An Anxiety Epidemic in Schools
I had one leader say to me that there are more drugs in our elementary school than on the streets of downtown Baltimore. Was she talking about the heroin crisis or any other type of illicit drug? No, instead she was referring to the amount of prescription drugs for kids with anxiety in our schools. Kids are being diagnosed with so many disorders these days and with the amount of resources available it doesn't take long as a parent to think that your child may have one of them. So if it could be solved with a pill why not right? And so the medication pontification begins and parents start the quest of wondering what they can do to best help their child at school and at home.
ADD/ADHD are the more commonly referred to of the mental disorders. While anxiety, which is often a comorbid diagnosis of ADD is not discussed as much. Anxiety can refer to generalized anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, phobias, separation anxiety disorder and/or post-traumatic stress disorder. And when anxiety is affecting your most precious baby, as a parent you would do anything to relieve their pain and mental anguish. While medication can help after a child is properly diagnosed, the medication itself is very rarely the stand alone cure. So as an assistant principal and IEP Chair for the past eight years, I wanted to share my knowledge with you in order to feel you are not alone in navigating your child's disorder. Here are the top things schools may want to tell you but are not allowed to share.
Your child is not going to be “normal”:
What? My child, is not going to be normal? Before you click off of my post muttering expletives, let me explain further. I hate the term “normal.” I do not feel any of us are “normal” but we sometimes have expectations of normal aligned to who we think or want our child to be. When they get diagnosed with a mental disorder such as ADD or anxiety (or any other mental disorder that is not physically seen), we have the misconception that a pill or the right plan is going to fix them. It’s not. There is not magic wand or cure. This is who they are. The best we can do for them is to teach them about their disorder, help them manage it with accommodations and coping strategies. That combined with showing empathy, understanding and celebrating them for who they are is the best thing we can do as parents. I had one parent turn to our team of professionals at a meeting baffled that her child who has a co-morbid diagnosis was now struggling more with ADD as opposed to the anxiety the year before. She was so proud that they had finally found the right combination of medication for the anxiety that she was perplexed when the child was still not being successful academically. She asked: “So will he have to struggle with these disorders for the rest of his life?” The answer is yes and the best thing we can do is to help our young people with these mental disorders make sense of what is happening in their brains. On the plus side, some of the most creative, and intelligent people in the world had Anxiety and/or ADD. Google it.
We will never tell you to medicate your child:
Once it is known that your child has a diagnosis, the question that is often the elephant in the room for both the parents and educators is whether medication would help the child. I have had some parents ask if they should consider medication, when they should consider medication and others who off the bat say they are not medicating their child. We always go through our standard answer: “The school will never tell you to medicate your child as it is always the decision of the parents.” We then delve into the types of medications that could be available and the importance of always consulting with your child’s pediatrician. Here’s what I want you to think about: if your child had a physical disorder such as diabetes, would you even question medication?
So am I suggesting every child be medicated: no, I simply want to bring awareness at how easy it is to dismiss this type of treatment for a battle that takes place in someone’s mind as opposed to outwardly within their body. It is a family decision and one that you should discuss closely with the pediatrician. What I want you to know that is that the right medications, combined with the right therapy treatment along with accommodations and a plan in school can make all the difference. I remember being a child with undiagnosed ADD and depression. It was really overwhelming in my mind that was always racing and going to the most negative thoughts. I would have greatly appreciated something to balance out the chemical make up in my brain. I too had the same medication worries when I was finally diagnosed in my twenties, but once I found the right medicine, my mind knew a peace I had never felt before. A peace and balance that I would not trade.
The school may not understand your child’s disorder:
What? The trained support staff sitting around my child’s table at this meeting may not truly “get” what is happening with my child. Sad to say but no we may not because even though we as educated professionals read about disorders, treatment and know the types of accommodations students need, it will not lead to a true internal understanding of how said disorder may really affect the child. We do not live it every day.
Again, we come to the battle of mental vs. physical disorders and how we treat those affected. I love the memes that display the type of feedback received for each. We would never say to someone throwing up that they are just not trying hard enough to control it and yet so often educators will comment that “the child just cannot stay in their seat.” This would be a child who has been diagnosed with ADHD so duh of course they have difficulty. But if someone has not lived the disorder, internalized the meaning of said disorder or loved someone with that disorder, they may not really “get it.” This is where you need to step in and be the expert advocate for your child! Especially kids with anxiety.
I have had so many educators say to parents that they do not see the child’s signs of anxiety in the classroom. The parent will share all of the thoughts and concerns that the child releases at home when they are comfortable in relation to their anxiety and not once has the child told the teacher. Furthermore, the teacher and/or other educated professionals do not know that child’s body language, tone, characteristics the way parents do at home. So please, share all of their idiosyncrasies’, worries, and triggers to all the educated professionals up front so we can all work together as a team. And if you have team members that do not believe or understand the mental disorder, there are some great videos that outline what it is like for a child to have anxiety or ADD on YouTube. I’ve always having a person apply knowledge to themselves or someone they love is the quickest way to get them to internalize the intended meaning.
Ultimately, you are always the expert when it comes to your child. Schools should be partners with you in the quest to navigate your child’s disability and to assist you with understanding the types of ways they can help your child be successful. So no matter what course of treatment you choose, know that you are never alone. Being a parent is the toughest job in the world, but also the greatest blessing. Your child is going to grow up and be great in their own way no matter what disorder they may have to navigate.
Chrissie Kahan is an advocate for equity and students with disabilities. As an educator for the past 15 years and an assistant principal for the past eight, she has experience working in partnership with parents, teachers, and related service providers. Chrissie has always had a heart for children, especially advocating for kids who have been labeled as "behavior problems." She is special-education certified and serves as the Individualized Education Program (IEP)/Student Support Team Chair within her elementary school.
She has authored the following books: Benny Gator and Angry Ana with the purpose of spreading awareness to kids and families in regards to the topics of anxiety and anger management. She has also co-authored the book Navigating the Road of Infertility with her husband. This book has been featured internationally, most recently on HLN for National Infertility week. She and her husband have founded the publishing company: King Kahan Publishing, LLC where their hope is to publish books that focus on spreading awareness to real world issues in a meaningful way.
Roadmap to Navigating Your Child’s Disability will be available on Amazon and Smashwords.