Ways for Caregivers to Support Children & Teens who are Struggling at School

Ways to Support Children & Teens Struggling at SchoolAs a parent, knowing how to best support children and teens who are struggling at school can feel overwhelming. It can also be frightening to send your child to school especially considering the collective trauma families are experiencing from the pandemic, social unrest, war, economic disasters, and *school shootings. Parents and caregivers are often seeking support and resources to help manage their own responses, while also trying to best support their children’s mental health before it arises to the level of a crisis.

Professionals-say-Minnesota-schools-are-facing-a-mental-health-crisis. As a mental health professional who was working within the St. Paul public schools during a time of a school-counseling-shortage, the need has only increased. Minnesota’s ratio of school counselors per student is 1-to-650 according to psychologist and researcher Daniel Knewitz. This falls significantly below the national average of 1-to-424 and the recommended ratio of 1-to-250.

There was a significant need for school-based mental health services before the pandemic. Many school-based providers would quickly fill capacity, and this need has only increased. By highlighting the mental health needs of our students and taking steps to prioritize their mental health I am hopeful that we can work together to help support students impacted by stressors, trauma, and collective trauma.

Teens have been identified as being impacted hard by collective trauma for several reasons that take into account their development including limited perspective, the influence of social media, and underdeveloped effective coping strategies.

In response to collective trauma, fear, and anxiety are common symptoms. Grief and depression are also common. It is important to get early intervention services to help prevent the development of more severe or persistent anxiety or depression-related diagnoses. Students may be at increased risk of suicide and turn to unhelpful coping strategies such as substance use, self-injury, disordered eating, or other self-destructive behaviors.

Parents and caregivers are important foundational supports. Working together, therapists can help build upon student and family strengths while also connecting to additional supports.

I’d like to share with you some strategies to help support students who are struggling:

Provide consistency, routine, and a positive relationship with your student.

These are often underestimated but foundational strategies that help provide s sense of safety and stability.

*The National Child Traumatic Stress Network offers specific tips after a school shooting: https://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/resources//parents_guidelines_for_helping_youth_after_the_recent_shooting.pdf

Provide opportunities to disconnect (and reconnect) in healthy ways.

Taking a break from social media and having opportunities to step away from a triggering environment and connect with nature, spend time with family/ friends, and have healthy physical outlets while also having fun is key.

Model and practice coping skills.

How do you manage your physiological responses to stress? Regularly engaging in practices such as deep breathing and mindful meditation helps calm the nervous system. What about your thoughts and emotions? Having soothing strategies that incorporate the senses such as music and healthy outlets to express emotions is important.

Access Supports within the Schools.

If you have any concerns, your child’s teacher can be a resource on observations at school and strategies to support them. The social worker and/ or counselor is a great contact for educational and mental health-related sources. Students may be eligible for additional support as part of a 504 Plan and Individual Educational Plan (IEP). Many schools have school-based mental health providers which is a great option as they can collaborate care with your child’s support team and often practice skills within the environment.

Seek Outpatient Services, including Telehealth at the School.

Outpatient therapy is often provided once a week in an office setting or via telehealth. CARE Counseling provides talk therapy at the outpatient level. Many parents and caregivers seek out services in person after school hours, before school starts, and on days when school is out. One option that is often overlooked is providing services during the school day by telehealth. Your child’s therapist can work with support staff, provided with your written consent, to arrange a time/ space to meet during the school day. This can be arranged over a time such as a lunch hour or elective class.

Ask about Wrap-Around Supports.

Wrap-around supports include a team of professionals who can help support your student. For students with more significant mental health concerns, this is considered essential and may include case managers, tutors, academic advisors, skill workers, counselors and social workers, family therapists, medication managers, mentors, and coaches.

Written By: Charlotte Johnson, MA, LPCC

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