Sunday, February 15, 2015

Change by Addition

I still remember the murmurs.  The huddled discussions in the hallway and the closed door meetings. I bet you can visualize the scene in your head.  Adults whispering to one another in hushed tones.  

And what was the topic?

The child that we all feel fear for.  The child that for little to no reason explodes.  The child that withdraws and is noticeably depressed.  The child that shows ZERO remorse.  The child that has an emotional impairment.

During my time as a classroom teacher and now, principal, my most challenging issues have easily been students with an emotional impairment.  I can vividly remember each and every case.  I can still remember the meetings that lasted month after month after month with hardly any action...until...

the blowup!

A few years ago I dealt with my first Emotionally Impaired student.  I saw what the blow-ups did to the student's peers.  I saw what the outbursts did to teachers.  I felt the anxiety day in and day out.  I didn't want to restrain, I tried my best to talk the student through it.  But all I could do, all any of us could do was try our best.  

And there in lies the rub.  When you are in the midst of difficult situations most people try their best. But, is your best talk or action?

My first experience with mental illness scared me.  

*  When I was called into the classroom after the student threw scissors.  

*  When I received word that students had evacuated the classroom and the student was throwing desks.

*  When the student had to be carried to the office by multiple adults.

But, when I went into the storage area in the gym and saw the student's eyes, I was scared for him.  I saw the darkness in his eyes.  I didn't see the same boy I typically saw.  He couldn't control it, the mental illness controlled him.  That day he hit me with a baseball bat more than 50 times.  At no point was I scared for myself...I was always scared for my students and staff.  

Until that happened, change was very slow.  My experiences have taught me that change occurs when something EXTREME happens.  As adults we close doors, we talk, we complete rating scales, we observe the student and we talk some more.  If the talk doesn't turn into action then I call it a waste.

So I ask, are we reactive or proactive?

We weren't and still are not equipped to handle volatile mental disorders. Eventually the student began to receive help.  But not until the outbursts were witnessed by hundreds. We are doing our kids a disservice by not providing timely intervention.

Let's take a look at the trends, statistics and research

*  1 out of 5 children are diagnosed with a mental health problem
*  The onset of mental illness often occurs between the ages of 7-11 years of age
*  21% of low-income children between 6-17 years of age have mental health problems
*  70% of youth in a juvenile justice system have a diagnosed mental health disorder
*  80% of children in need of mental health services do not receive them

Let's take a peek at our Nations Suicide Rate:  In 1986 the Suicide Rate was at an alarming 12.5%. At this point the need for support to all people increased.  As a nation we saw an increased surge of psychiatrists and psychologists.  This did have a positive impact, and by the year 2000 the Suicide Rate dropped to 10.0%.  Things were trending in a positive way.  Yet, from 2001 to 2013 we have taken a major step back. As of 2013 the Suicide Rate was at 12.6%...higher than the "alarming" 12.5% of 1986.

Let me ask you, what group would you imagine has the highest rate of Suicide?  I was surprised to discover...white males made up 70% of all suicides in 2013.  

Research states only 20% of children with mental health disorders are identified and receive mental health service/support.

The bottom line is Mental Illness and Emotional Impairments are real issues in our society.  The articles and research clearly support that this is not an issue that can be ignored or wished away.  The longer children go undiagnosed, or worse, untreated, the more likely that they will end up hurting themselves or others.

Let me clearly state that I do not believe we should test everyone.  I'm not a proponent of screening the masses and shoving pills in children.  That's not what this is about. When it comes to medication I believe that is between a doctor and the parents.  What I do believe in is adding supports to our youth.  

I bet there are some schools and districts that have strong supports in place to assist students with mental health disorders and the child's family.  But I venture to guess the majority of schools in our nation are simply not equipped to fully support mental health disorders and emotional impairments. Two years ago I was asked this question by a second year education major, "What certification/minor would you believe is in highest demand?"  Without blinking I told her, "If you have an EI certification and you are good at what you can pick where you want to work."  This advice doesn't prove that I own a crystal ball...this advice was simply me seeing an alarming trend.  Mental Health is on the rise and programs to support these students are nearly impossible to access.  It truly feels as though EI programs for schools are "Gate Keepers".  Ultimately they decide who gets in and who doesn't.  Let's be honest, it's a numbers game.  

Why Such Challenges?

Over the last five years I see a few specific hurdles to assisting students with mental health disorders. 

The first hurdle is parents.  As a parent myself I understand.  I've sat in doctor's offices and discussed medication.  I've gone to psychologists and discussed the pros and cons.  I DO understand.  But what I don't understand is the thought process that doing nothing will fix the problem.  Unfortunately that is what I most often see and hear.  Parents feel their child will grow out of it or they need more academic support.  I say this, "Hogwash!" Schools that I know don't make decisions on one event. Schools that I know bring a TEAM to the table and try multiple supports.  Yet parent push back is nearly inevitable.

