Back to school: Expert shares ways to support K-12 students’ mental health
Teaching and researching in school psychology for K-12 students, Leandra Parris continues to closely follow the conversation around increasing levels of anxiety and mental health issues among young people made worse by the pandemic.
Parris, associate professor and coordinator of the school psychology program at William & Mary’s School of Education, focuses on relationships among middle and high school students within an equity-centered, trauma-informed framework. She primarily researches social media influences on youth well-being, prevention and intervention for addressing traumatic stress among marginalized populations, and coping with peer aggression.
Within the field, Parris focuses her efforts on social justice endeavors that help provide voice and empowerment to marginalized youth and families, as well as enhancing training for future school psychologists. She is currently chair of the National Association of School Psychologists’ Social Justice Committee and co-editor of “School Psychology Training and Pedagogy.”
As a new academic year begins for a community that includes students going to school and being homeschooled, W&M News asked Parris to discuss ways to support K-12 students at home and at school.
Q: As the pandemic continues, what are researchers hearing about young people’s levels of anxiety and mental health issues?
A: Prior to the pandemic, the surgeon general had already issued a formalized statement that mental health is a crisis situation for youth.
What we knew is that in a classroom of about 30, 12 will have mental health concerns. And of those 12, six to seven will actually meet the criteria for a mental health disorder. So if you imagine a classroom being a teacher with that many students, that’s a lot.
And then you add the pandemic and now in a lot of classrooms it’s almost 100%. Because who hasn’t been affected by the pandemic?
So what we’ve seen is that it is getting worse. We expected that because the biggest predictor of being able to handle and cope with mental health is social support, and now we’ve been isolated.
For two and a half years, students haven’t been able to be around each other. They haven’t been able to access services that we give them in school such as support groups. It’s actually exacerbated a crisis that was already happening.
I don’t think people realize that. But it was already there and now it’s just worse, and we have fewer resources. We’re at a huge shortage for mental health providers in schools right now. There’s just not enough of us, and so we’re kind of burning it on both ends.
Q: Can you share some ways parents, guardians and community members may support students at home?
A: It’s kind of two-fold. One is modeling it. Children often learn from watching us, whether they admit it or not. If a child sees a parent or a caregiver being afraid a lot or coping in certain ways, they will pick that up naturally.
So, showing any way that we can cope. For example, to say “Today I was really anxious but I did this, this and this, and that helped me calm down.” Just to show and normalize feelings of anxiety and sadness is going to be a really great way to do that and opening up those conversations, too, and just checking in.
One of the things I struggle with as a parent is not being intrusive, but also saying I want to make sure you’re OK. I want to have these conversations, and if you don’t want to talk to me, that’s OK. But at least let me find someone who you can talk to.
Second is any time I can find ways to give that peer support. Social support is the No. 1 thing that we’re concerned about. If it’s play dates or just ways to get them out with each other so they can engage with each other, that’s going to be another way to really help bolster their resiliency.
We have worry boxes that we do with our kids that we often recommend. They can just put their worries in there, on paper and temporarily put away. There’s lots of strategies that schools will be using that if you ask the teacher about, they can probably give you what they’re doing in school so you can support that at home.
Q: Can you give some tips for teachers on incorporating this type of support in their classrooms?
A: I was just talking to teachers two weeks ago, and one of the things that I hear a lot is that they can’t get to the instructional piece because the mental health concerns are so exacerbated right now.
One step is I would urge teachers to talk to their administrators about who are the mental health professionals in the building. Who can I talk to when I have a student who is struggling? Because I think that we put too much on teachers, and we can’t expect them to do everything.
The other thing is having those conversations, building those relationships, having consistent clear expectations in the classroom, which I know everyone seems to do that, but it’s so important for mental health for all of the students. Social stories — so any time you can build in stories about students struggling and then coping, even if it’s a math lesson or social studies lesson, to help validate and reiterate coping mechanisms that we want to see like deep breathing and talking to each other.
Teachers having that space to back away for yourself, too, and say “OK, I’m having a reaction. Where is this coming from?” And then attending to that before engaging with the child, who’s probably irritated. Because oftentimes our own stress gets in the way of our ability to address someone else’s. And teachers often have so much put on them that they forget to take a step back for themselves.
Q: What are the most important things to keep in mind when supporting a K-12 student’s mental health?
A: The first thing we always think about is safety not only physically, but psychologically. Ensuring that they are having their basic needs met. I often will have water bottles or snacks.
Making sure that they’re not being bullied. Looking out for microaggressions. Really making sure that the student feels like they belong is going to be huge. Finding a way to connect with students so that they feel connected to the school or the classroom or the team as a whole is going to be really, really important. Finding them a role to play, finding a way for them to make it important for them is going to really help them feel better about the space that they’re in.
When they feel better about the space that they’re in, they’re more likely to ask for help, which right now the big thing we’re struggling with is getting students to ask for help when they first start feeling that stress of those mental health concerns. Because they don’t always know where to go or they don’t know that it’s OK and that this is a space where we can have those conversations. Keeping up that approachability is going to be really important.
And validating — oftentimes I’ll ask a question knowing I don’t have enough time to hear the answer. Avoiding that, making sure that we make the space and make the time to validate what they’re saying. We don’t always have to problem solve. Sometimes we tell kids what to do without asking them what they think is going to work.
What we know is that 85% of the time, kids are going to cope on their own; they just need us to listen. But then when we come in and we start giving them our advice and telling them what to do, it actually undermines their own coping process. And so asking do you think this would work, how might this work or helping reframe those situations to bolster their coping as opposed to taking over it is really helpful.
Q: What are signs that a student needs additional help?
A: Signs that mental health is a struggle for a student would be sudden changes in behavior. If you have a student who is normally quiet and is still quiet, that’s not really a concern. But if they’re normally very talkative and energetic, and they’re suddenly very quiet, that’s when we’re concerned or vice versa.
I always tell people to look out for those fight or flight responses. So being hyper vigilant, always being aggressive, always being reactive or being super avoidant of things, pulling away, trying to hide from things — we really want to look for those symptoms.
If we start seeing them, checking in and saying, “Hey, I’ve noticed you’ve been a little off lately,” and seeing where that goes. And then again knowing who your mental health professionals are in the school in case they really need to be able to sit down and talk with the child.