One of my after-school students recently came home from his school in tears. His third-grade class had watched a documentary about underwater exploration, and the idea of being stuck in a submarine had given him anxiety. After the movie, his teacher said something about the class taking a field trip in a submarine; I wasn’t there, but I think she was trying to encourage the students to imagine going in a submarine. My student misunderstood (probably because he was already anxious) and cried out, “Do we have to go in the submarine?” His teacher apparently responded with something like, “[student], why are you always so scared of everything? You’re going to ruin the activity for everyone.” According to my student, the teacher was very annoyed with him.
Again, I wasn’t there, so it’s possible that my student misinterpreted his teacher’s feelings. He might be wrong about what she said or how she said it. I hope he’s wrong, because the idea of an adult–a teacher–speaking that way to one of my students is very upsetting. The idea of a teacher speaking that way to any anxious student is upsetting. See, I would hope this teacher would be sensitive to my student’s feelings since she obviously knows that he struggles with his fears. What she doesn’t know is that he has Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), a condition “characterized by persistent, excessive, and unrealistic worry about everyday things.” In fact, it’s very likely that this teacher doesn’t even know what GAD is; unlike depression and Obsessive-compulsive Disorder, GAD isn’t typically discussed in pop culture, and most teaching programs do not require training in psychology.
My student’s family has not disclosed his condition to his school. They have chosen not to pursue accommodations for their son because they worry about stigma and discrimination, very real risks.
This incident inspires several questions. First, should parents report their children’s mental illnesses to their school? Second, was my student’s teacher out of line in her criticism of my student? In considering that question, assume she really said what my student believes she said, and that she exhibited some amount of anger when she made those statements. Finally, and most importantly, should all teachers be required to complete some amount of training in psychology? Teachers are increasingly knowledgable about learning disabilities and the Autism spectrum (not knowledgable enough, many parents will say, and I agree), but childhood mental illness is largely ignored in both certification and continuing education programs for teachers.
Please share your feelings in the comments, and stay tuned for posts about disclosing your child’s mental illness and psychology training for teachers.
All stories about my students are shared with permission from the student and her/his family.