It's a new problem for educators. They're now forced to confront the issue of student mental illness, and related misbehavior, in the classroom.
“We have great teachers who prepare their lessons every day and they are excited to come to teach. Instead they have to stop instruction because a child is unable to cope for whatever reasons,” said Nancy Turner, director of exceptional student education for the Rock Hill school district.
Rock Hill has established new strategies to deal with the increase in students who have a variety of mental health problems, Turner said.
Schools across the state are seeing more students dealing with mental illness, said Melissa Reeves, a nationally certified school psychologist and psychology professor at Winthrop University who helps train educators.
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“There’s not a school district that I work with that is not reporting that they’re seeing a tremendous increase in the mental health needs,” Reeves said.
According to a 2017 youth risk behavior survey from the South Carolina Department of Education, 17 percent of high school students reported that they had made a plan to kill themselves, and 15 percent of those have attempted suicide. In the same survey, students indicated bullying, fighting and feelings of sadness and hopelessness were some of the problems they face.
Clover High School student Malaki Prescott was 15 when he took his own life on Jan. 29. Malaki had battled depression and mental illness for years, said Lynn Jones, his mother. Jones, along with other parents, community members and Malaki’s friends, are encouraging mental health awareness and education in schools.
“This is a widespread epidemic,” Turner said. “The outcomes are being displayed in our classroom. So many children are suffering from varieties of mental illness. We need to put more tools and resources in our teachers’ and administrators’ hands.”
Peter Kosko, assistant director of exceptional student education for Rock Hill, said he is seeing diagnoses of schizophrenia in younger children.
“It used to never happen,” he said. “We’re now seeing it at age five, six and seven. This is the 'new now,' and we have to figure out how to address those small children.”
In each Rock Hill school, teams of school administration and mental health professionals now are trained to recognize warning signs, and determine how likely children are to harm themselves or others, Reeves said.
The threat assessment teams, which also are established in Fort Mill, Charlotte-Mecklenburg and other school districts, create intervention and support plans, Reeves said. She helped train the Rock Hill teams.
“When there is an incident, we jump on it,” Turner said. “We take every single situation seriously, even when (the student is) five.”
The teams, which Rock Hill implemented last year, are part of the multi-disciplinary approach educators are taking, Turner said.
During the 2017-18 school year, Rock Hill implemented district-wide the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, approach.
The PBIS approach is designed to help students behave and perform better in school, according to Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, established by the U.S. Department of Education.
PBIS teaches students what is expected, rewards them for following rules, and places less emphasis on punishing those who behave badly, Turner said. School districts using the approach have seen a rise in graduation rates.
“Punitive measures are not the answer," she said. "The old school way will not work. It’s a new issue; it’s not an old school problem.”
The increase of students struggling is, in part, due to the competitive nature of today's society, Reeves said.
“You see the stress that many of these students are feeling and it’s coming out in their mental health needs,” she said. “It’s challenges and stresses of life and feeling the pressure to not only academically do well but to be accepted by your peers. You’re always being compared to others on social media that it looks like everybody else is doing better.”
School districts are working to better understand the causes of mental health and behavior problems in students. Rock Hill is training teachers, administration and staff to recognize the symptoms of ACES, or Adverse Childhood Experiences, and how to help struggling students, Turner said.
Positive and negative childhood experiences impact a person’s health, behaviors and potential for success, according to the CDC. Research shows that adverse experiences -- abuse, parental divorce and neglect -- before a person is 18 can lead to the development of risk factors for disease, social and emotional problems and early death.
“One of pieces that shocks a lot of educators is the neurological effect that these have on the developing brain,” Kosko said. “We’ve got to get a hold of this quickly.”
Reeves said educators need to teach students social and emotional strategies for dealing with the challenges they face. She said it will take more funding from the state to increase the number of mental health professionals in schools and allow more districts to take the multi-tier approach that is needed.
“If kids are not emotionally available to learn, they are not learning anyway,” Reeves said.