When it comes to stress, no student is immune. How a student adapts and copes with stressful situations determines the success of that student.
That was the message of Focus 203 sessions held Wednesday at Naperville Central High School and Thursday at Grace Methodist Church. The working meetings were outgrowths of Naperville School District 203’s Future Focus initiative, which gets the community actively participating in the process to address the needs of students now and in the future.
Rachel Weiss, supervisor of social work services in District 203, and Naperville Central social worker Amy Barth, set the stage for discussions on the social and emotional health of students in the district before giving those in attendance the chance to tackle what they deemed the greatest concern for parents and the community.
The goal was to identify priorities to develop additional programming and support for parents, students, educators and mental health providers.
Weiss said today’s students are feeling the pressure to succeed and fear they are not living up to their parents’ expectations. In addition to family stressors, students face social pressures from peers, schoolmates, social media and images they see in other forms of media.
What students are lacking is resiliency, the ability to “roll with the punches, the ability to problem solve and the ability to regulate their emotions,” Weiss said. The problem extends beyond the borders of Naperville because colleges are reporting the same problems.
“This is a societal issue,” she added.
The good news
Mental health professionals are seeing a rise in a variety of issues. Quoting figures from Linden Oaks in Naperville, Weiss said as many as 20 percent of children suffer from a behavioral health disorder and 8 percent of children ages 13-18 develop an anxiety disorder. Eleven percent of adolescents develop a depressive disorder by age 18.
Weiss said students facing basic stress or dealing with an undiagnosed mental health disorder sometimes turn to self-medicating with drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism to relieve the anxiety.
The good news, she said, is that early intervention and teaching kids how to handle stress and build resiliency can promote long-term student success.
That is why District 203 is working to incorporate more social and emotional learning into the curriculum.
Weiss said when students are able to understand and manage their emotions, student academic and testing achievement increases, student anxiety is lower, and the number of discipline issues drop.
Barth said parents and teachers need to learn the difference between typical adolescent behavior and symptoms of mental health issues, whether it be anxiety, depression, substance abuse or frequent complaints of headaches or stomach pain. Someone needs to step in when parents and teachers start to see significant changes in thinking, emotions, behavior and physical well-being, changes in managing relationships, or changes in daily responsibilities, such as class attendance, school work, personal care or after-school activities.
Barth urged parents to talk to trusted friends or contact the school’s support staff or a pediatrician. She said sometimes just talking about a situation will give clarity.
Most of all, she said parents must give up stigmas associated with mental health concerns.
Barth noted that when children are small, play dates are the perfect opportunity for parents to bounce parenting issues off each other.
As the child gets older, parents have less time and topics become harder to discuss, so parents feel isolated. “The truth is, these issues are common, and they can and do affect many of us,” Barth said.
As a start, Barth suggests parents create a parenting plan that is consistent, united and predictable. Plans should include givens (such as food and shelter), non-negotiables (such as chores or religious activities) and negotiables (cell phone use or ability to attend activities or visit friends).
During breakout sessions, educators, mental health professionals, parents and other community members had the chance to consider what were the top social and emotional concerns facing students. Issues ran the gamut from the need for students to feel safe in school to kids learning to set boundaries when it comes to social media and video games.
The various groups urged District 203 to improve communication between schoosl and parents, have schools embrace the diversity of students and teach students how to be more inclusive, offer more parent education courses that also can be viewed online, provide more professional development for teachers to help the identify issues and teach students problem-solving skills so that they can resolve conflict themselves or deal with failure.
Superintendent Dan Bridges said the meetings are just the start of a working dialogue with the community on the social and emotional health of students. The district will use the information gathered to define priorities and improvement strategies, he said.