Given the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent life stressors and alternative learning environments, children and adolescents’ mental health and academic success are at the forefront of Groves Academy’s mind. These recent challenges made it abundantly clear how closely academic success and mental health are connected in a multitude of ways. However, the association between learning disabilities and mental health concerns has always existed.
We encourage parents and educators to have knowledge surrounding the following topics:
- The prevalence and comorbidity rates, or the simultaneous presence of two or more medical conditions, between learning disabilities and mental health,
- Identification procedures, and
- Best practices for how to support all students’ academic achievements and mental health.
By supporting the “whole child,” we are advocating for early identification of academic struggles and psychiatric symptoms, followed by individualized support and intervention, with the end goal of decreasing future problems and supporting every student’s overall health and well-being.
When every student’s unique needs and neurodiverse brain are recognized, understood, and supported, we allow each student to showcase their strengths and true potential. Our students’ mental health needs are part of them, and it is our job as educators to understand how this part may manifest in their learning.
How Are Academic Success and Mental Health Related?
Learning disabilities do not operate in a vacuum. Often, there are co-occurring mental health concerns or other neurodevelopmental disorders present. For example:
- We know 20-40% of students with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) also have reading disabilities and visa-versa.
- Children with specific learning disabilities exhibit mental health challenges at a disproportionately higher rate than their same-age peers without learning challenges.
- 70% of students with learning disabilities experience higher anxiety symptoms than students without learning disabilities, with anxiety and reading disorders co-occurring in approximately 1 in 4 students.
- A similar picture exists for depressive symptoms, as adolescents with depression are more likely to struggle academically, and children with learning disabilities can be 3x more likely to report depressed symptoms.
- Collectively, ADHD, anxiety, and depression are consistently the highest co-occurring diagnoses for our students with learning disabilities.
Although the causes are not 100% clear, these connections are likely due to some combination of genetic, cognitive, and environmental factors. It appears the relationship between mental health and academic achievement is a two-way street. Mental health challenges, such as anxiety and depression, distract from learning and interfere with the cognitive processes associated with learning. On the other hand, mental health disorders can also be the end product of persistent feelings of failure and low self-esteem related to academic challenges.
Positive mental health and academic achievement can also powerfully impact one another! Strong overall mental health, well-being, and resiliency positively impacts students’ school performance. If students feel adequately supported and successful in school, this improves their self-esteem and emotional health. Despite these clear and well-studied links between our students’ mental health and academic success, their coexistence is often not identified or not treated appropriately. Left undiagnosed or untreated, learning disabilities or psychiatric disorders can lead to an array of adverse outcomes for these students later in life.
Short- and Long-Term Outcomes Associated with Academic Success and Mental Health
Left unaddressed, students with mental health challenges can experience multiple negative outcomes in their young life, including trouble making friends, learning, concentrating, and completing work as well as poor grades, absences, suspension, expulsion, and suicide. Mental health challenges in childhood and adolescence can also be associated with reduced high school graduation rates and challenges attending and completing postsecondary education. If reading challenges persist into adulthood, this is associated with a higher likelihood of adult depression, low self-esteem, and struggles with social functioning. However, early detection of mental health struggles combined with supportive and individualized supports can help change these students’ trajectories.
Identification of Mental Health Issues
Unsurprisingly, schools are in an advantageous position to identify and provide support for their mental health development. Much in the same way that schools screen systematically for health (e.g., vision problems) and academic (e.g., reading, math) difficulties, schools are able to incorporate systematic mental health screening efforts to help identify concerns.
Many strategies exist for identifying students with mental health concerns at school, including teacher referrals and tracking office discipline referrals. These efforts require minimal time commitments but they often identify students with significant behavioral concerns and commonly miss students experiencing internalizing feelings such as anxiety or depression. Research indicates that the most equitable and structured approach involves using systematic teacher, parent, and student questionnaires to measure and track students’ social, emotional, and behavioral skills. Such screening efforts occur multiple times throughout the year to ensure students who require mental health supports are identified.
