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School counselors: Economy taking its toll on students


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Years of a shaky economy are starting to take their toll on the youngest students, and that is showing up in panic attacks and uncontrollable crying at school.

Guidance counselors at local elementary and intermediate schools are starting to see more students dealing with anxiety. Traditionally, counselors most often met with students whose parents or teachers thought they had attention deficit disorder or behavior problems in class.

But now they’re seeing more students having crying spells or who are short of breath — the kinds of anxiety problems adults typically deal with, Clark-Pleasant Intermediate counselor Lisa Morris, Northwood Elementary counselor Ellen Mae Paris and Sawmill Woods counselor Melissa Morris said.

Each of the counselors can point to multiple factors behind the anxiety spikes. More students at Clark-Pleasant Intermediate are using social media, which can lead to online bullying or arguments, Morris said. And Franklin schools were put on lockdown twice this past month because of bank robberies, which scares students and makes them wonder if something harmful will happen to them, Paris said.

But the number of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch is growing — this past year 37 percent of Johnson County students were enrolled in the program. In 2010, 16 percent of Johnson County families with children were living below the poverty line, four times the rate from 2006. And nearly half of the county’s single mothers were living below the poverty line in 2010, up from 14 percent in 2006, according to the Indiana Business Research Center.

As those rates climb, more students across the county are becoming concerned about whether their parents will keep their jobs, or if they’ll have to move in with relatives because their families can’t afford rent or mortgage payments, the counselors said.

So while counselors still speak with students who have problems focusing in class or who need grief counseling because a relative has died, they’re also seeing more students worried about the economy and its effect on their family.

When those students get to school, their worries can make it difficult for them to focus in class. When that happens, it’s a counselor’s job to work with the student to show them how they can deal with their emotions. The counselors also watch for students who don’t have enough food and clothing, or need school supplies or glasses. They connect those students and their families with community groups who can fill those needs.

“It’s just a very difficult time with families, and I think the stress from adults trickles down to kids in a lot of cases, and they bring that to school,” Lisa Morris said.

Melissa Morris and Lisa Morris said Clark-Pleasant’s annual Fast Track event, a United Way of Johnson County program, is key in helping students from low-income families get enough school supplies. This past summer, about 650 students and families — more than 10 percent of the school district’s total enrollment — attended the event.

Clark-Pleasant and Franklin schools also participate in a program through Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana that provide students with food during the weekends. Next month Lisa Morris will take students who need glasses to an eye care center where they’ll receive free eye exams and glasses, she said.

“If the basic needs aren’t met, how are you going to get a kid to feel good about themselves and learn? You’re not,” Paris said.

Melissa Morris, who has been a counselor for Johnson County schools since 1999, has always had students whose families couldn’t afford enough clothing, food or supplies, but other counselors said those numbers have started to spike during the past five to 10 years.

Parents struggling financially will try to hide what’s happening from their children, who can still tell that something is wrong. The financial strain also can lead to other family problems, such as fights or divorce, the counselors said.

Teachers as well as parents notice students can’t catch their breath because they’re overly anxious or don’t want to go to school because they feel overwhelmed. They refer them to counselors, who try to help the students better understand and manage their emotions.

Melissa Morris can’t simply tell one of Sawmill’s kindergartners or first graders who are scared about their parents losing their jobs to stop feeling a certain way. Instead she helps them try to identify their feelings, such as by asking if they are mad or sad. She then talks with them about how they can make good choices for themselves even when they feel angry or upset.

Lisa Morris works mostly with fifth-grade students at the intermediate school, and she shows the students relaxation methods they can use when they feel overwhelmed, such as breathing techniques.

“We’ll just kind of break it down as much as we can, in manageable bits, and try to give them some coping skills to deal with it,” she said.

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