Sunday, June 22, 2014

student anxiety

Every now and then I start writing a tweet and try to jam a blog post into 140 characters... the solution, of course, is to write a blog post!

I have been teaching for 19 years and over the last dozen or so I have noticed an interesting trend in my students:  an increase in student anxiety. I am hard-pressed to come up with a single reason why this is the case, nor have I made an effort to quantify or document this trend in any formal way. I am also at a loss to say whether what I'm seeing are anxiety-like symptoms or actual disorders that have been diagnosed (or should be diagnosed). I'm no expert on the subject although I know firsthand what anxiety does to someone because my wife suffers from anxiety -- it was her suggestion to include that! That leaves me with some observations and opinions. The reader may notice that I don't offer many solutions to the anxiety factors I list below. Maybe I can follow up with what I've tried over the years, or what my school does to address mental health, but for a thoughtful read on how student "weaknesses" are often an invitation for educators to develop empathy, focus on strengths, and work through the anxiety, try some of the blog posts tagged "relationships" on Chris Wejr's site. Here's what I've seen as the basis of growing "general" anxiety among my Grade 9-12 students in a public high school in Prince George, BC:
  • ACCEPTANCE. More openness in talking/dealing with mental health in recent years has allowed students to "come out" with their issues and seek help -- "anxiety" as a condition (for better or worse) has less stigma and is even seen as a normal part of many students lives. Anxiety was a hidden condition 15 years ago, and is now part of the parlance of classrooms and staffrooms. In the past, students "put up or shut up" about OCD, anxiety attacks, and much of the fear that comes with anxiety, in part because these issues were poorly understood by the adults in their life, and in part because that's what one did; even before social media altered our external selves we have become a society accustomed to letting our problems spill out in our public persona --in many ways this has been a good thing, a necessary step in establishing LGBTQ rights for example. My school recently had an awesome assembly from a group talking about schizophrenia among other things -- both the presentation and message were well received. 15 years ago, this presentation would not have taken place. Having close family members and many friends who deal with mental health issues, I am glad it's out in the open.
  • SCRUTINY. When I first started teaching, I almost never heard from counsellors or got a run-down on the emotional needs of my students; now, I regularly have counsellors drop by (usually at the beginning of a course) and let me know that so-and-so has anxiety, needs to take breaks, needs a special place to write tests, needs to be allowed to come late and leave early to avoid hallway scenes, needs to be excused from answering questions out loud, etc. -- I think all three of the above points are at play here, plus new diagnostic categories and sensitivity from educators. Anxiety has nuance (expressed in so many ways) and can be paired with other like depression, eating disorders, and so on. Our school system and medical spectrum professions (i.e. including psychologists) have more ways to label and treat mental health issues than ever before.
  • REDIRECTION. Over-diagnosis and over-medication (or self-medication) for anxiety leads many needy teens to grab on to anxiety as a "cover" for the normal angst and hormone-driven craziness of growing up -- it is a reasonably acceptable mental health category which some students find useful as a coping mechanism for diverse teenage problems. Of course their are also many students for who the designation absolutely fits (whether or not they have received help), but there are many more for whom the anxiety is a normal response to what is going on their lives and would go away if they could deal with or get help with the surrounding triggers (such as the other points mentioned here)
  • ROLES. Parenting has shifted, in some ways for the better (again, another blog post), but in other ways towards indulgence, neglect (hands-off or absentee parenting), entitlement, and trading a loving parent-child relationship for some kinds of zero-judgement friendship with their kids. What did Phil Dunphy call it on Modern Family... peerenting? Kids are protected from failure and given smaller and smaller opportunities for self-reliance. I don't get a lot of phone calls from parents but I have noticed more parents that advocate for their children for exempting any kind of consequence for skipped classes, missing work, poor assessments, etc. This is not new, but the scale is ridiculous -- having parents who write a blanket notes excusing all 30 absences is certainly their prerogative, but it is not helping the student any. Both parents and teacher alike are powerful models for kids, even when it doesn't seem like it, and students see more and more modelling of anxiety-causing behaviour in their parents and teachers than in the past. Maybe the adults don't hide it as well as they used to, or maybe our whole society has developed more neuroses.
