Student Support System for Emotional Stability
By Jill Jenkins
Students’ emotional development is key to their academic development. Although schools provide academic support for all students and a systematic system of support for special education students and students with a 504 designation, it does not provide a systematic support system for all students. Many students who could qualify for additional support don’t receive it because their parents are not informed about the procedures or the services available. Many students don’t receive support because they appear to be doing satisfactory in school. Schools need a systematic method to help young teachers identify students who need additional academic or emotional support. According to “Witnessing Violence Fact Sheet” by Joanne Davis Ph.D., and Ernestine Briggs Ph.D 3.3 million to ten million children have witnessed domestic violence. According to the C.D.C., “in 2012, a total of 305,388 babies were born to women aged 15–19 years .” Likewise, according to Teen-Help.com, 20% of all teens will suffer depression. All of these students are at-risk; yet we fail to offer the support most of them need. How do we provide all students the support they need to function both emotionally and academically?
Some students who need assistance have the wherewithal to simply ask for it. For example, Sara, a former students told me that she had been sexually abused by her father and had been removed from her home and placed in a foster home. She didn’t want help for herself --even though I am sure she needed it-- but for a sister who was still living with her biological parents. Students never approach a stranger about something this delicate. They will ask a trusted educator, so it becomes the job of that educator to become a liaison between them and the social worker or counselor. That was the role I played. In another similar instance, LaDetra, a student in one of my A.V.I.D. classes, told me about how her biological mother had forced her to perform sexual acts with strange men at age eleven to enhance her mother’s ability to get illegal drugs. Later, her mother had abandoned her and three younger siblings for a month. With no food in the house, and no money to pay the rent, this young girl had called an aunt who had located each of the children’s biological fathers and placed them in homes across the county. LaDetra was concerned for the welfare of her siblings. I introduced her to a counselor who contacted her family and together they were able to get her counseling and help contacting each of her siblings. Another student, Brian, told me that he had no friends, and was planning to kill himself. I wasted no time in calling his mother. Thirty years later, he called me at home and thanked me for saving his life because he was planning to kill himself after school that day. Because his mother took him to counseling, he hadn’t. His life turned out to be wonderful after he had gotten through that dark period. Take students seriously and do not waste time getting them help.
Sometimes as an educator, you just need to be sounding board for a student. For example, Denise, a student whose parents had recently divorced was upset that she still loved her father and his wife even though she knew her father was having an affair with his current wife which caused her parents’ divorce. Relationships are confusing to adults, so imagine what they are like to children. Children who feel comfortable with a teacher often use them as a support system to work out problems, but teachers need training to know what to say to students who come to them for help and lists of professionals to connect students with for the professional help they need. Students who have witnessed gang violence are often like soldiers who are haunted by their war experiences. For example, Dashawn, a former student, described his horror as he watched his brother shot down in the streets. He wanted to leave his life in gangs, but feared for his own life and the lives of his other family members. Suffering this kind of duress can make it difficult for a student to perform well in school, but it is a reality that many students face every day.
Most students do not have the skill or the self-assurance to ask for help directly, so teachers need to be aware of signs that they are asking for help. Often students will write about a problem in their journal writing or in an assignment. For instance, I had asked my student to write a letter saying goodbye to someone or something in their life, an assignment connected to a chapter in Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. One of my students, Anita, wrote a goodbye letter to her parents who had recently died from A.I.D.S.. The letter was so touching that I contacted her family. She was living with her God-Parents who had only met her a few months earlier. Her new mother told me that the letter had opened up a flood of emotions and she was glad that Anita had an opportunity to let some of her emotions free. In another instance, I had given my classes an assignment to write a short story, the culminating activity of our Short Story Unit. Benita, a student in my class, produced a story filled with violence directed inward and at others. I took the story to our school counselor who shared it with her parents. Benita was suicidal and they found her appropriate counseling. Other students demonstrate their emotional instability by acting out or withdrawing. Students who teacher might perceive as discipline problems are actually crying out for help. Others may dress in large coats and pull their heads in like turtles disappearing from the world. This is also a cry for help.
Still when I reflect on my early days of teaching, I realize there were a lot of red flags that I missed. Take Hector who in 7th grade was willfully disobedient of rules. In 8th grade he brought a gun and bullets to school and was expelled. At twenty-one he brought another gun into a pub and killed six people. Maybe if the school had given him counseling when he was just willfully disobedient he could have been saved a life spent in prison and six lives might have been saved. In another instance, Joey, who could act the most believable scenes of spousal abuse in my improvisational theater class, may not have strangled his wife and one other woman if I had recognized that his talent for creating believable improvisational scenes about domestic violence was actually a cry for help. Students with shattered emotional lives need teachers to recognize their cries and help them.
To help all of our students to learn and function in school, teachers must be aware of their cries for help. Training must be provided for teachers to be able to recognize the signs. Furthermore, we need to open communication between teachers, parents, counselors, and the school administration. Teachers will be the first to notice problems so they need to know the signs of depression and anxiety. They need to know who they should contact to best help the child and they need to understand that seeking the help of a counselor, a parent, or an administrator is not demonstrating their ignorance; it is demonstrating their strength.