For many years I worked with a young girl who struggled with
significant anxiety. By the time she
ended up in my office, she was knee-deep in a system she developed to keep her
anxiety hidden from her teachers and peers: Hold it together at school, go home
and fall apart, then reorganize every drawer in the house to feel better.
There wasn't one specific trigger for her anxiety, but
academic stress did increase her anxious thoughts. She often showed me her
notes from school and her homework. It was intense for fifth grade. We worked
hard to develop adaptive coping strategies and, over time, she replaced her old
system with a new one. Eventually, she
didn't need me anymore.
Although she often felt alone in her anxiety, she
wasn't. In fact, many of the kids in and
out of my office worked through similar issues.
Prior to opening my private practice, I worked as a
school-based therapist for several years. I often think that school-based
therapy is the best option for kids. Schools are on the frontline when it comes to mental health. When kids
struggle with their emotional health, they have difficulty learning and making
friends, and their overall happiness suffers as a result.
Kids spend more than half of their day with their teachers. Their teachers see the ups and downs.
When I worked as a school-based therapist, we took a team
approach to helping the kids. Teachers, therapists, coaches, parents and
administrators all worked together in the best interest of the child. We
checked in regularly, and the kids knew that we all worked together. There was no stigma to address, because we
were all a team. There was no "outside help" vs. "inside staff." We saw how
the kids interacted on a daily basis, and we helped them on a more immediate
basis. There were days when it felt like my pager never stopped beeping, but
that was because I could get there right away. There was no waiting period.
It worked. Having therapists on staff in the school gave
kids an outlet and helped kids with all kinds of struggles learn to cope with
their emotions so that they were better able to learn and access the curriculum.
Kids spend more than half of their day with their teachers.
Their teachers see the ups and downs. They see when a child is struggling
academically, emotionally and/or socially. They are in the position to help
kids right away, but often they don't have the resources to provide help.
I've seen the change in academics over the years. I've seen
increased anxiety in children and adolescents. You can blame testing, you can blame the pushing down of academics, and you
can even blame technology if you want. No matter the cause, it's here, it's
happening, and we have to deal with it. We have to make the emotional health of
children and adolescents a priority, so that they can become happy, confident
and successful individuals.
A recent article in Mind/Shift
shed light on a school-based mental health program gaining momentum in
Minnesota. What began as a small pilot program is now in 645 schools in 71
counties. Through this program, children
in need see therapists at school. Attendance rates are climbing and teachers
are changing the way they interact with kids who tend to act up in class. It's
On site therapy is one way to help children thrive in the
classroom, but schools can also implement other ideas and programs to focus on
1. Mindfulness programs
Schools are starting to build mindfulness programs into the
curriculum. Some of those programs even align with the Common Core State
Standards, making it easier to find the time to slow down and be mindful.
When kids are taught the art of relaxation through deep
breathing and other strategies, they learn to calm themselves down and remain
focused. This helps them access the curriculum, cope with anxiety and/or stress
and relate with peers.
Building emotional health into the curriculum can only benefit our students.
2. Happiness projects
With all of the focus on success and college and career
readiness, happiness seems to be a luxury for kids these days. The truth is
that happy kids are better able to learn and thrive in the classroom.
Schoolwide happiness projects can shift the culture of the
learning environment. I spend a lot of time in my office helping kids step back
and consider what truly makes them happy. Once they understand their happiness
points, they find ways to build those into their daily lives. Schools can do
the same. By integrating happiness with learning, school becomes a safe and
exciting learning environment.
Do you ever get so overwhelmed with work that you slip out
for a cup of coffee just because you need to reset? Kids feel that way, too.
Taking regular brain breaks throughout the day, preferably outside (weather
permitting), helps kids hit the reset button.
Kids are sitting and learning for longer periods of time.
They're also learning at an accelerated pace. Breaks are necessary. Teachers
can show kids how to cope with the buildup of emotions than can occur in the
classroom setting by building brain breaks into the curriculum. Get out and
jump rope. Build an obstacle course with a few hoops, some basketballs and a
few beanbags. Build paper airplanes and test them outside. Take a quick
scavenger hunt around the school. The possibilities are endless.
Building emotional health into the curriculum can only
benefit our students. If we teach them how to cope with stress and anxiety now,
they will be better prepared for the future. That's a win/win.