When teachers begin to notice a student’s ongoing outbursts in class, social struggles with their peers, or declining grades, it may be a sign of much bigger problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 13 and 20 percent of American school-age children experience mental health disorders, including 1 in 7 children between the ages of 2 and 8.
Because educators spend so much time with students, particularly observing them in social and educational situations, teachers can provide invaluable help in identifying possible mental health issues. Being able to recognize the signs and symptoms of the most common mental health disorders can help teachers identify potential problems more quickly and work with parents and the school to help students get the help they need.
Mental Health in Children
Mental health issues can start in very young students or emerge later with teenagers. Often mental health problems can cause difficulty for students with playing, learning, speaking, behavior and emotional control.
The American Psychological Association explains that mental health is critical to a child’s overall well-being just like physical health is. The two are deeply connected with one another. Just as a student with the flu would struggle to learn in the classroom, so too does a student with a mental health diagnosis. Mental health conditions can impede a student’s ability to thrive in school, on sports teams, at home, at work and in greater society.
As many as 15 million children in the U.S. could be diagnosed with mental health disorders, according to the APA. However, as few of 7 percent of these young people actually receive the care they need. There are a number of genetic, biological and environmental factors that increase the likelihood of mental health disorders.
The APA also noted that some students can have mental health problems without a specific disorder, for example a student who is bullied may have poorer mental health.
10 Most Common Mental Health Issues For Children
- ADHD, (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) – According to the CDC, as many as 6.8 percent of 3- to 17-year-old Americans have been diagnosed with ADHD. Short attention spans, easy distraction, too much talking and constant interruptions as well as hyperactivity are just a few of the symptoms of this mental health disorder. This condition can have a strong impact on a student’s ability to learn as well as a teacher’s ability to maintain the classroom. Educators can refer students to mental health assessments if the condition is suspected. Often medication can curb the symptoms and aid students, although sometimes these symptoms can signify another mental health disorder such as bipolar.
- Anxiety – One of the most significant ways that anxiety can display itself in students is not in the classroom at all. Some students with anxiety disorders are frequently absent due the anxiety they feel about school. Anxiety is among the most common mental health disorders in students in K-12 with about 3 percent diagnosed with the condition, according to the CDC. Students with anxiety may struggle to finish work, have difficulty completing assignments up to their high standards, have fear of failure or new experiences, and excessive worry about grades or homework. Students with anxiety may be among the 12 to 17 year olds with mental health issues that the CDC noted turn to drugs and alcohol use.
- Depression – Diagnosed in 2.1 percent of 3-17 year old students, depression can lead to sudden drops in student grades, rises in absences and a general loss of interaction and motivation in the classroom. Other symptoms that teachers and family members should be aware of include excessive tardiness, sleepiness, isolation and incomplete assignments. Suicidal tendencies can also increase.
- Autism Spectrum Disorders – There are a wide array of autism spectrum disorders that can affect students. Students with autism spectrum disorders may exhibit signs of repetitive behavior, significant social difficulties, inability to read nonverbal language and many more. Autism disorders are typical noticed before school age in children today and can vary from very severe to milder forms, such as Asperger’s Syndrome.
- PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) – PTSD may be difficult for educators to notice in their classroom. Students may experience unpredictable and significant mood swings, act younger than their age or become behaviorally unpredictable. PTSD develops in children who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. This disorder can lead to flashbacks to the traumatic event with physical or emotional consequences. There are a wide range of symptoms including self harm, hostility, depression and fear.
- OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) – Students with OCD have chronic, long-term thoughts and behaviors that they want to repeat or act on specifically without any control. From inappropriate thoughts for a classroom to compulsions to extreme order or cleanliness, OCD can make learning difficult for children. Low grades, missing school work and lack of classroom concentration are common student symptoms of OCD because the compulsions and obsessions are so distracting. Social issues are also common.
- Tourette Syndrome – About 0.2 percent of 6 to 17 year old Americans have been diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome according to the CDC. It is most common with females and develops in children between the ages of 3 and 9. Tourette Syndrome iss neurological condition and can manifest itself many different ways from uncontrollable physical tics and movements to vocalization, words or grunts. Both the tics and the effort to suppress the tics can distract students from learning, as well as impact others in the classroom.
- ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder) – Students with oppositional defiant disorder are typically hostile, negative and angry toward the teacher and other students. From blaming other students for mistakes to consistently challenging the rules of the classroom, ODD impacts all of the students in the class. Anger is one of the most common symptoms and is often unpredictable.
- CD (Conduct Disorder) – Similar to ODD students with conduct disorder will challenge class rules and argue with students. Students with CD may act as bullies, picking on some children and hiding their own self esteem issues with toughness. Frequent absences, discipline and lying are all signs of CD.
- Eating Disorders (Anorexia/Bulimia) – Affecting both male and female students, eating disorders include unhealthy eating habits, obsession with weight and food, and skewed self image. Eating disorders typically occur with young teenagers but can occur earlier. Wrestlers, dancers and gymnasts are often affected. Distraction by body image or unusual food habits may be warning signs in the classroom, however eating disorders are often difficult to identify because those with the disorders can thrive academically.
Supporting Students in the Classroom
As the CDC notes, for teachers often the best role is that of early detector. If an educator is able to notice some of the symptoms or signs of a mental health disorder he or she can work with administrators, the family and healthcare professionals to diagnose and ultimately help the student.
Like with many physical health conditions, early detection of mental health disorders is the best way to ensure that a student will be able to “reach their full potential,” Mental Health America explained. The organization advised teachers look for markers of mental health conditions to more easily identify mental health conditions. Declining grades, consistent anxiety, uncontrollable hyperactivity, temper tantrums and depression are all warning signs.