  • ATTACHMENT. Genuine loving attachment and self-regulation are often lacking -- my students appear to raised by their peers and are missing quality connections to caring adults. It is a gap that many teachers are aware of and try their damnedest to fill, but the need is growing, especially in a city and school like mine with increasingly vulnerable and at-risk students. Gordon Neufeld, Gabor Mate, Stuart Shanker, and others have written about this extensively and found a large audience among educators, so I don't think I need to elaborate
  • STANDARDS. Our education system through its administrators and teachers has gone away from many of the penalties associated with poor attendance and lack of success that have characterized schools for generations. Lates, skipping, incomplete complete work, even drug offences are seen as "related to background problems" and result in more conversation that consequence. I think this is because our system has misinterpreted or misapplied much of the popular literature about punishment and rewards (not to mention assessment), but on that topic I'll again steer the reader to Chris Wejr's posts about penalties to see how this trend can be redeemed. Meanwhile, I have noticed an entire generation that does not take their elders seriously and as result misses out on much of the guidance that might have actually dealt with the anxiety before it claimed their being.
  • TECHNOLOGY. Digital communication, in particular interactive social networking, has created layers of identity-forming possibilities with which the human brain has not yet caught up -- the kinds of interactions student build online are not foreign to the human experience (gossip, flirting, and hazing go back to the Stone Age), but now they are in high-speed, recorded for posterity, and include images. I read an article recently about how teens get anxious about casual prom pics and selfies because they know every image will be used across multiple social media sites to "frame" the individual and narrate the event -- this is "identity work" in real time.  I read this article, too, which had a similar theme. Many "connected educators" (e.g. @technolandy and @gcouros) would counter the idea that technology itself is the problem, and that mobile technology and social media can be the basis of incredible discovery, awareness, and even help for mental health disorders. I would not disagree, but I've observed that technology is never one thing, it is not a passive tool. At the same time as personal devices are powerful conduits for learning, they are also used to tune out, get sucked in to mind-draining drama, and provide markets for an endless bombardment of commercial and social propaganda. As one person put it, we make our 16-yr-old kids go through multiple stages of preparation before we let them drive a 4000 pound car, but we routinely hand over to even younger children the most powerful communication device in human history with almost no training. Technology is by no means neutral -- it does some cool stuff (for this reason I have been quite active in pushing transformative uses of technology), but it also routinely facilitates enormous damage to the lives of kids.
  • SILENCE. The technical demands of social media alone are cause for anxiety... many students feel an obligation to keep up with dozens of conversations each day across multiple apps and platforms ranging from the facile to the thought-provoking and always with an emotional undercurrent and a constant need to maintain multiple personas (establishing oneself in a certain way, building a personal brand that is popular, funny, edgy, juicy, alluring, etc.); however, many of my students have lost the tech skills that students had even 7 years ago -- they are less tech savvy (because new tech is so easy to use and one never has to "break open the box") and yet there is an expectation (i.e. from teachers) that they be tech experts in order to live their lives online. The time involved in playing with tech and maintaining online "relationships" (not to mention all the nifty games!) is overwhelming for my students -- it has replaced TV, play, staring and thinking, and everything else that used to engage the senses and move the body. For many of my students (and colleagues, and myself at times) addictive technology has filled every uncommitted minute of the day and thus fills that part of our brain that evolved to make better use of silence and slow bits in the day... the contemplative life.
  • DISCONNECT. Students with an intense social media life have isolated and , ironically as they are also hyper-connected and superficially engaged with others -- many of my students lack the social skills to carry on sustained face-to-face conversations with peers or adults, and fall back to their phones as a security blanket; more seriously, many students are engaged in a constant battle to reclaim their self in a digital swirl of peer pressure and sometimes bullying... the close scrutiny and intense pressure to look a certain way is more than many kids can handle and yet they come back to it day after day.  It is not a coincidence that my most anxious students, or at least the ones that aren't dealing with it, the ones that leave the room in tears or are involved in non-stop drama, are also the ones who are glued to their phones and become upset by the minute details of other people's problems. Twitter was bad enough, but Snapchat and other means of getting up in someone's space have amplified anxiety triggers and created a 24-hour arena in which anxious banter opens surface wounds or bandages them up without ever really getting to the heart of the problem. Every now and then I poll students about their device usage... most go to sleep with their phones and most of those leave notifications on.
