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Kids and Anxiety: Schools play major role - good and bad - in life of kids with anxiety


A kindergartner is grabbed by the arm and dragged into the classroom she is afraid to enter.

A middle-schooler has an anxiety attack in gym class, and the teacher stands there looking at his watch, timing the student's struggle while classmates laugh.

An aide yells when a student starts to cry.

A nurse tells a 5-year-old who just threw up on herself out of nervousness, "You may have your mother wrapped around your finger, but you don't have me."

A fifth-grader hides in the coat area crying each day, but the teacher and school administration tell his mom he's fine because his grades are good.

A first-grader having a panic attack isn't allowed to go to the nurse's office, but instead told, "Sit down, you're fine."

A child who is academically capable is sent to remedial classes.

These are incidents that have occurred in North Jersey public schools, according to parents and their kids who suffer from anxiety disorders, which remain misunderstood and often considered less serious or more a weakness than a health condition.

"I think if you said he had autism, cancer, leukemia, we would have cakes, pies and dinner coming over our house every other day," said Tom O'Donnell of Washington Township, whose 14-year-old son suffers from anxiety. "I think the school would have a different understanding."

Children spend at least 30 hours a week in school. It is not only where they are educated, but where they learn to socialize and overcome personal and academic challenges.

It is also a place where a child's anxiety can be set off by academic pressure, social situations, sickness-related phobia or other triggers.

A pivotal player

The way a school responds to that child can be the difference in helping or adding to the struggle. It is becoming a bigger issue as educators and school mental health professionals say they are seeing more and more kids with anxiety, mild and severe.

"Nobody really has the data on it but we see an increase in terms of the number of kids who are absent or referred to us," said Debra Keeney, president of the New Jersey School Psychologists Association.

Many schools are trying to address the problem, she said. There are counselors, psychologists and support staff that can serve as a resource team for the child. A family can create official plans like a 504 or Individualized Education Program for kids classified with a disability or physical or mental health condition. These legally binding agreements between the school's child-study team and the family set up child-specific plans to help the student — whether it involves permission to leave a classroom when they need to or a change in the way they are taught.

There are also schools that are trying to work yoga and mindfulness into classrooms or physical-education programs.

Some institute schoolwide programs to change the overall culture of their school to create a less-stressful environment for everyone in the school population, all of whom naturally feel stress and anxiety at some level. These practices are still implemented on a school-by-school, administration-by-administration basis, however.

According to Jennifer Clemen, a third-grade teacher in Bergen County, the growing issue of students who experience anxiety is a topic of discussion among teachers.

"We sense it with them more so, and we feel like there's less that we can do about it these days," said the 11-year veteran teacher, citing state standards and rigorous academic mandates that make it difficult for teachers to step back and take more time with students who need it. "It is possible, but it's getting less and less possible as the standards get more rigorous."

Academics, however, aren't typically a problem for kids with anxiety and no accompanying learning disorder. Many of the North Jersey kids with anxiety disorders talked about loving school, wanting to be there. Parents said that because their children continued to get good grades, the students' issues were often overlooked. The kids are considered immature, spoiled or just going through a stage.

Ideally, schools and their staff play a vital role in helping a child.

"I think there are times that teachers and principals and guidance counselors in the school are our best resource because if that's where the anxiety is, that's where you want to hit it, that's where you want to treat it," said child psychologist Sarah Trosper Olivo. "That said, the realities are that teachers have many students they have to pay attention to, they're asked to do a whole lot. It's not always feasible to do what one child needs."

Often, staff members can be the first to identify problems in a student.

"I think that schools can help considerably, and they play a very critical role in treating, assessing and recognizing anxiety in kids," said child psychologist and anxiety specialist Matthew Goldfine, who sees patients in Cresskill and Manhattan.

Parents are often critical of the schools, but the staff is often limited by its resources, according to Goldfine who works with many area schools in coordinating care with his patients.

