Feb 08, 2019
By Megan O'Connor, CEO
In our uber-connected, fast-changing world, there’s no shortage of stressors for humans of any age. For kids and young people with developing brains, who are still learning to process emotions and make sense of their identity and environment, it can be extra difficult.
More and more students today are suffering from mental disorders—one in five in the United States (according to NPR) and one in eight in England (per the UK’s National Health Service). For these young people, psychological, social, and emotional struggles are real barriers to educational success. But turning off the outside world isn’t an option. Instead, educators are helping students to look inward.
A new approach to tackling mental health issues head-on is being tested out around the globe—in-classroom mindfulness curriculum. This week The New York Times reported on a study being undertaken in the UK on teaching mindfulness to students. Many schools in the United States have done the same. The goal? Introduce issues around mental health beginning in elementary school, along with teaching coping skills like relaxation techniques and breathing exercises, to reduce stigma and start to uncover what works best for young people in a world of rapid change.
I believe that confronting these troubling trends in the classroom—heightening awareness, and offering tools and techniques for treatment—is a key preventative measure against social and emotional struggles for students. But it’s only a part of the puzzle. Unfortunately it doesn’t address the needs of tutors, who report that 70% of the students they work with in tutoring sessions are suffering from anxiety, depression, or other social and emotional disorders.
All too often, tutors arrive on the scene after a student is already suffering from social or emotional problems and is starting to slip academically because of it. The slipping performance is a symptom of a bigger issue—students may be dealing with anxiety in a particular subject because they tested badly, or are scared about speaking up and sharing in a classroom environment that can feel intimidatingly public. But since the underlying problems aren’t recognized until the grades suffer, tutoring often comes too late. As a result, the job of the tutor changes. They’re tasked not only with teaching, but also with being advocates for students in need.
If we are going to make true progress in supporting students suffering from an inability to cope with their emotions, we need to be giving tutors the tools to address these issues. And parents need to acknowledge that their students’ tutor is there just as much for improvement in academic performance as they are for support in navigating emotions.
One of our tutors at Clark talks about the students he works with in their junior year of high school. Junior year is famously stressful. Test stakes are high, grades are under scrutiny, college applications are on the horizon—and parents, however well-meaning, often aren’t equipped to support the emotional needs of young adults at this age and stage in their lives. In the end, the numbers are staggering: the majority of the students that this tutor works with in math, science, and test prep suffer from anxiety during what they consider the most overwhelming year of their academic lives.
While in-classroom mindfulness exercises are a step in the right direction, generalized programs don’t work for every individual, and overburdened classroom teachers can’t notice everything about everyone. As our tutor observes, “Anxiety is very personal. It’s hard to tell students in a group setting why they shouldn’t be anxious. You can really only relate to students one at a time in this state.” He applies specific strategies to working with anxious students, like acknowledging success as much as possible throughout the process of prepping for a test, and demystifying the test itself through repetition and practice.
In the best tutoring setups, education works as a system, where teachers and tutors communicate concerns and progress to each other to ensure student success as a team. Tutors who work with anxious students can hone in on the causes, and take feedback to the classroom teacher. They can help teachers take into account the pressures students have in other classes, for example, or let them know if an overstressed student is facing multiple tests in different subjects in the same day.
When I look at what we do at Clark, we’re enabling more tutors to work with more students, and facilitating the communications between the whole team—students, parents, teachers, tutors. And that goes beyond pure academics, to take into account the mental, social, and emotional aspects of learning and wellness, as well. As the old adage goes, it takes a village. We’re helping to power the village.