the SC Foreign Language Teachers' Association. Connect with Cristy on X (formerly known as Twitter) @msfrenchteach or via email at email@example.com.