Speaking Out: Needed: More Health Resources and Support

By James H. VanSciver
Principal, January/February 2012
A long-held notion about public school educators is that while they deliver quality instruction, they must also serve as surrogate parents, helping their students sift through the malaise that so often marks the transformation from childhood to adulthood. Today’s students need assistance with conflict resolution, peer pressure, decision-making and an assortment of other challenges limited only by one’s imagination.
As current economic conditions place more families in dire financial straits, and as the level of poverty continues to grow in some schools, we must consider whether public schools and those who labor in them can adequately manage the growing number and variety of student needs. Indeed, teachers and administrators face a “perfect storm” of mental and physical health issues in their schools. As the lingering effects of the 2008 recession force public assistance agencies to “tighten their belts” by cutting staff and reducing services, that same economic pressure challenges families as they attempt to access critical social resources to support their children.
The fact is that teachers and administrators have never received training as psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, or mental health workers. As they continue to grapple with the needs of students born mostly out of poverty, meeting this challenge grows increasingly more difficult.
Diagnosis: Falling Test Scores
Students now come to school with such issues as mood disorders, bipolar symptoms, select mute, reactions to lead paint poisoning, ADHD, generalized anxiety, post traumatic stress, separation anxiety, emotional disabilities, autism, Asperger’s syndrome, Marfan syndrome, Tourette syndrome, depression, learning disabilities, legal blindness, and juvenile absence epilepsy, to name a few. Some of these students receive special education services; some don’t. Some get medication; some don’t. Some receive medication support but don’t take their medication. They all arrive at school each day.
Consider the plight of the classroom teacher who attempts to deliver instruction to a group of 25 to 30 students while dealing with one or more students with one or more of the aforementioned challenges. This teacher begins to feel the drag of constantly working with a child whose needs far exceed his or her ability to satisfy them. The student constantly usurps crucial instructional time from the teacher and classmates. Often this results in falling test scores in a high-stakes assessment school culture.
After several attempts to rectify the situation, the teacher elects to refer the student to the office, where the administrator might have slightly more training in how to meet this student’s needs than does the referring teacher. The administrator schedules meetings, initiates discussions, solicits parent involvement, and implements plans.
Still, the problem persists.
The educators reach out to social agencies. Complex schedules cause lengthy delays in the process. Even so, school leaders once again broach discussions, invite parent involvement, draft plans, and put solutions in place. Still, the problem persists.
Increased Support Needed
This dilemma unfolds time and again in our public schools, too often with multiple students in the same classes. Stakeholders overlook this dynamic as they press educators to have students demonstrate their academic prowess by performing well on high-stakes assessments. The results can lead to a growing number of teachers leaving the profession as they find themselves unable to respond to the ever-increasing cry for higher expectations and the never-ending flow of students with profound needs. A walk into a classroom with one or more students with these kinds of needs will reveal a teacher struggling to maintain control and deliver a lesson. A walk around the school will show administrators, counselors, and secretaries forgoing daily responsibilities in an attempt to prevent the presenting student’s disruptive nature from escalating. The old paradigm simply isn’t working.
As the public continues to demand superior results from our schools, they must provide more and different types of support for the most needy of our students. It is time to staff our schools with behavior therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists or confront the reality that the “least restrictive environment” edict may be victimizing the educational opportunities for a majority of our students.
Increased mental, behavioral, and physical health challenges among students—combined with reduced public resources and a lack of teacher training—is threatening effective classroom instruction. Without more resources and support, our teachers will do less instructing and our students will do less achieving.
Here’s Your Chance to Speak Out
The author presents an argument in favor of adding mental health practitioners to school staffs and providing support for teachers and principals as they grapple with increased mental, behavioral, and physical health challenges among students. Is this possible in today’s economic environment? Share your thoughts on the Principals’ Office blog.
James H. VanSciver is principal of Mace’s Lane Middle School in Cambridge, Maryland.
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