Educators attack anxiety in all grades

Administrators customize support programs for urban students, high achievers and elementary schools
By: | Issue: July/August, 2019
July 9, 2019
Today's school anxiety interventions aim to speed support and treatment to students who need it most, and keep them in school. (Photo: vesalainen)Today's school anxiety interventions aim to speed support and treatment to students who need it most, and keep them in school. (Photo: vesalainen)

As educators continue to grapple with rising stress and depression, district leaders are starting to tailor school anxiety interventions to meet the needs of specific student groups.

In the Auburn School District, which is just south of Seattle, leaders used $450,000 in voter-approved county grants to bring the SBIRT (Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment) program to the four middle schools.

Students were having trouble transitioning from elementary school, says Rhonda Larson, assistant superintendent for family engagement and student success.

“We have some high-performing elementary schools where we have students achieving and earning benchmarks, and then they go into middle school and it’s a different culture,” she says. “It’s a time when kids experience so many risk factors that we needed to increase the protective factors.”

The SBIRT program has partnered outside therapists with each school’s counseling team, which has some leeway in implementing the program.

Two of the middle school teams screen every sixth-grader, while the other buildings’ teams only assess students who are having academic, behavioral or attendance problems.

After the screening, a student may receive a brief intervention from a school counselor, more comprehensive sessions with the outside therapists, or longer-term care from an outside mental health care provider.

Read more: How to spot internalized signs of student anxiety

Counselors have worked with students who were contemplating self-harm, as well as with students who said they felt alone, or who were bullied or put themselves at risk on social media,

Larson says. “We’ve been able to form relationships with them,” she says. “We’ve also given them language to use with their families and to engage their parents in ways that we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.”

Straight-A struggles

Students in high-achieving middle schools and high schools are also getting more attention as they grapple with intense pressures to reach the top of class rankings and to gain acceptance to elite colleges.

“People ask ‘Where does all of this pressure come from?’ and I respond ‘Where does it not come from?’” says Suniya Luthar, founder and executive director of Authentic Connections, a nonprofit that helps high-achieving public and private schools better care for students in distress.

Authentic Connections conducts 45-minute surveys with students, monitoring for warning signs such as anxiety, depression, cheating and substance use. High-achieving students show elevated rates for these factors compared with students nationwide, Luthar says.

Students begin to struggle if they don’t communicate with their parents or feel criticized by them, if they feel rejected or bullied by peers, or if they have been ridiculed or alienated by teachers, Luthar says.

Read more: How K12 is outwitting anxiety

“Based on our research, the single most important intervention is to make relationships strong and healthy,” she says. “If you’re going to start a schoolwide initiative, focus on that.”

Social media exacerbates these relationship problems, increasing students’ feelings of envy and fear of missing out. “We’ve gotten into this situation in American culture where, from early childhood to higher education, there’s this emphasis all around us that you must always strive to get to the very top,” Luthar says.

And concepts such as grit and growth mindset that have been seen as solutions in underperforming schools might have the opposite effect among high achievers, Luthar says.

“These kids need to learn when enough is enough, when they are exhausted and when to say ‘no,’” she says. “Saying ‘Just try a little harder’ can be tantamount to pouring gasoline over a fire because these kids are hell-bent to pick up every point they can.”

Staying in school

Leaders of Regional School District No. 8 in Hebron, Connecticut, have set out to reduce the number of students who have to be removed from school for mental health treatment.

The school system, which serves grades 7 through 12, created the Resilience Program in 2018, which is housed between its interconnected middle and high school buildings. Students can spend the entire day in the program—which combines clinical treatment with academic lessons in a small-group setting—or just check in for short sessions, Superintendent Patricia Law says.

Read more: Taking care of teachers’ mental health, too

“Kids have increased their skill sets and increased time in general education classes,” Law says. “Some kids have moved on from the program and reintegrated totally on their own.”

The programming, which students can also follow online, is developed by a team comprising a guidance counselor, the school social worker and classroom teachers. Academics cover core subjects while social-emotional learning instruction focuses on mindfulness and growth mindset, says Jen Hoffman, director of pupil services.

“When kids come into a space that is safe and nurturing, and they can build skills and feel comfortable there, they can then work on transferring those skills to general classrooms and their life outside of school,” says Hoffman.