Anxiety, Depression, Hope and Connection: Insights into What Teens Need from Our Schools

Anxiety. It’s something that all of us encounter from time to time. But, in this fast-paced, very demanding world it appears that teens are feeling more anxious than the rest of the population.

In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health found in 2017 that an estimated 3.2 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the United States had at least one major depressive episode. This number represented 13.3% of the U.S. population aged 12 to 17. That’s a startling statistic that’s certainly of interest and concern to professional educators.

Addressing teen anxiety and other related needs is the topic of the May issue of Educational Leadership – What Teens Need from Schools. It is a must-read issue and I heartily recommend you read every article. To whet your appetite, I’ve previewed a few of the articles I found to be particularly compelling.

As always, some Educational Leadership articles are shared with everyone and others are reserved for ASCD members and EL subscribers. You can purchase single issues but I’d recommend at least a digital ASCD membership ($49). That gets you the full EL content each month plus 12 issues of ASCD Update, access to members-only webinars, book discounts and more!

The issue begins with a Reader’s Guide, “Can’t We Let Teens Be Teens?”, written by managing editor Naomi Thiers, who reminds us that building relationships with teenage students is particularly important. We must recognize each teen learner “as a complex individual [and] becoming aware of all aspects of that learner’s identify and any life challenges they face” (p. 7).

This theme and message is intertwined through almost every featured article.

The Teens are Not Alright

This is the rather disconcerting title of an article by Cathy Vatterott, a professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and an expert on K-12 homework.

Vatterott calls to mind the typical adolescent student’s schedule both when they are in and out of school. She suggests that so many teens are stressed and disheartened because of what she calls “rudderless box checking” day after day.

This phenomenon describes students (often with the guidance of college and career-minded adults) who are making sure their checklists are full of both rigorous academic classes and extra-curricular involvement — sports, fine arts, church and civic activities, etc.

As a result, Vatterott contends, “these students are joylessly going through the motions, not sure why, except they’ve been told this is what successful (but not necessarily happy) people have to do” (p. 14).

To address this growing epidemic of stress among teens, the article suggests that educators and parents consider the following actions:

  1. Limit homework, both the volume and the amount that counts toward a final grade.
  2. Coordinate a student’s workload across classes through a shared school calendar and/or collaboratively designed days for testing.
  3. Rethink the school schedule to provide more time for students to reflect and transition from class to class.
  4. Provide student and parent education about what teens need for them to be both healthy and successful in school.

Controlled Burn: A Story of Growth

This is another intriguing title, this one for an article written by Catherine Hart, a former high school teacher and now an education consultant. Hart focuses on ways to gain the interest and commitment of students who don’t find traditional schooling either engaging or worth their time.

Hart begins the article by describing her nephew “Max” (a pseudonym), who in the early years of high school spent more time skipping school than being in class.

Fortunately, Max took control of his destiny after learning of a partnership his school had with a local community college. With some persistence, he was successful in convincing his guidance counselor to let him enroll in an EMT course at the partnering institution. Max was captivated. He saw both the purpose of his learning and a pathway forward. The result? Max is now a paramedic and firefighter.

The “Maxes” of the world are what Michael Nakkula (2013) calls “Crooked A” students. These are students who are not engaged or motivated by traditional schooling but “emerge at one point as top performers.” Students like Max need to see how what they are learning connects to something that interests them. Their interest becomes the “hook” that can motivate them to put in the effort needed to be successful.

So, what can be done to ignite the interest of students like Max? Hart suggests four steps (pp. 30-32):

  1. Use a strength-based approach, believing that “potential exists in all students and that educators should ‘discover and implement the kinds of learning that can help their students realize this potential’” (Lopez & Louis, 2009, p. 2).
  2. Help them feel competent by highlighting their strengths and showing them a pathway to success.
  3. Help them feel they belong by inquiring about their interests and asking them to identify their strengths. These queries build connections between students and their teachers and enables teachers to differentiate support.
  4. Offer autonomy by providing choice and an element of control over a student’s learning. Activities like student goal-setting and tracking offer students some control over their learning.

Teen Voices

 Seven high school-aged student shared their perspective on topics as broad as diversity, special needs, the arts, bullying, respect, and engagement.

Muna, a black Muslim teen, holds out hope for school models that respect everyone. “I am often targeted for the language I speak, the clothes I wear, the religion I practice, the color of my skin, and my gender. It is hard for a person like me to thrive in any setting. But my school has made me and my peers feel welcome and not alone. The school community has embraced my culture and has expanded all students’ knowledge of other religions.”

A particularly poignant idea was offered by Jacob, a student with autism. “Many of the accommodations used in special education boil down to providing opportunities to learn in ways that make the students more receptive. All students would learn better from a more flexible form of teaching and the ability to do things like sitting where they need to or having options of different ways to show they know” (p. 47).

Going Deeper into Learning

Michael Fullan and co-authors Mag Gardner and Max Drummond suggest a new moral imperative for schools: helping students engage in deep learning.

They refer to the research of Harvard’s Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine (2019) that found the “richest and most consequential learning happens when learners have opportunities to develop knowledge and skills (mastery); when they come to see themselves as vitally connected to what they are learning and doing (identity); and when they have opportunities to enact their learning by producing or contributing something new and unique (creativity)” (p. 66).

Fullan et. al suggest an additional component to deep learning: connectedness. “Connectedness makes it very clear that deep learning is not just an individual pursuit, but also fundamentally a group and human phenomenon” (p. 66).

Other Important Topics and Ideas

Two must-read articles discuss the needs of students of color and the complex situations many immigrant students find themselves in. Another article shares tips for teachers to better engage their students. McREL’s Bryan Goodwin provides ideas on how to cultivate curiosity in disengaged teens, and Carol Ann Tomlinson suggests that teachers become “a guiding light [that] teens need.”

Most of the articles I’ve linked here are freely available online. This is an issue that I’m going to keep on my desk and reread as the new school year approaches. Now more than ever, teens (and all students) need a voice in their ongoing and very personal educational experience. Most of all, they need to know that adults — both at school and elsewhere — care about them.