I was reading about the phenomenon of “the impossible task” and thought of students who seem to “daydream” and never get anything accomplished during school. Is this a lack of focus or a symptom of depression that gets overlooked?
I’ve been there. I know that all I need to do is get up, sort the clothes, and start a load of laundry. It will take 15 minutes, MAXIMUM, but I simply cannot pull myself up to do it. It’s not that I’m lazy, I really don’t want to feel this way. It’s a physical heaviness that binds me to the couch and will not let me get up. It’s the tightness in my chest, the inability to focus, the need for a distraction. When this overtakes me, I do what my grandmother always called “piddling.” It’s mindless, directionless, nothing. I may look through my social media feed for endless amounts of time, play 10 games of solitaire on my phone, binge-watch a season of some show. ANYTHING to avoid the impossible task.
According to kidshealth.org, “Stress is a function of the demands placed on us and our ability to meet them.” This definition can include separation anxiety, academic pressure, over scheduling, social issues with peers and adults. The definition also applies to adults in the school. Federal and state legislation has set unattainable “goals” for educators, resulted in massive cuts to education budgets, and support services for teachers and students. With all of this happening within the walls of our schools is there any wonder we have seen unprecedented expressions of frustration from educators, students, and parents?
Phases of anxiety are a normal part of human development. Every person has a fear of the “unknown” and there are MANY experiences that carry us from birth to death which starts with a huge “unknown” factor. A phase is temporary and harmless, usually lasting a short period of time. A person who is experiencing a “phase” can usually be comforted and supported through the fear and will be fine within a short period of time. For those who suffer from an anxiety disorder, this support is not enough.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (adaa.org), sites 1 in 8 children have an anxiety disorder. Of those who have a disorder, 80% are not receiving a diagnosis or treatment. Some suggestions for educators to consider if you believe a student is experiencing an anxiety disorder:
- contact the parent/guardian and express your concerns in concrete terms (I have observed Mary doing _____. This concerns me because of _______.)
- If a student is having difficulty with unstructured times, help establish a “lunch bunch” or “recess buddies.” Also, a check-in adult can be very helpful. Having specific people they can go to alleviates stress for the student.
- When working in groups, don’t always give free choice of partners. Use a combination of choice, assignment, and random sorting (eye color, height, birthday month)
- Have clear, simple expectations that are easy to remember.
So what does a teacher with this same set of emotions do to be successful in the classroom? Every educator I know has struggled with this at some point and on different levels. Many suffer alone and never share their struggle with anyone. Edutopia published an article entitled Teaching With Depression that references Nancy Mosley, a North Carolina teacher. Part of her story could be mine:
Every Sunday, I would wake up paralyzed with anxiety over the coming week. I knew I had a whole day of work to do, but I was too physically and mentally exhausted to get started. As the hours passed, my agitation became more and more debilitating. Sometimes I snapped out of it and stayed up all night to get my work done, and other times I tossed and turned trying to shut out the guilt. I dreaded walking into the building on Monday morning because it felt like wading into the ocean knowing that I was about to get hit by a tidal wave.
This describes “the impossible task” so well. I know I need to do it. I know I have the tools and materials to do it well. I WANT to get it done. I simply cannot get up and get it done. Trying to “pep talk” or shame me into doing it is not helpful….I’m already having that same conversation with myself!
What CAN we do to help teachers and students who are battling with depression and anxiety? One way to combat this proactively is to regularly build up colleagues and students by sharing the strengths we see in them. Knowledge of someone else’s presuppositions about one’s good qualities makes their encouragement in difficult times stronger and more impactful. If you are one of those personally engaged in the battle, find someone you trust and TELL THEM! Isolation will only make the situation worse. If you see someone you think is battling, share your own struggles. Your vulnerability may be exactly what he/she needs to open up and start getting support. This applies to colleagues and students. Pair a student struggling with another student that is further down that same path: they give each other strength. Remember that your responsibility is limited to what you offer. You cannot make someone open up and ask for help. His/her reaction is completely out of your control. Focus on what you can control: your offer, tone of voice, and reaction. Don’t pressure, just be available.
When you see that student or colleague that appears to be directionless or “lazy” look a little deeper. They may need encouragement and support for depression and anxiety.