"If I'm the only school psychologist in a school of 500 kids, how am I supposed to reasonably access all of them or treat all of them or whatever anxiety pops up?" he said. "From a training perspective, these are psychologists that are trained very well and are trained to be school psychologists. … From the expertise standpoint, they are equipped to deal with it. I think it's more so a numbers game. I can't imagine how difficult it must be."

The tales of a lack of sympathy and harmful behavior on the part of school employees, of course, do not represent the full picture. Each of these families acknowledge and express gratitude for staff members who have tried to understand and help, but as one mother put it, even those teachers that have the best intentions are often unable to help.

"A 20-kid classroom and an administration that was not supportive — even when they wanted to help, they were limited in what they could do," said the mom, whose eighth-grade son attends the Sage Day School in Mahwah for children with anxiety and depression. The private school also has sites in Rochelle Park and Boonton.

Can teachers respond?

For years, children suffering from anxiety throughout North Jersey have gone to school and, at best, have felt misunderstood. At worst, they have been ridiculed and marginalized by teachers and staff and have experienced bullying from peers.

The New Jersey Education Association does not have any program or training for its members on how to deal with kids coping with anxiety, NJEA spokeswoman Christy Kanaby said in an email.

"However, I can tell you that we are concerned that the current policies resulting in the over-focus on data and testing may be a contributing factor in increasing student anxiety," she wrote. "Unfortunately, these same policies are also preventing our teachers from using their creativity and professional expertise to create a nurturing environment and build relationships that can help students deal with stress. As a former educator myself, I can tell you firsthand that it is these caring, nurturing relationships that teachers have relied on to help ease whatever stress school — and life in general — causes for students."

The incidents described by families took place before anyone had heard of Common Core or PARCC. While understanding parents may sympathize with the plight of the school staff, they aren't asking for an overhaul of the curriculum or anything that would take hours of a teacher's time — just a little empathy, a little more individualized interaction, an attempt to understand.

"Small changes make a difference," said O'Donnell, the Washington Township dad.

A shortage of resources or influx of new and more rigorous academic standards doesn't make a child's story any less difficult to endure or a school's handling of it OK.

'Nobody … to help me'

"Kindergarten was a terrible experience," said a Bergen County girl who is now in the fifth grade. "Nobody really understood me. They thought that the right thing to do was drag me in and pull me by the arm, literally. It was very hard for me. The principal didn't know what to do. Nobody was really there to help me. …

"I think the teachers thought I was being a brat, that I was the kind of kid … could have gone in. But I was just trying to get out of it. I wasn't trying to be a brat. I wanted to get myself in, but I just couldn't do it."

For many families, it's the luck of the draw when it comes to a school's handling of their child's anxiety disorder. It's all about getting the right administration and supportive teacher. The first-grade teacher, for one, who gave that same Bergen County girl reward points for getting to school, then more points for making it past lunch without going home. She would let the animal-loving 6-year-old pet the class guinea pig when the child was becoming upset.

"First grade, I had a lot of trouble going in, but I loved my teacher. She was very supportive," she said. "She really helped me get through the year."

A now 17-year-old Passaic County girl with severe anxiety was not so lucky; support was in short supply going through her district's elementary and middle school.

"The teachers just called me a behavioral disorder and threatened to throw me in the [behavioral disorder] class, even though I wasn't a bad kid," she said. "And the kids in that class would just torment me more."

Her mother shakes her head as she listens to the story.

"They didn't protect her or anything," she said of the administration and staff, particularly when the girl suffered a breakdown in the hall in middle school. "They didn't protect her like they should have."

The girl is now a junior at the Passaic County Technical Institute. While her obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety continue and medications and insomnia make it difficult for her to go to school some days, it is a much more supportive environment and overall better school experience.

"The staff is more understanding," the girl said. "The kids don't really know that much, but they're nicer."

Her mother credits part of that to the school's culture. "The kids can't do and say whatever they want and bother kids, or they get sent back to district," she said. "It's a privilege to go to this school. If you get caught bullying someone like her, you're going to get thrown out. …

"It's been a struggle for her all her life in school. Thank God, there's only one more year."