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Schools Have More Severely Disturbed Students-- What 's A Teacher To Do?

By Ruth Wells

Teachers and Counselors: Does it seem to you that you are seeing more and more seriously emotionally disturbed kids than ever before? The problem may not be with your perceptions. The problem may be that in fact, you are seeing more disturbed children and youth than at any time before.

This article covers some of the updated mental health information we give out in our popular Problem-Kid Problem-Solver Workshop ( It's data that all teachers and counselors can use.

There are a few explanations for what you may already have noticed. First, many settings such as schools and Job Corps, are accepting youth with increasingly serious emotional problems. Second, mainstreaming has shifted many kids from sheltered or specialized settings, into mainstream classrooms, sports teams and scouting troops. Third, and perhaps most important, there may be, in fact, more and earlier serious emotional disturbances developing in children. Or, perhaps we are just getting better at identifying these problems.

Late last year, you may have read in your local newspaper a summary of the US Surgeon General's report that noted that an amazing 1 in 10 children may have a serious mental health disorder. This report noted that the typical wait for troubled children to gain an appointment with a mental health professional was 3 to 4 months. Some communities lack children's mental health services entirely, the report also noted. This report quotes a study that indicated that many children with severe emotional problems don't gain proper school services until age 10. The report emphasizes that many of these troubled children will wind up in jail, in part because their problems went unnoticed, or were addressed way too late. The report advocates for more mental health resources for children, and better training in children's mental health for everyone who works with youth.

The Bottom Line: If you are not a mental health professional, but you work with kids, you may need to acquire a basic mental health background in order to fully understand your changing population, and to best serve their changing needs.

This background will also help you know when to access help from a mental health professional. There is no substitute for the expertise of a mental health worker, and if budget cuts have reduced this option at your site, that is quite serious. A class like our Breakthrough Strategies Workshop ( can help you get the basics, but with the incidence of severe childhood emotional problems apparently on the rise, it makes relying on that counselor, social worker, or psychologist perhaps more important than ever before.

If you are a mental health professional you may also want to check your skills too. We are always surprised at our workshop how many mental health professionals confuse conduct disorders and thought disorders, for example, two basic and essential mental health concepts.

We also need more groups like IYI in Indiana, and the Family Resource Centers in Kentucky IYI, the Indiana Youth Institute, brings hands- on training to everyone involved with youth including scout troop leaders, faith-based professionals, after school workers and everyone else involved with kids. Kentucky's Family Resource Centers are in just about every school in the state, ready to assist the student, family, teacher, counselor or anyone involved in the child's life to help that child succeed in school, community, family and life.

Sadly, most of us lack a Family Resource Center worker or an IYI to turn to. Your challenge becomes, how do I provide my service to a child with serious emotional problems? Here are a few key do's and don't's, but be sure to also upgrade your basic mental health skills if needed.

** Strike the Balance

Especially in this age of widespread, mandated education performance testing, teachers can feel pressured to get students to perform and produce. But tests don't "understand" that a child has a serious emotional disturbance and make allowances, but you can. Strive to balance your school or agency's mission with the child's special needs. Keep the goals, but don't accomplish them at any cost.

** When I'm Not Sure What to Do

A good general guideline for anytime that you just don't know for sure how to work with a child, is ro ask the child. That child is the expert on that child. If you get no useful response, a fall-back plan is to consider what would work or not work with you if you were in that situation.

** But I Have to Be Fair

You may worry that if you give a troubled child extra time to complete a task, for example, that the other kids will complain that it is unfair. In the work world, bosses are required to accommodate employees' special needs from providing a ramp for a wheel chair to a sign language interpreter. The ultimate mission of most youth-serving sites is to prepare the child for the real world. In the real world, providing some accommodation is either legally mandated or a common courtesy. Most schools even attempt to give a bigger desk to a bigger student. Simple human courtesy and common sense should never be viewed as unfair.

** They Can Take It

Some youth professionals will tell you that the child can "take it." The truth is that you have no way of looking into a child and accurately gauging their resilience. Since kids do not generally announce that they were beaten last night, or that they haven't eaten for two days, you don't know how fragile or strong a child actually is. You don't know whether or not a child can "take it." There is a risk that a harsh, embarrassing, aggressive act could harm or undermine a child. While it is never okay to yell, demean or humiliate any child for any reason, it is especially true with children who are severely troubled.

** These Children Are Manipulating the Adults

While some emotionally disturbed children are very adept at manipulation, many emotionally disturbed children do not manipulate at all. There are many types of emotional disturbances, and each has its own unique dynamics. Because an adult works differently with different types of students, tailoring their methods to fit each child and that child's unique circumstances, does not mean the adult has been manipulated. It means that the adult has a sophisticated understanding of different types of youth and they choose the correct tools for each type.

For more specific techniques to use with troubled youth, consider our "Child's Guide to Surviving in a Troubled Family." Find out more about it via our web site (link below).

About The Author

Get much more information on this topic at Author Ruth Herman Wells MS is the director of Youth Change, ( Sign up for her free Problem-Kid Problem-Solver magazine at the site and see hundreds more of her innovative methods. Ruth is the author of dozens of books and provides workshops and training.


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