Welcome to our podcast: Conversations About Student Mental Health.
I’m Chris Leonard, Clinical Social Worker working with adolescents for over 25 years. In this podcast, I talk with school administrators, educators, clinicians, and parents to open a dialogue that will help the growing number of students struggling with mental illness.
Hi everyone. In our recent live webinar, Untangling the Web: How Social Media Affects Mental Health and How to Help, we looked at some of the issues young people encounter when using social media and we discussed strategies for mentoring them and helping them become more adaptively engaged in what has really become a keystone of their social experience.
Our attendees offered some great questions during the presentation. And after the broadcast was over, they sent me even more really important questions that cover some pretty big issues. So for this episode I’ve decided to provide some answers to some of these questions.
The first question related to future orientation, or the ability young people have at different ages to look and plan ahead. The person asked:
“You spoke about how far into the future kids can look ahead based on their age. Do the averages change significantly for young people with special needs?”
It’s a great question. I haven’t seen any specific research on this, but I have observed repeatedly that students with special needs experience delays in reaching these milestones. Difficulties with future orientation are often tied to issues with executive functioning. Children with anxiety, depression, ADHD, and children on the autism spectrum can definitely struggle with executive functioning and therefore with future orientation.
The next question related to benign curiosity and setting consequences, you may recall that I described benign curiosity as the practice of asking children and teens about how they see aspects of their social media experience. Just being curious and saying, “Hey, what do you think about this?” Rather than jumping right in with criticism. The question was:
“When monitoring social media usage and practicing benign curiosity, is it a good idea to ask the child what they think is an inappropriate consequence for their actions? Or is it better to set consequences without their input?”
In selecting consequences, I think the degree to which you engage the child in setting the consequences depends on the child’s developmental needs and capacities. A two-year-old who reaches for a hot stove will likely need us to grab him and move them away from danger before we can have a conversation.
On the other hand, a 13-year-old who posts a nude selfie will likely benefit from us asking her about her motivations before we apply a consequence, but if she’s a kid who struggles with obsessive compulsive behavior, we may need to restrict her phone use immediately and talk about what happened.
Another element at play is that I found, and this is both as a teacher and as a parent, that when you ask young people to come up with a consequence, they’ll often suggest something much more draconian than you had in mind. Often, this can be an opportunity for more discussion with the child.
The next question related to a pretty serious concern, suicidal ideation. They asked:
“What should I do when I have concerns about a student posting suicidal ideation online? I worry that their peers are not reporting it, or responding inappropriately.”
This is surely a big concern. Anecdotally, I can say that students have shared with me and other members of my teams, that they’ve been told directly online, “Hey, go ahead and kill yourself.” Or “Why don’t you just kill yourself?”
One of the most important things you can do to prevent this is to support and educate your entire school community, and I mean students, parents, staff, everyone.
You will hear me repeat this theme of community engagement over and over again. I say it so much to my teams that they make fun of me about it.
According to the CDC, building a sense of community and family-connectedness is one of the most important protective factors against teen suicide. So, you can provide a large assembly with a speaker sharing a personal story, this can be really helpful.
But, I’d really recommend following this up with small discussion groups of no more than eight to 10 students. If you can. As I mentioned during the presentation, many students become accustomed to violence and incivility online and really don’t recognize the power of hateful or even just callous speech. You just can’t build too much empathy.
Now, this is really important. When you do bring students into a small group, it is vital to listen to them and observe body language.
Why? Well, sometimes even when you bring kids into a group of peers with whom they’re comfortable, they may still be holding back and they may not be forthright. They may be saying what you want them to hear or what they think you want to hear. So look for non-verbals. Look for things like the head down, averted eye contact, side glances, fidgeting, crossed arms, or any other body positioning that suggests being closed off.
And don’t hesitate to follow up with individuals. Sometimes kids will not say anything in front of an audience of hundreds. They’re more likely to speak honestly in a group with whom they’re comfortable. But sometimes even there, you’re not really going to get at the truth until you speak with someone one-on-one.
Our next question dealt with how we influence students to exercise healthier social media habits. The person asked:
“Schools struggle to get buy-in from parents on this issue. If social media usage guidelines are not encouraged and enforced at home, what can we do to change habits by the time students reach high school?”
For today’s teens, social media is just part of life. They likely don’t remember a world without it. And you’re right, by the time they get to high school their habits are pretty entrenched.
But what I found hopeful in speaking with students in small groups (I did focus groups with kids to prepare for the webinar presentation), was really how insightful and nuanced their views of social media were.
We need to remember the kids are not always 100% bought into social media. They see it has problems too. So giving them permission and space to talk about what makes them uncomfortable, and the opportunity to receive positive affirmation from peers, can be really helpful in fostering more positivity and less negativity online.
In terms of getting buy-in from home, my advice is to start with parents of younger children. Bring them in for educational sessions and discussion groups, give them the facts on screen time, above all, talk to them about the importance of modeling and mentoring. If we can engage parents when children are younger, we can help them help their kids establish healthier social media habits that they then can carry into high school.
The other thing that you can do with high school kids is encourage them to mentor younger students, because there’s no better way of learning something than teaching it to other people.
The next question involved limit setting:
“How do you encourage parents to keep kids off of social media and keep them engaged in other ways?”
