Learning Solutions to Combat Rise of School Phobia, Anxiety, and Depression Plaguing Students

The rise in anxiety and depression among adolescents in the U.S. has been on a steady incline for years. Its prevalence has even sparked a controversial Netflix series last year called “13 Reasons Why”, based on a YA book of the same name about a young school girl’s suicide and the letter she leaves behind. Anxiety disorders affect 25% of teenagers, a percentage that has risen over the past 30 years and is showing no signs of slowing down. The spike in depression and anxiety can be attributed to changes in students’ responsibilities, lifestyle, and upbringing, compounded with cultural and societal changes. In order to fully understand the emotional limitations students are facing today, we first need to examine the factors that play a role in contributing to the problem. iTutor’s Director of Academic Services, Hayley Spira-Bauer, and Academic Director, Gina Spagnoli, presented this year at the 16th annual NYCASE Summer Institute on learning solutions for students with school phobia, anxiety, and depression. Here are some reasons emotional disorders are on the rise among adolescents:

Changes in Upbringing   

Experts suggest that “helicopter parenting” is a result of a shift in parenting culture that abruptly went from caution to fear during the 80s. The culprit could be attributed to high-profile kidnappings during that era, the birth of cable news, alongside the continual spike in participation rates of women entering the workforce during that era, and the need to entrust their children to others.  From the 80’s latchkey kids whose parents had to work full-time jobs, and had little parental supervision, to our generation of helicopter parents who give up careers to devote their whole lives, and individuality, to raising their children different from how their parents did, we have to wonder if this ripple effect gave birth to a generation of over-parenting parents. Helicopter parents are merely a product of their environment, and while their hyper-vigilance is well-intended it can actually foster narcissism in adolescents. When a child comes to realize they’re not the center of the universe as they are at home, they become disillusioned and disappointed. This creates a greater chance for the child to develop an emotional or behavioral problem. Over-controlling parenting leads to a child’s inability to manage their emotions or behavior. It’s said that the more a child is coddled early in life, they’re likely to have greater difficulty in gaining independence and developing relationships with their peers.  

Cultural Influence   

Experts suggest society’s increasing materialistic values over the years have deteriorated personal relationships and taken a toll on families. The increased value on money and personal luxuries over relationships can be linked to increased anxiety in both adults and teens. The false standard of perfection they see on social media can perpetuate feelings of falling behind their peers, thus instilling anxiety and resulting in the onset or intensifying of an emotional disorder.

Changes in Lifestyle   

A large number of teens are falling behind which keeps them in school longer, therefore delaying their entry into the workforce and extending the unstructured teenage years into the 20s. Divorce rates for first marriages are on the rise and are even higher for subsequent marriages–both directly affecting the children involved.  Statistics tell us the story of the emotional impact divorce has on children, directly affecting their emotional well-being as well as their learning abilities. There’s also a myriad of drugs available and easily attainable to teens today. Stack on the hardships and negative influences students face in their personal lives coupled with teenage angst, it’s inevitable that teens will experience increased feelings of anxiety, and even depression. Mental and emotional instability perpetuate a limitation in one’s ability to learn and be emotionally aware–especially in teens.

Changes in Ideology   

Adolescents today are raised to believe that they’re invincible and can do anything with just hope in their pocket. While this seems like a positive attribute of today’s culture where young people are told to dream big dreams and strive to achieve their goals, it’s not enough for the young boy without the innate skills of an athlete who believes he can one day play in the NBA. He is likely to suffer disappointment when reality doesn’t support his dreams. Anxiety and depression can easily befall a teen when their plans, whether be it for a desired profession or team placement in sports, don’t come to fruition. Hayley says, “Despite the many catalysts behind rising emotional disorders in teens, strategies have been developed and implemented to combat them.”

Here are some ways we can help students navigate through the rough terrains of an anxiety-ridden 21st century:

Foster a School Environment with an Outlet   

Research shows that free play and exploration give children the opportunity to learn how to solve their own problems, feel in control of their lives, and develop their own interests. A creative arts program can help to bolster academic prowess, and build confidence.

Develop a Social-Emotional Learning Program at School  

By adopting a SEL program at the whole-school level to teach mindfulness, and incorporate social and emotional learning within the classroom, significant strides will be made in thwarting the spike in emotional disorders plaguing students. Gina says, “By teaching students to manage stress, prioritize emotions, and mentally switch between tasks, we’re helping them learn at a young age how to cope with feeling overwhelmed and better adapt to change. This shared terminology for labeling and managing students’ emotions helps to ensure they will understand and respect each other when external stressors arise. We need to teach the heart before the mind.” 

Establish Connections with the Family   

Arrange accommodations with parents in an IEP (Individualized Education Program) that can help aid the student to be successful in school. Identify the student’s stressors and find solutions to help minimize their impact. Smaller class sizes, extended time for assignments and assessments are some examples of solutions that can help facilitate a student’s success. 

Connect Student with a Mental Health Counselor  

Talking through problems and learning how to cope with difficult life events and intense emotions can help a student overcome some of the limitations of an emotional disorder. Guidance from a mental health counselor can resonate with a student and help them to make strides in the classroom.

How iTutor Can Help 

Jessica exhibited signs of school refusal early upon starting 9th grade. After being evaluated by a medical professional she was officially placed on homebound instruction for an extended length of time. For ten months Jessica participated in distance learning with one of iTutor’s state-certified teachers until she expressed a greater interest in returning to school.  When she was ready, the school worked with iTutor to develop a school reintroduction plan, which transitioned Jessica back into the classroom with her peers over a three-month period. She began her transition by taking one class in the school’s main office, and the remainder of her courses were conducted at home with her iTutor educator online. Over time she was able to transition from two classes to three, and ultimately made her way back into the classroom for full school days. 

If a medical professional deems a student’s disorder to be severe and advises they be placed on homebound instruction, iTutor works with schools to develop a plan for the student’s re-entry into the classroom by setting goals, expectations, and deadlines. Gradual reentry may begin with the student arriving at the school on day one, but not enter or visit the front office until day two. The student will identify which class they’re most comfortable with and perhaps stay for that one class on day three. Progressive reentry over a 1–2 week period may be the most effective to ensure the student is acclimated to the school environment without feeling overwhelmed.  

Parents and educators have to work together to thwart the growing epidemic of our anxiety-ridden generation. The mental health of adolescents is the determining factor on how well a student will do in school. There are no shortcuts to educating the whole child.  Through the teachings of civility and emotional awareness, schools will foster a healthy and safe environment where learning can remain a constant force.

Looking for additional resources to share with parents considering homebound instruction for their child? Please download our white paper, What Every Parent Should Know about Homebound Instruction, which provides parents with information on the new advances in homebound instruction.