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Working with Families

If you are worried about the emotional health of one of your students, you may be wondering what to do next.

Although we’ve stressed this point throughout this website, it’s worth mentioning again: you are not a trained health professional; your job does not require you to diagnose or treat any illness. At the same time, as caring human beings we all have a responsibility to speak up and reach out if we have concerns about a student or witness troubling behaviors.

This section of the website will help you work with your school’s administrative and student support teams (which may include psychologists, counselors, social workers, nurses, etc.) to determine the best approach to help a student in distress or about whom you are worried. Together, you can make the right connection with the student’s parents or guardians to share your concerns and partner to find solutions.

Also within this section you’ll find information and resources you can share with parents, including strategies to help them speak with their children about mental health concerns.

While every situation is different, some common themes seem to crop up again and again:  too many of today’s students are stressed, anxious and depressed -- even to the point of contemplating suicide.

With such a high rate of mental distress among adolescents, it’s more important than ever for teachers to understand their role as gatekeepers. Mental health gatekeepers are people in regular contact with vulnerable populations who are trained to recognize the warning signs and help link troubled individuals with the right resources.

What factors contribute to making high school students a “vulnerable population?” Everything from problems in the family like divorce, health or financial struggles, to peer, social or academic pressures at school can bring about a mental health issue needing intervention.  Brain development may also play a role. The adolescent brain is both adaptive and vulnerable. Some brain research indicates that the same factors that help teenagers’ brains learn and remember may make them susceptible to stress and anxiety.

Our modern culture of success – often defined in terms of money, possessions and social status – is a contributing factor for many students struggling with mental health issues, especially those in more affluent districts. We want more for ourselves, and still more for our children.  And for many parents and students the road to success is paved by exceptional grades, advanced placement coursework and extracurricular activities, all designed to lead to admission to a top college and eventually, a high-paying career.

Other families may be struggling just to maintain the basic necessities of food and shelter. For students from these families, focusing on school and grades can be extremely difficult. At the same time, the pressure to succeed in school is very strong, because education is seen as the path to better life circumstances.

Adding to the pressure on today’s students is the fact that they may be the first generation who, due to limited employment opportunities, barriers to home ownership and other factors, will not achieve equal or greater success than their parents.  

For parents, that can mean placing high – even unrealistic – expectations on their children to perform in order to secure their larger piece of a shrinking pie.

Although the stresses generated in each of these scenarios may be very different, they are all very real. They can negatively impact students’ lives, and may make your connections with families a real challenge.

Enter Mental Health Challenges

The culture of success can also be a culture of chronic stress – and sometimes, mental health problems – for students as they internalize those expectations, resulting in negative consequences:   

For students

  • Students “learn” to define themselves by the grades they receive.
  • Complaints of “I’m so stressed” run rampant, especially during exams, and become the accepted norm.
  • Students can’t always communicate what they’re going through.
  • In their efforts to accomplish more, many students lack adequate sleep, a crucial factor in resilience, concentration and mood.
  • It is common for students to see asking for help as a weakness.
  • Students are also juggling stressors related to their social environment.

For parents

  • Parents may not be aware that their child is experiencing a mental health struggle, or they may lack knowledge about the specific problem or diagnosis.
  • In some cases, parents may  stuggle to understand or accept the situation due to their own stigmatized attitudes, thereby impeding efforts by teachers and others to provide help and support. 
  • Even when a student is struggling with a mental illness, parents often want to keep him/her with their class and grade, expecting the school to help academically but rejecting accommodations like dropping a course or repeating a grade which might help the student to recover emotionally.

For teachers

  • Teachers face the challenge of balancing a student’s emotional needs with his/her academic workload.
  • Managing curriculum and state exam requirements can also impede a teacher’s ability to devote time and attention to the emotional health of students, as well as the accommodations that can be offered to an individual student in need.
  • When a student is struggling, it may not be possible to make accommodations or change requirements because the curriculum often builds on previous information.
  • Teachers’ responsibilities and interests extend beyond their assigned subject matter to include being mindful of the mental health of their students; yet they are judged/rated professionally based only on their academic teaching.
  • For teachers, students performing poorly may be perceived as a reflection of their own teaching capabilities, leading to frustration and resentment for students.

Send a healthy message: grades aren’t everything.
When any grade less than “A” is seen as failure, we clearly need to work with both students and parents to change the messages we are sending.  In your conversations with parents, challenge the notion that grades define the student with statements like these:

  • Our mental health is linked to academic performance – don’t neglect the first pursuing the second.
  • Don’t fear failure – we learn the most from it.
  • Self-worth and success are not dictated by grades.
  • The whole person has value; not just how he/she performs in class.
  • A student’s mental wellbeing is just as important as his/her academic achievements.
  • Changing one’s priorities can improve one’s mental health. When the pressure to earn all A’s is gone, there is room to pay attention to mental and physical health, and making healthy choices.
  • Mental health issues arising in high school can follow a student to college and beyond. Addressing issues now can pay dividends in the future.