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When Schools Become Toxic: Healing a Generation of Students

Melinda Macht-Greenberg, PhD


Every day, parents reach out to mental health clinicians seeking help for their children and teens who are struggling at school. The stories I hear are heartbreaking. Some students are so anxious that they cannot tolerate being in the school building and refuse to go to school. Others express their distress with an inability to engage in schoolwork by refusing to do school tasks or leaving the classroom when they are stressed. Often, these behaviors create significant disruption to the classroom. Many students are depressed and overwhelmed after months or years of struggle. Some may even engage in cutting and self-harm behaviors while they are in school. Many students are stressed to the point where they cannot concentrate or learn effectively. The stories are numerous, the impact is tremendous, and the solutions are hard to find. 


The pandemic has certainly cast a spotlight on the mental health crisis facing kids and teens in the United States. Although numbers were rising prior to the pandemic, they skyrocketed out of the stratosphere when kids and teens were faced with stress and social isolation during the height of the COVID pandemic.  


Though some hoped that the return to in-person education would level the incidence of mental and behavioral health challenges, the opposite effect took place. The number of kids and teens reporting significant levels of anxiety and depression continues to climb. Recent reports from the CDC about the incidence of suicidal thoughts and actions are alarming.


There are perhaps several reasons for the increasing incidence of mental health challenges.  One important consideration is the toll of chronic unmitigated stress on developing children.  The impact of the intense worry about COVID in the initial months, coupled with social isolation and inadequate remote education, unleashed an emotional and physiological tidal wave crashing down on young people. Layered on top of that is the ongoing stress kids and teens face in schools every day. No doubt, some people rebounded quickly and adapted to in-person education. However, many children have been left in the dust. Unfortunately, the burden is not evenly distributed, and vulnerable children carry the lion's share of the weight. Children who were already struggling, or those who were tenuously coping, be it for economic, educational, or mental and physical health reasons, are less likely to “bounce back” after periods of chronic unmitigated stress. Our children and teens who were less equipped to cope with significant stress to begin with, are now trying to manage overwhelming demands without adequate skills and resources. 


Another important factor relates to the lost learning time during the pandemic. Asynchronous remote learning was not an effective substitute for in-person instruction. Not surprisingly, students need teachers (and other students) to learn most effectively. Asynchronous remote learning was not robust enough to keep up with the curriculum demands. However, when students returned to in-person education, for many, instruction proceeded as if students had been fully in classrooms from March 2020 until April 2021. Even though students missed valuable instruction, many schools operated as if there was no disruption to education. Teachers were told to “backfill” skills that were missed during the year of remote learning. This methodology was ineffective and resulted in both overwhelmed, frustrated teachers and a cadre of students who fell further and further behind. The emotional toll was untenable and contributed to many teachers leaving the profession.  Students often felt stuck in a system that could not meet their needs. Though some students dropped out of education, the vast majority continued in a fixed educational system that was not able to fluidly adapt the curriculum to the educational and social needs of a generation of students who missed months of educational time in school. 


For too many students, schools have become toxic environments. Often, these same kids can function at home and in extracurricular activities but exhibit decreased functioning in classrooms. We have a multitude of students who cannot focus effectively or sustain attention, who struggle with emotional regulation and frustration tolerance, and who feel lost and confused in the classroom. Many students have told me that they cannot keep pace with instruction. Student behavior is indicative of their academic challenges. I work with several students who become so frustrated in the classroom because they are lacking the academic skills required at their grade level. Reading, writing, and math skills have not kept pace with grade level expectations. As a consequence, many children and teens think of themselves as poor learners and put themselves down because they cannot keep up with what is expected of them. Negative thoughts about oneself often turn into depression and anxiety. We see this in the behavior of children in school where many students are shutting down or avoiding schoolwork that they find too challenging. Some students are completely unable to attend school as the classroom has become a toxic environment that is sadly contributing to significant levels of emotional turmoil and distress.


Where do we go from here? Finding solutions to complex issues can be daunting. However, as many schools are beginning to re-think their approach to education, here are just a few ideas educators might want to consider:


  • Recognition that too many schools are failing too many students. Schools should conduct a needs assessment to obtain an accurate picture of the social, emotional, and academic needs of their students and develop plans to address those needs accordingly. It is time to openly recognize that educational institutions are not meeting the needs of many young people. Yet, we still do not fully know the scope and extent of the impact on children.

  • Redefine schools as places where young people develop a wide range of skills, not just where they acquire information. We cannot lose sight of the fact that children and teens are developing humans. Schools should realign their mission and purpose around helping young people achieve developmental outcomes. Schools can no longer see their primary obligation to ensure that students acquire information without also helping them to gain the necessary skills to use that knowledge effectively in the context of a complex world. Some skills that schools should consider emphasizing (in addition to academics) are social problem solving, creativity, adaptive and life skills, vocational skills, executive functioning skills, and emotional intelligence.

  • School counselors, peer counselors, and social workers should be at a higher student:staff ratio: We simply do not have enough highly qualified personnel to meet the growing demand for mental health services. We need to increase in-person screening for mental health needs and have less reliance on computer-based rating scales that often miss students that need support. Schools should become places where students can receive treatment, as community-based care within schools can help to address the problem of access. Paraprofessionals are often called upon to provide in-class support to struggling students. However, paraprofessionals often do not have the skills to adequately help students with complex needs. Schools should provide uniform, systematic certification for paraprofessionals, with on-going training and supervision. It is time for a moonshot challenge to increase training and hiring of counselors to work in schools.

  • Increase hands-on project based learning: As more students struggle with grade level executive functioning skills, we are finding that the benefits of project based learning and outdoor education are numerous. Interactive projects are high interest learning opportunities that tend to foster cooperative learning skills and social problem solving. We should emphasize teaching kids to be explorers and investigators which will help to build creativity and critical thinking skills that they will need in the future.

  • Encourage the identification of students with special education needs: We should be aiming to bring more students under the tent and cross train more general education teachers as special education teachers. Now is the time to expand the scope of services and to encourage schools to identify students in need.

  • Teach kids based on what they can already do: Given the uneven skill development of students during the pandemic, we should be focusing on differentiated, small group instruction rather than on curriculum demands. We should consider tossing out the curriculum manuals and instead, adapt teaching methodologies to fit the needs of individual students.


If schools were reimagined as places where all developmental skills were considered equally, then kids would not feel pressured to master academic concepts over social and emotional skills. If the pace of instruction was not so fast and schools valued depth over speed and brevity, and if true understanding was the goal, not rapid fact acquisition, students would have room to grow. Children and teens need opportunities to develop into well-rounded individuals who can be empathic and flexible learners. 


Given the pandemic and subsequent years of school disruption and crisis, kids need time to recover. We need to slow the pace and make sure we are not skipping steps as this is causing undue pressure on young people who need time and space to learn skills overlooked. They need community, nurturing, and places to gain skills for life. We need to inspire young minds and promote thoughtful discourse. Students need to belong to communities, not just academic centers, and schools can do both by being the hub for educational skills and health and well-being. We need to put forth the effort to create schools that are non-toxic so that kids can thrive. This is how we will repair the damage caused for too many students in the last three years and help to heal a generation. 

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