It's a growing problem in our schools. About 10 percent of the school population -- or 9-to-13 million children -- struggle with mental health problems. In a typical classroom of twenty, chances are good that one or two students are dealing with serious psychosocial stressors related to poverty, domestic violence, abuse and neglect or a psychiatric disorder.
Students with emotional and behavioral challenges are performing poorly both academically and behaviorally in our schools. One recent study found that students with these challenges, in either a special education or full inclusion classrooms, made no significant progress in reading, math or behavior over the course of a full school year. Furthermore, they were more likely to be suspended for long periods and more likely to change teachers, classes and schools.
Why are these students doing so poorly? One major factor is that teachers are overwhelmed. Their immense responsibilities include diversifying instruction, preparing students for standardized tests and learning to teach new curriculums. These hard-working, dedicated professionals often feel ill prepared, hijacked by students with mental health issues and challenging behavior in their classroom.
The truth is teachers aren't properly prepared. Most degree programs include one or possibly two courses focused on teaching students with mental health disabilities and subsequent challenging behaviors. This leaves teachers to learn on the job in a busy classroom. It can be like learning to drive on the expressway at rush hour.
Most schools are equipped with full or part-time school psychologists and counselors who have the training to understand and work with these hard to reach students. However, these professionals are often buried under testing, paperwork demands, and crises. These mental health clinicians try to give support and training to a panicked teacher, but that can only happen when they are available. On average, they are able to give direct support to the student once a week at best. Typically a student with mental health needs will see either the psychologist or social worker for 30 minutes at a time. This is a drop in the bucket when faced with the staggering needs some students have.
Special educators have varied training in the area of students with mental health issues and their subsequent challenging behaviors. Most coursework is dedicated only to instruction and assessment. The special educators consult to the teacher if the student is identified as having special needs and is on an Individual Education Program (IEP). In addition, they may offer some assistance if the student isn't officially on their caseload.
No matter how good their intentions, they are constrained by being spread too thin.
So it's the teacher who has the most responsibility as the ever-present adult force in the student's life. In an elementary classroom, for example, the teacher is interacting with a student six hours a day, five days a week. This is significantly more time than any other adult in the child's weekday life. By contrast, the school counselor is with the student half an hour a week. If the family has the resources the child may see an outside therapist for less than an hour once a month. After work, even the student's parents have only three or four hours to spend with him before bedtime.
The question is: Should a teacher be the person who fosters a crucial positive relationship, understands the student's behavior and be the source of therapeutic interventions? Whether the answer is yes or no, the fact is they are placed in this role by the reality of the student population in their classrooms and the fact that they are one of the driving forces in the child's life.
Gaining an understanding of mental health challenges, learning to intervene and reduce disrupting behaviors while teaching these struggling students effectively can be doable. If teachers use psychological principles, seen through a behavioral lens, in an accessible, easy to implement way, they can competently understand and teach these hard-to-reach students.
Teachers are on the frontlines, day in and day out. But if they aren't given the proper training, thousands of teachable moments, positive teacher-student interactions, reading and math successes, and learned positive behaviors will be forever lost for our most vulnerable students.
Jessica Minahan, M.Ed, BCBA, is a board-certified behavior analyst and special educator in the Newton, Massachusetts public school system. She is the co-author of The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students, written with Nancy Rappaport, M.D. (website: jessicaminahan.com and twitter: @jessica_minahan)