By John Reilly, MSW, LCSW
Academic and social struggles in school are often the first signs of a potentially serious underlying problem for a child. Clinicians and educators are aware that certain problems are rarely just “outgrown.” The school years are an important intellectual, social and emotional foundation for life. When there are obstacles to a child’s growth in school many aspects of life are affected. Appropriate early intervention can prevent further problems and forestall the development of longstanding character issues . As clinicians we are often asked to select or design the best course of intervention.
What is the right intervention? The answer lies in first understanding the cause. For some students, addressing an unidentified hearing or vision problem is all that is needed; if a child cannot hear the teacher or clearly see the board, she will fall behind. For others an unidentified learning disability may complicate learning despite their having average or above average intelligence. Underlying anxiety or depression is more insidious but equally problematic in terms of its impact on social and/or academic functioning. The anxious or depressed student suffers inwardly in a way that makes him feel fragile. Their presentation, which is frequently passive or withdrawn, can be misinterpreted as lack of care or disinterest in doing well in school. The opposite, however, is often true; the anxious or depressed student feels terrible about not performing and is preoccupied by emotional issues that make her less available for school work or relating. She wants to be successful and social, but needs help in doing so.
Issues that are not addressed are likely to leave a student feeling inadequate, different and ostracized by their classmates. Negative inner feelings can be projected onto the environment with the result that school and others begin to feel unsafe to the student. The student’s self esteem and feelings of self-efficacy are damaged. The anxious, depressed or “emotionally fragile” student is most often misunderstood by the lay person, since the pathology can be masked by a plethora of symptoms. With proper intervention, however, these students are able to achieve their promise. Without intervention, it is virtually inevitable that their character will develop around feelings of isolation, failure, hopelessness and being overwhelmed.
Often the optimal type of environment to help the overwhelmed student get back on track cannot be provided in his regular school. This is not to say that their regular school causes the difficulties. However, the regular school often exacerbates the problems due to size, social pressures and lack of necessary therapeutic services. When we designed The Sage Day School for this type of student we realized that they needed an intensive and multimodal therapeutic program that would be significantly different from the traditional special education setting. All Sage Day students participate in twice weekly individual and group as well as weekly family therapy. Because these students tend to be bright and college bound, we needed to create a strong academic program and we did. Over the past 12 years we have seen numerous students return to the path of healthy functioning. The success of the therapeutic milieu at Sage Day truly underscores the idea that early intervention combined with a strong therapeutic relationship and supportive community are keys to restoring healthy functioning. Without this intensive intervention these students would not have successfully navigated through the tasks of separation-individuation.
As the new school year gets underway, clinicians and educators will be called on when problems begin to surface. We have to be the ones who accurately identify what is occurring and avoid colluding in minimizing problems that are clearly symptoms of deeper issues. Early intervention and targeted therapeutic intervention is imperative in helping fragile students to be optimally successful in school.
John Reilly, MSW, LCSW is the Executive Director at Sage Day Schools as well as a Psychoanalyst and Certified Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist. John can be reached by email or phone at 201-723-2473.