Soon after being sworn in as Tennessee’s new education commissioner last winter, Penny Schwinn, Ph.D., went on a “listening tour” of schools. She visited more than 175 classrooms and interviewed principals, teachers, kids, superintendents and others. Schwinn heard about the need to “fix” standardized testing once and for all, but over and over again, the most alarming theme she heard was about kids’ mental health and how much students need support in schools now.
“There is a growing concern about how we can support our children, not only academically but also behaviorally,” Schwinn told chalkbeat.com.
It doesn’t take much brain power to figure out why kids may be in need of mental boosting today. Our culture is packed with scary happenings including school shootings.
“We know that the health of our students impacts their ability to learn and thrive,” says Katie Houghtlin, assistant commissioner of The Whole Child Initiative for the Department of Education.
“Currently there are districts and schools across the state that are meeting the mental health needs of students by hiring full-time mental health professionals, training teachers in positive classroom culture and ensuring local educators are trained in identifying students in need of additional professional support and referring them to the health community,” she adds.
The National Institute of Mental Health reports that an estimated 32 percent of kids ages 12 - 17 have an anxiety disorder.
BUT WHAT HAPPENED?
It’s theoretical, but since 9/11 in 2001 — 18 years ago this month — the world has been an unsettled place. The full impact of 9/11 on parenting can’t be measured, although the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) says a parent’s response to stress directly contributes to the child’s response to stress. In other words, when parents are worriers their children are likely to be worriers. Anxiety can develop.
“It’s hard to say exactly what is driving the increases in the rate of anxiety,” says Meg Benningfield, M.D., director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
“Worries about school safety increase with each event of a school shooting, and it’s very hard for children and their parents to manage their fears in a time of such great uncertainty,” she adds.
Pew Research from 2018 says 57 percent of teens worry that a shooting will happen at their school — imagine what happens to that percentage if you add in younger, more vulnerable kids with active imaginations. But schools are working hard to keep kids safe.
“All of our schools are required to conduct a number of safety drills each year, including an in-service lockdown and relocation drill, monthly fire drills, student lock-down drills, tornado drills, AED drills, an armed intruder drill and fire safety announcements,” says K. Dawn Rutledge, director of external communications and public information officer for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. More and more drills are taking place in schools across the nation.
“Some are state mandated,” says James Evans, communications director for Rutherford County Schools (RCS), “and several others have been added by our district to ensure our schools, employees and students have multiple opportunities to practice safety and emergency response procedures,” he says.
While it’s necessary to keep children and personnel safe in school, anxious kids don’t respond well to high-stress situations and little ones can cry.
But life goes on, and while everybody knows something’s amiss in kid culture more than it should be, the reasons why are multifold: school shootings (yes); social media (yes); the isolation caused by excessive screen time (yes).
“Like any tool, social media has its benefits and risks,” Benningfield says. “But it can also become a way to avoid social connections ‘in real life.’”
And as for the isolation experienced by excessive screen time (look at all of those toddlers with iPads), Benningfield says be careful.
“Parents should set reasonable limits on the amount of time kids spend on electronic devices and encourage activities that are screen-free,” she says.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, at least one in five school-aged kids is currently affected by a mental condition, the most common being anxiety. Anxiousness puts a strain on a child’s enjoyment for learning, and school nurses have seen an uptick in young visitors.
“I’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of students in the school setting with mental health conditions,” says Sarah Winters, director of school health services for RCS.
A child who visits the nurse often may complain of a head or stomach ache. The nurse’s first job is to address the physical problem but also to determine if the child is anxious or possibly depressed. She is trained to talk with the child about his feelings. If the nurse detects any red flags for anxiety or depression, a school psychologist will be consulted and the parent called. Psychologists help by consulting with teachers and parents and with permission, the student, to help him develop coping strategies.
ANXIETY IS OK ... UNTIL IT’S NOT
It’s entirely normal for children to experience separation anxiety, to be afraid of the dark or even to worry about making friends. But when a childhood phase doesn’t end, it can morph into a disorder causing sleeplessness, eating issues, missed school and more.
“Parents need to be looking out for changes in sleep and energy levels,” Benningfield says. “Irritability can be a sign of anxiety as well as depression; greater social isolation is also a concerning sign,” she adds.
Anxiety can be elusive though. It can be missed because it’s often unseen in kids; many anxious children are very quiet and inhibited while others may be the opposite.
“To me, anxiety is one of the most under-recognized conditions of childhood and adolescence,” says Kathleen Merikangas of the NIMH.
Children can be overlooked because they may appear to be functioning well on the outside while suffering inwardly.
Additional signs that may signal over-active anxiety in a child include excessive behaviors, continual worry, the need to please others and avoiding activities that are actually pleasurable.
The good news is that treating anxiety in children is very doable and successful.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the preferred first course of treatment. The goal of CBT is to change behaviors such as avoidance. In therapy, kids will be exposed to the very things that trigger their fears so they can learn to handle them. This “exposure” helps them tackle issues like separation, phobias, social worries and more.
But parental anxiety needs to be treated, too. For instance, an anxious mom may be prone to staying in “fix-it mode” for her child longer than she should. This is when a parent aims to avert problems for their kids before they even happen. But healthy development for kids includes parents pulling back as kids grow, and allowing more independence and self-reliance. If that doesn’t happen, a kid can have issues.
Benningfield says to reach out to your pediatrician, teacher or school counselor if you are concerned for your child.