  • PORN. Sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, actually. I think the fact that students have instant and intense access to hardcore porn has led to anxiety. Students have messed-up ideas about everything to do with sex and this leads many of them to make some stupid decisions that leave an emotional wreckage behind. In particular, the expectation of how females should service males has created mass confusion for both genders and has set back feminism sharply over the last 10 years. If in doubt, seek out a high school counsellor for a one-on-one conversation to learn how deep this problem goes. Misogynistic music does not help the cause, either. How many thousands of times does a teenage boy need to see or hear that girls are "bitches" or "hoes" before the image sticks? Without getting into #yesallwomen and the roots of misogyny, I'll go out on a limb and suggest that the high school fashion trend of yoga pants and exposing cleavage is not helping boys or girls develop successful relationships. This may seem like a surface issue (pun intended), but is nonetheless a sign that kids have internalized patriarchal expectations of gender and porn-inspired reduction of people in parts, and in my mind it represents a botched job of empowerment. Suffice it to say that schools are more sexually charged for students than they have even been and that all students have unrealistic expectations about what their bodies should look like and what constitutes beauty. This is a huge cause for anxiety, especially among girls. 
  • DOPE. Did I forget about drugs? The ease of access to illicit drugs and the increasing acceptance of marijuana has also done wonders for the teenage brain. Again, this is well documented elsewhere so I won't elaborate. I will add that parent modelling is important when it comes to drugs. Too many of our students who are busted for drugs (and this is different than 15 years ago), do them openly at home with parents dismissing the activity or looking the other way. Call me old-fashioned or living in a bubble, but I still think dope makes kids stupid and is not an acceptable medicinal solution to mental health disorders. I'm not going to vote for Harper or any such insanity, but I have observed the effect of dope on teens for many years and the impact is consistent.
  • PASSIVITY. My students are more docile than ever before, even as I teach more vulnerable, impoverished, and at-risk students. This sounds cynical and contrary to everything you read in the BC Edplan, but most of my students would rather complete a worksheet than jump into an interactive social learning activity or pursue project-based learning. My colleague Rob Lewis explored this in a little more depth. When I first started teaching, I seemed to spend a lot of time on classroom management and dealing with student behaviour. Now, I almost never have to ask a kid to step out into the hall for a conversation. I'd like to think it is because I've become a master teacher but in reality I find that is an increasing challenge it to engage students with shorter attention spans using the same kinds of go-to activities that used to get students thinking and talking. Why are they so quiet, so polite, and so compliant? Perhaps we've beaten the play out of them with a widespread reliance on passive forms of learning and a reliance on instructional technology -- we've constructed a comprehensive and responsive sit-and-listen program for students to follow rather than opening up a space in which a healthy tension exists between what is being taught and what is being learned. What does this have to do with anxiety? It reflects a larger pattern, one in which students have many obligations on their time but are still left alone to be mediocre by their parents, teachers, administrators and society. For most students, this is not a big deal, it gives them the space to follow their own path. but for the students suffering from anxiety, it creates an echo chamber in which they are alone to deal with their problems. Add the social isolation and technology disconnect, and the passive, subdued, and sanitized milieu in which students are dropped is a petri dish for culturing anxiety.
