- The more schools can play a role in addressing children’s mental health issues while involving parents as partners in the process, the better chance we have as a society to turn this mental health crisis around. Tweet This
- Schools should make an effort to cultivate social-emotional development through play and experiential learning before bombarding children with cognitive left-brain skills. Tweet This
- To combat the mental health crisis in kids: later school start times for teens, more play-based learning, greater recognition of neurodiversity, and other suggestions from Erica Komisar. Tweet This
A recent Surgeon General Advisory on Youth Mental Health reports a troubling increase in emotional and behavioral disorders in children. Many hope things will improve now that COVID seems to be getting behind us. But as the Surgeon General Advisory pointed out, mental health problems in children were already on the rise even before COVID: 1 in 5 children in America were reported to be suffering from a severe form of mental illness before they reached adulthood. Fortunately, there are several tangible steps schools can take to address and mitigate the mental health challenges children are facing.
For starters, schools should change their start-times, especially for adolescents. As part of development, adolescents can go through something called sleep wake phase delay. Basically, their circadian rhythm is delayed about two hours from those of adults, so they often cannot fall asleep until very late. Sleep deprivation is a contributing factor to depression, distractibility, and anxiety in adolescents. When school starts too early, for instance at 8 A.M., many teens do not get enough sleep, leading to academic underperformance, frustration, depression and anxiety. Changing school start times to better align with teens’ natural sleeping patterns is one simple change that could have significant mental health benefits.
Furthermore, schools should make an effort to cultivate social-emotional development through play and experiential learning before bombarding children with cognitive left-brain skills. Play-based learning in the early years (think preschool and early elementary) is the way young children learn best, particularly the skills of conflict resolution and emotional regulation, as well as socialization. So when they get to reading, writing, arithmetic, and history, they have developed frustration tolerance and social skills that are necessary to learn more complicated abstract ideas in a group environment. And once they’re a bit older, schools should still continue to encourage older children to address and process feelings and experiences through daily and weekly emotional check-ins, along with creating an environment that promotes the processing and regulation of emotions, a fundamental part of right brain development and mental health.
Bullying, whether it is old fashioned schoolyard bullying or cyber/social media bullying, contributes to a great amount of the mental health challenges that teens and children face. Empathy is not something we are born with; rather, it is something we learn mostly from our parents but also from teachers, coaches, principals, and other important adults in our lives. Adults in authority and mentoring positions at schools can address these issues vigilantly by taking a hard line against hateful and exclusionary behavior and through curriculum programming that increases empathy in kids based on reducing teasing, bullying, and social exclusion. Schools can also mandate that students do not use social media or cellphones during the school day to reduce the possibility of cyberbullying during school hours. Though what students see on social media is not “real world,” it is important they realize their actions and comments on the internet can hurt others and have real world consequences.
In addition, schools need to recognize that all children do not learn the same way. Many children struggle with learning issues that may be diagnosed and treated, but too many children still fall through the cracks. Learning issues, such as auditory processing and dyslexia, have long been associated with depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Other children are not conventional learners and are more neurodiverse. Many of these children need a more creative approach to learning. Respect for neurodiversity means rethinking how we educate children and how we narrowly define success by relying on grades and test scores alone. Recognizing that not all children learn the same way, and that many are not academically inclined but may be creatively or relationally driven, helps children to avoid the trap of feeling like failures and falling into depression. For instance, some charter schools focus on character development and nurturing children’s individual interests rather than dwelling on their weaknesses. It is within the power of schools to find and redirect children according to their strengths, which can provide a foundation of resilience to stress as a buffer to mental illness.
Lastly, schools can provide parents and children with more mental health services that focus on prevention through early detection and access to resources for kids who need immediate help. Mental health issues are not usually sudden in origin. Kids give signs that they need help, and parents who are overwhelmed are often easy to spot. The problem is that teachers and schools are also overwhelmed. What can help is to put more professionals and well -trained paraprofessionals in the schools to address the rising number of kids with depression, anxiety, ADHD, behavioral issues, and social disorders. If we care about our children’s mental health, then we need to advocate for both private and public funding to support more professionals to spot kids who are inundated with psychosocial stressors and who may benefit from mental health intervention. This could include more one-on-one sessions with kids in schools who are showing signs of stress, or group sessions with kids whose families are going through divorces or who have parents who are struggling with addictions or mental health issues themselves.
The more schools can play a role in addressing children’s mental health issues while involving parents as partners in the process, the better chance we have as a society to turn this mental health crisis around. Our children have been through a lot over the past two years, and schools must focus not only on getting kids back in classrooms but also on fostering healthy development now that they’re back.
Erica Komisar, LCSW is a psychoanalyst, parent guidance expert, and author of Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters and Chicken Little The Sky Isn’t Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents In The New Age Of Anxiety.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.