FARGO — 'We're in a moment where anxiety is running rampant, spreading like an epidemic among adolescents. The rise of anxiety is burdening schools and counselors, scaring parents, and harming kids, creating dangerous pathways to depression and substance abuse' - Harvard Graduate School of Education.
With that quote, the Harvard Graduate School of Education is telling parents and teachers what they might have suspected all along: Our kids are more stressed out than ever. It's no secret that students today are experiencing higher levels of anxiety than previous generations. In 2019, more than 1 in 3 teens meet criteria for an anxiety disorder. Surveys conducted in both North Dakota and Minnesota show an increase in teens feeling "hopeless and sad" and entertaining thoughts of suicide.
"Learners certainly experience plenty of anxieties, whether it be from home, friends or the school," said Shawn Krinke, a teacher at Northern Cass School in Hunter, N.D. "Very few days go by that I don't interact with learners and their anxieties, as well as my own."
Along with the higher incidences of anxiety in today's teens, they're also twice as likely as their parents were at their age to seek professional help for it.
"We do work with teens struggling with anxiety," said Moorhead (Minn.) High School Counselor Maret Kashmark. "We all have anxiety. More and more teens are willing to talk about mental health or bring their friends down and talk about mental health."
How does the anxiety make itself known in the classroom?
- have more school absences
- have trouble concentrating or focusing when they do make it to class
- procrastinate turning work in because they don't think it's good enough
Ironically, grades might suffer, not because the students don't care, but because perfectionism that used to motivate them gets out of hand and causes them to avoid school or homework altogether.
So teachers, like Krinke, are being proactive to get students into the right mindset.
Krinke teaches sophomore and junior English, AP Language and Composition, creative writing and Mass Media — but with a twist.
"This year, I've made a personal goal to incorporate SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) into all of my curriculum in a relevant way," Krinke says.
According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, "Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions."
Krinke says three days a week he starts each class with an SEL activity, including Mindfulness Monday, Wednesday Wisdom and Feelgood Friday.
"Mindfulness Monday focuses on strengthening our minds as a muscle. We work to be comfortable in the present moment, recognize and acknowledge our thoughts and feelings, and notice our bodily sensations," he says. "For Wednesday Wisdom, I provide a meaningful quotation to the learners and ask them to reflect on it for five minutes in writing. On Feelgood Friday, learners spend the first five minutes of class writing three gratitudes."
Sophomore Brock Carpenter, a three-sport athlete, says in the beginning of the year in particular, he was feeling a lot of stress in the classroom. He says Mindfulness Monday, Wednesday Wisdom and Feelgood Friday put him on the right track.
"These techniques have helped me throughout the year by just stopping and noticing when the stress can be too much. It helps me get my mind off sports, school, family and friendships. It’s also another way to control your breathing to calm your mind," he says.
Carpenter says he thinks more teachers should implement these exercises and techniques because if a student is stressed out, they're less likely to focus and understand class lectures and homework.
While Krinke says they have made great strides within traditional learning centers, one of the most impactful SEL experiences has come from an SEL elective that Northern Cass High School offered this year. He says thanks to the hard work of two counselors, one from the elementary level and one from the high school level, the school was awarded a large grant to implement a specific, year-long SEL elective, in coordination with Central Cass High School, Casselton, N.D. The counselors then filled the elective with volunteers interested in SEL, then asked Krinke to be the lead learning center educator.
"Currently, we have 12 learners who chose this elective, and we’ve been working all semester on various SEL objectives — our main goal being to educate the Northern Cass community on creating habits that lead to a happy and healthy life," he says.
No matter the specific strategy counselors and teachers use to help students with anxiety, they say it starts by building strong relationships with them — getting to know them as individuals and figuring what might work for them.
"Personally, I work with teens on identifying the parts of their brain that impact anxiety and why they are feeling the way they do. I use our conversations as ways to teach students skills to manage their anxiety and mental health," Kashmark says.
Krinke says he's seen firsthand that students seem to appreciate the efforts made to address their mental well being.
"They'll often ask for a mindfulness moment or talk about our practices with other people," he says. "It's been very moving to see how they've grown throughout the process."
Other ideas for educators to help students with anxiety
According to Kids Health.com, there are a few other strategies teachers might want to try to help an anxious student learn.
- talking with parents or guardians to learn about strategies that work at home
- setting up independent study if the student is self-motivated
- allowing students extra time to do work
- checking that their assignments are written down correctly
- giving them daily schedules
- modifying assignments and reducing workloads when necessary
- promoting relaxation techniques and allowing for breaks throughout day
- encouraging school attendance, which may require shortened school days and modified class schedules
- allowing them a safe space and ability to go speak with a counselor, if needed
- easing anxiety in the classroom by pairing with a peer
Tomorrow on Generation Anxiety: Can anxiety be cured?