  • POVERTY. A less abstract petri dish are the social and economic conditions in which and an increasing number of my students grow up. Child poverty, single-parent homes, vulnerable neighbourhoods, and the residue of colonialism touch about 1 in 6 of the students in my school, although substantially less in the classes I teach due to the variety of special programs. Poverty translates directly to student stress, anxiety, anti-social behaviour, and depression. Take a look through the work of Edmonton educator Dan Scratch to see the connection and also how social justice can empower impoverished youth to break the cycle. About 4 years ago I facilitated a staff discussion about the changing demographics in our school. We were about to take in two new feeder schools, one of which had a high vulnerability index (we used the neighbourhood data from to anchor our discussion), and also noted that all of our school catchment area was predicted to move further into the vulnerable zone and lower income categories. We ended up with 100 more questions that when we started -- one of the leading concerns was about whether we were equipped to deal with the emotional needs of poor, stressed out, and anxious students.
  • MEDICATION. I wish I understood this better, but I get the sense that quite a few of my students and a fair number of my colleagues are on medication for anxiety, depression, and variety of other mental health conditions. I also get the sense that half of them should not be, I think it masks the tensions that have led to anxiety and prevents them from dealing with the issues. I know too many people on meds, so I'd rather just leave this topic with a reference to some recent reading on how anti-depressants may not be the best treatment. and also how drugs may not be enough.
  • DIET. What students eat, drink, and how much they exercise is also a factor in anxiety.  Although BC schools have tried to promote health food choices and daily physical activity, the battle against obesity and overall health is still uphill.  Lifestyle "choices" (often the choices are limited) among impoverished and vulnerable students are a particular challenge. This is not new science, but I place some of the blame for mental health issues on the shitty high-sugar diets that so common for my students. One could explore lack of sleep as a related factor, although that outcome sits at the intersection of many other factors.
  • PLAY. I think many of my students suffer from "nature-deficit syndrome." This subject is expertly handled by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods. The topic of safety overload in playgrounds has also been in the news. Many of my students do not know how to use their own bodies to get stuff done.  I see it clearly on the soccer fields where my 7-yr-old son plays -- the kids actually have to be taught how to "cavort." I have a gym teacher colleague who has observed this with his Grade 8 and 9 P.E. classes -- increasing numbers of students who can't run, jump, throw, catch, or simply "be" in their own bodies. This is another area where educators are paying close attention and I'm quite impressed (though still shocked that it is needed) by all the work with physical literacy not just in Phys Ed but in multi-disciplinary environments. This can't come soon enough -- students who have lost their connection to the real world and miss out on the powerful need for play are placed in the zone of anxiety. Some hold out longer than others, but the effect is cumulative and has the potential to split the mind and body -- a recipe for unease.
  • UNDERFUNDING. To be honest, I didn't see the connection right away, although I'm sure teachers and counsellors who deal directly and expertly with anxiety issues and solutions could expound on this with more evidence. I'm also aware that my secondary academic course load does not qualify me to fully understand what elementary teachers in inner city schools deal with on a daily basis. Anxiety is ripe in many of our classes, and has become a school focus and therefore a funding issue where it was largely swept under the carpet from the perspective of school organization and staff planning. Teachers have always built empathy for students' needs and tried to work towards wholeness, but the scale of the problem in today's classes requires a depth of response that many teachers have a hard time balancing with all the other things happening in their space. Our schools now deal with "services" that used to be performed by solely by parents and also the Health Care sector (including Family Services), and we've done so on reduced budgets and no contributions from the Ministries who let us be their frontline.  It is not by accident that the BCTF finds itself engaging in extensive social justice advocacy -- our schools are ground zero for hunger, depression, diverse health issues, poverty, and anxiety. The job of teaching has changed as a result, as have the composition of school staffs and the roles that other workers in our system play. We've made the leap to providing education to providing a range of social, emotional, economic, and health services alongside education. This is a huge reason why underfunding has come to a head in our schools -- we have been doing more with less for too long.
O.K., I've cranked this out rather quickly and late at night, but I do see a rough pattern or two in the factors leading to student anxiety. If someone else would like to provide a succinct wrap on these patterns, be my guest. I came back a few hours later to add some thoughts and edits, but feel free to message me or tweet about remaining typos, semantic lapses, and simply to dispute or discuss.

1 comment:

Thielmann said...

Comments are working now, I think. Switching from "embedded" to "full page" seemed to do the trick.