The second hurdle is programs.  This is a big one.  Many schools do not have Emotional Impairment classrooms.  If you are faced with a lack of programming I would hope that you would seek assistance from outside agencies.  Other options are partnerships with other districts or hiring specialists/consultants to help with both the child and parents.  But with all that being said, you still may be facing a shortage of spots or programs.  This is where I think many schools are.  My suggestion:  Create the program!  Yes, I said it, create the program that helps our MOST AT-RISK kids.  

The third hurdle is money.  I understand that programs have costs attached to them.  I can't simply wave a wand and pay for the programs.  But what I can say is that if we do not put something in place this growing epidemic will continue to increase.

I often wonder why is it so difficult to help our kids?  I think I can speak for most of us and say, "We're all on the same team."  But we aren't working together in an efficient manner when it comes to our Emotionally Impaired kids.  Mental Health Disorders are not going fact they are on the rise.  

This post is a true reflection of many schools in America.  We all have encountered the student that is showing clear signs of a mental illness.  How will we work together to help our Most At-Risk students?

If you find yourself struggling to support Mental Illness or Emotional Impairment I encourage you to share this post and the following articles.  This is a CALL TO ACTION for key stakeholders to put the necessary programs in place and support our students with mental illnesses.

Many Teens Struggle with Untreated Mental Illness

Children's Mental Health

The Emotional Well-Being of Our Nation's Youth


Monday, February 16th:  President's Day No School
Tuesday, February 17th:  TEAM meeting 9am
Tuesday, February 17th:  3pm grades K-3 Girl Scout Interest meeting
Wednesday, February 18th:  Grades 3-5 Assembly in the gym at 8:45am
Wednesday, February 18th:  PLC time meet with 3rd grade
Wednesday, February 18th:  String Team
Thursday, February 19th:  CP Federal Credit Union 2pm
Friday, February 20th:  Birthday Luncheon

Articles Worth Reading:

What If... @DaisyDyerDuerr

Is Leadership Style Born...Or Made? @DJrSchug

Voxer 101 @Joe_Mazza

School Improvement VS We Suck Less @curriculumblog

Piling On? @jonharper70bd

It Started With a Teacher @GustafsonBrad

When Characters Won't Wait @AmeDyckman

Get Organized...Digitally @8Amber8

Are We Failing Extroverts? @edrethink

20 Habits Happy Couples Have (but never talk about) @marcandangel

Videos Worth Watching:

Longshot (11 min)

She said what? (1 min)

American Kids try Breakfast foods... (3 min)

SpaceJam? (1 min)

Hashtag - Why I'm Single (2 min)


  1. Ben, this is an issue that has been whispered about behind closed doors and in hushed tones in the hallways, teachers' lounges, and offices in a school for far too long without action. Thank you for bringing to light an important topic. I, like you, don't understand the mindset of doing nothing and expecting change or improvement. Let's tackle this obstacle head on and DO something about it in this country.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this post and hearing the school perspective. You see, I am "that" parent - the parent of the child who struggles. I want to assure you that there are a great many of us parents out there who are choosing not to ignore the challenges our children are facing - and even though at times it may appear like we are doing nothing, it could be a matter of we have tried to access services and either been told we do not qualify or are put on a loooonnnnggg waitlist. Sometimes the services that are offered do not fit with the services we NEED (like respite!).

    My husband and I have done our best to work with our child's school teams over the years, but I also know it's not only parent push back - we have experienced school push back as well. We have had situations where the professionals make assumptions that we are not parenting our child properly, or that somehow we can parent our child out of a mental health disorder. Sometimes it is as simple as refusing to recognize that what is happening IS a mental health disorder. That is when we are in for big problems. I advocate for preventative services, to look at what it is that families do need for supports and then provide it to them.

    It is tragic that the statistic of the number of kids who experience mental health disorders and the number of kids that receive help has not changed over several years. That in itself is indicative that we need to take a long hard look at making a change in how we view and support families who have children with mental health challenges.

    I invite you to take a read of my blog, Champions for Community Mental Wellness, and in particular my post titled "I am 'that' Parent". The comments on the post are inspiring and heartwrenching all at the same time. We have so many children and families who are struggling and needing support and understanding.

    Thanks again for this thought provoking post.

    ~Karen Copeland

  3. Ben,
    Very well stated and sobering post. Love the "Sound Cloud" feature on your latest posts. Another way to effectively communicate with other educators!