Sensitive Souls in the Classroom

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More and more, I am hearing stories from parents and educators of an epidemic in our schools.  Seemingly on an upward trend each year, mainstream school classrooms are more packed with children with IEPs (individualized education plans) or needing additional services like counseling, than ever before.  They may be given labels like high-functioning autism, ADHD, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or are anxious or depressed.

There are times when a single diagnosis fits perfectly for these kids and leads to the access of appropriate school services and therapies. But for more and more of these children, there seems to be a blending and overlap of symptoms in diagnostic categories, leading to unclear diagnoses or more than one diagnosis...or only a few scattered characteristics with no clear diagnosis. They may not fit in with their peers, often struggle with their emotions, and have difficulty with a traditionally structured school day, or even shut down, refusing to attend school all together. They may demonstrate high intelligence, high creativity, high emotionality or empathy, but combined with oppositionality, anxiety, sensitivity to external stimuli, attention problems, or obsessive thinking and perfectionism, it makes functioning in traditional classrooms difficult to say the least.

Parents and professionals in the psychological field are struggling to understand this growing group of children who don't fit into traditional special education services, yet aren't quite served by the mainstream model either.  We are coming to terms with the differences we see children facing today than when we grew up.  Children now are exposed to screen time and smart phones at a younger age, with more access to immediate sensory gratification and are used to rapid attention shifting and peer scrutiny through social media. They are being asked to memorize more information from a younger age for state testing and are being placed in an academic pressure cooker of expectation by well-meaning parents and school staff who see the competitive road these youngsters face in future college and job applications. Meanwhile, they are faced with an outdated, overly structured school system, not rising to meet the needs of their increasingly stressful world and overworked, sensitive emotional systems.

In my work with these children in several school and clinical settings, I have come to believe that it is no longer fair, in many cases, to continue to label these children with "disorders" or as an the exception to the rule when we are seeing more and more children who demonstrate these traits and difficulties. The fact is that we must, before blaming or assessing the child, honestly examine the system we are fitting them into. With our school systems' more structured curriculums based on state-testing, lack of social-emotional curricula, crowded classrooms, pressure-based academics based on memorization, and dearth of creative, self-directed academic activities, it's no wonder we are seeing kids struggling to mold themselves to an outdated model or wishing to get out of it all together.

In some circles, there are new labels emerging for these types of children, such as "indigo kids" or "empaths," which, while they may not capture all the difficulties these children face, are an improvement in the sense that they release the "disorder" or impairment aspect of the current diagnoses. Indigo kids are often seen as strong-willed, highly creative, highly energetic, intuitive, and somewhat oppositional to structures of authority. They may struggle with stubbornness, anger, feeling like outsiders, lack of motivation in school, and always wishing to question the current "system." Empaths are seen as highly emotionally in tune with others, sensitive to environments and people, imaginative, and perceptive.  They may struggle with anxiety or depression, shut down around lots of people or stimuli, and they may have difficulty with boundaries, people pleasing, or taking on excessive blame or guilt for their own or others' actions.

However we choose to label these children, the fact remains that they are making up a greater proportion of our classrooms, and they often do not find comfortable places within our special education system either. They may be highly intelligent, not needing traditional academic help but requiring more socio-emotional supports. School psychologists and social workers often offer counseling to these children in an attempt to place a band-aid on what the system as a whole cannot provide. More and more parents are choosing to look at alternative schooling options such as home schooling, one-on-one instruction, or therapeutic school settings. And sometimes the schooling or emotional difficulties progress to such a degree that parents turn to wilderness or residential programs.

This problem has no easy answer, or one-stop fix, but what we must start recognizing as a community of parents, mental health professionals and educators is that WE may need to be the ones to change before we ask our children to change. When we listen to these children, I mean really listen, we can start to hear what they really may be needing. They are often articulate and intelligent, but merely lost in the morass of current school and peer expectations and subsequent feelings of inadequacy. Mindfulness programs, social emotional education, creative hands-on activities, movement classes, and a discussion of personal interests rather than school-prescribed topics can often be a gateway to reengage these children in an academic environment where they feel undervalued and unheard.

And our mental health treatment of these children needs to follow suit. These are spiritual beings in young bodies who have wisdom to share and their own personal guidance systems as to what helps them alleviate anxiety, fit into classrooms, or what they may need from adults around them. The more we continue to fit them into a narrow box of a diagnostic category, the more they feel shamed, blamed, and different. Rather than recognizing and celebrating their differences, which may be the opening of special abilities or unique characteristics, we hone in on their difficulties, shut these kids down before they get to experience a more genuine version of themselves. They need tools to cope with their overwhelming environments and emotions and an understanding that their differences may not mean disorder but may be exactly the thing they are needing to express in this world.  And exactly the thing the world needs them to share.

To learn more about my therapeutic work with children and adolescents, read more on my integrative psychotherapy page.