I recommend that parents hold off on allowing their children onto social media for as long as they can.
As I mentioned during the webinar, Facebook sets the minimum age at 13. But we know that younger students will create Facebook accounts, sometimes with their parents’ knowledge, sometimes without.
In working with parents, it is really important to bear in mind that they are often just as motivated to enhance their children’s sense of belonging and significance as their children are. Many parents worry, “Hey, what if my child is the only one who doesn’t have a smartphone? What if they’re the only one not on Snapchat or Instagram?”
Parents have difficult decisions to make. Saying no can be really difficult, but frequently no is exactly what’s needed.
Once a child reaches the age when social media is age appropriate, then mentoring becomes vital. And in my years as an educator and therapist, the big mistake I’ve seen parents make over, and over, and over again is thinking their children are ready to just fly solo, handle things by themselves, long before they really are ready.
Our best strategy is to remain engaged and, again, benignly curious. But always, always, always prepared to set limits and boundaries when behavior becomes risky to self or to others. It’s always easier to start off with firm limits and loosen them up, than to start off with no limits and then try to impose them later.
I also can’t emphasize enough the importance of modeling. Remember during the presentation we talked about the role of mirror neurons, those neurons that we have that engage us in imitating what we see, much more than what we hear. We imitate things that we see people doing.
As human beings, we’re just hardwired to do this, to imitate much more of what we see than what we’re told. So by all means, set a positive example early and often.
The next question addressed another major concern, how to handle those almost daily situations when social media conflicts spill over into school:
“What can we do about students who create situations on social media that harm their ability to function in school? They post hurtful comments about other students and then those students can’t cope with being in school together. We’ve had many altercations this year caused by negative communication on social media.”
Yep. You are vividly describing how the negative interactions on social media spill over into school.
Some students respond by bringing the fight into school, others respond by withdrawing or isolating. Some will withdraw into the nurse’s office with a headache, a stomach ache, or some other somatic concern. These elements may be quite real. It’s important to bear that in mind, but we also know that many physical ailments result from stress or are exacerbated by it.
So how do we help? Teachers, administrators, and school counselors have so much to do already that it’s really hard to devote the time necessary to really dig into these conflicts and help students work them through.
This is where it is invaluable, really invaluable, to have a dedicated mental health professional, or maybe even more than one depending on your level of need, in your school. This is certainly an advantage we have at Sage Day. Every student has their own dedicated clinician who’s there for support on a consistent basis, and is available to intervene in the event of a crisis.
In a similar way, schools that partner with Sage Thrive have these dedicated clinicians in their schools. At Sage Day, and in our Sage Thrive partner schools, our clinicians are receiving ongoing intensive supervision and training in clinical techniques. They’re trained and they have experience in working with issues such as social media and resolving conflicts. They provide regularly scheduled counseling both during and after school hours. They know how to conduct effective peer mediation. They can perform suicide risk assessments. They can provide staff development. And they basically serve as a daily resource for students, parents, teachers, administrators.
Having this kind of deep level of support in place can really increase the sense of safety and security throughout the school community. And when you increase that sense of safety and security, you will find that you will have fewer conflicts whether on the web or off.
Another webinar attendee asked:
“Can you recommend any tactics and strategies used by Sage schools that we can use to help struggling students in public school districts?”
As I described in my answer to the previous question, one thing to consider would be bringing that dedicated mental health professional into your school.
Another idea that we’ve implemented in the Sage Day schools is the use of advisory groups. Advisory groups can be an outgrowth of your traditional middle school or high school homeroom or they can happen in an elementary school classroom. Unlike a traditional homeroom, these groups stay together throughout their years at the school. They hold regularly scheduled extended meetings. These can be weekly, biweekly, monthly, depending on the age of the students and time availability.
In these meetings, students are able to discuss and process ideas, reflect on positive events, and address conflicts and concerns. The groups can also participate in even inter-advisory challenges, group activities, and games.
When we form our advisory groups at Sage, each group chooses a group name and designs a flag to represent their group, and this flag is posted outside their door. This is just one way in which we strive to cultivate a sense of belonging and significance.
Bear this in mind: all of our students need and are seeking that sense of belonging and significance. That’s one of those developmental needs that we talked about during the webinar.
So that’s about all we have time for today. I really want to thank our attendees again, first of all for coming to the webinar, and secondly for sharing these questions. Your questions and comments really demonstrate a solid grasp of the challenges we face, as well as your desire to help your students enjoy healthier relationships both on and off the web.
For our listeners who may have missed the webinar, you can watch the webinar recording on the Sage Thrive website.
Please do join us for upcoming episodes of Conversations About Student Mental Health. And by all means, everyone please stay safe and well. Take care.
Conversations About Student Mental Health is brought to you by Sage Thrive, partners in school-based mental wellness.
You can find the show notes on our website at www.sagethrivetoday.com. You can also suggest topics for upcoming episodes of the podcast; we’d love to know what issues related to student mental health you want to hear more about.
Christopher J. Leonard, MSW, LCSW, M.ED.
Chris Leonard is Director of Operations for Sage Thrive and the Sage Day Schools. He is an experienced teacher, school administrator, social worker and psychotherapist with over 30 years of experience working with children, adolescents, and families. Mr. Leonard is married with two daughters and enjoys distance running, mountain and road biking, hiking, and the outdoors.