At Groves Academy, systematic screening efforts are currently underway to identify students who require additional mental health support, as understanding and addressing the whole student’s needs is essential for future academic and life success.
- Groves teachers will complete short questionnaires that measure students’ various mental health needs multiple times throughout the year, including social skills, feelings of anxiety or depression, or behavioral concerns.
- For younger students, similar parent questionnaires will supplement teacher reports to ensure that students’ overall mental health needs are being met.
- Lastly, older students will also provide self-ratings to provide a comprehensive picture of their current mental health development and identify any areas of concern.
These efforts are essential to meet Groves students’ overall needs and allow the understanding and individualized support necessary to strengthen their mental health.
While these questionnaires provide a comprehensive and systematic approach for screening for mental health concerns at multiple times throughout the year, parents and educators are encouraged to know and report any significant red flags that may surface throughout the year. Early intervention is key for positive future outcomes.
What Symptoms Should I Look For As An Educator?
- A sudden or drastic change in the quality of assignments
- A sudden or drastic decline in grades
- Test and performance anxiety
- Withdrawal from interests or from peers
- Increased irritability
- Low frustration tolerance
What Symptoms Should I Look For As A Parent?
- Trouble sleeping
- Trouble eating or change in eating behaviors/appetite
- Concentration problems
- Ruminating about future events
- Test and performance anxiety
- Loss of interest in hobbies and other activities
- Having low energy
- Statements of self-doubt or low self-esteem (e.g., “I’m so dumb”)
- Crying a lot
Approaches to Support Mental Health Development
What can schools do to support students’ mental health needs? There is a multitude of supports that can be implemented to support students’ mental health needs.
- A stigma-free environment: First, it is essential that schools create an environment free of stigma and supports discussions concerning mental health development. Such environments can be created by fostering open conversations about mental health supports and their impact on future functioning. Schools can continue to develop stigma-free environments by incorporating lessons that help students develop and strengthen coping and relaxation skills, such as muscle relaxation techniques, problem-solving strategies, or mindfulness-based techniques.
- School-Based Counseling Services: Students can work with their school counselors on developing social skills, building coping strategies, and incorporating relaxation techniques as needed. Supports can be provided individually or through group-based supports.
- Accommodations: Schools are also able to provide accommodations (e.g., through a 504 accommodation plan or Groves Educational Plan (GEP)) to support their students’ needs, including extended time on testing or testing in smaller environments that may minimize feelings of anxiety that may be related to testing, for example.
- Wrap-Around Services: Lastly, schools may coordinate wraparound services in cases where referrals for community-based supports are needed to provide the most appropriate mental health supports to students.
Mental health development continues beyond the school walls. Students can continue to support their mental health skills at home with their families’ support.
- Exercise: Research demonstrates that regular exercise routines have many benefits, including decreasing the risk for depressive symptoms or other internalizing feelings.
- Well-Rounded Diet: A well-rounded diet, especially low in processed foods and sugars, has been proven to support mental health and executive functioning skills.
- Mindfulness: Regular mindfulness activities are also a great way to develop adaptive coping strategies throughout the day.
- Quality Sleep: Ensuring good sleeping habits, including decreasing technology use before going to sleep, can also support mental health functioning.
- Therapeutic Services: Lastly, it is important to seek therapeutic support as needed to help address mental health concerns and incorporate adaptive strategies to support students’ needs. Psychology Today and GoodTherapy allow you to find therapists in your geographic area based on filter options of medical insurance, gender of therapist, type of therapy (e.g., cognitive behavior therapy), etc.
Groves understands the importance of addressing mental health in school, both for academic purposes but also for making students’ futures even brighter. Through supportive and empathetic education that addresses all of students’ needs, we can transform the lives of students with learning disabilities and attentional needs.
Groves Academy is a nonprofit educational organization working to redefine the way our nation is taught, one student, one teacher, one school at a time. We have a rich history of supporting bright students who struggle with learning disabilities and attention disorders as well as promoting evidence-based literacy instruction for all.
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