Special education needs are growing faster than School District 78 Fraser Cascade’s (SD78) student population, according to SD78 assistant superintendent Kevin Bird.
The number of students enrolled in SD78 increased by two per cent this year while the number of youth accessing special education services increased by nine per cent.
Bird said the two per cent increase in student numbers is a lot for the district but SD78 had predicted growth and remains prepared for more.
“That is right in keeping with the forecast. There’s no surprises,” he said. “That makes planning ahead fairly easy. For instance, the board built two new classrooms at Kent Elementary. Those types of investments are done based on these predictions.”
But along with enrollment growth, Bird noted an increase in special needs numbers, and more specifically, the need for mental health services.
“I think it’s pretty common across the province to see that anxiety is a large issue for many of our students,” Bird said. “There’s no doubt that for us, per capita, our numbers are moving up.”
Right now, students receiving special education account for approximately 10 to 12 per cent of the district’s student population.
Bird said services provided by SD78 are determined on a case by case basis and most students receive an individualized plan. For some students that’s a child care councillor, while others may work with the district’s youth mental health partner groups like Agassiz Harrison Community Services.
“It depends on what the individual needs, but there is a wide spectrum of services,” he said.
Over time, SD78’s mental health services have increased. Every school has on site child care councillors and special education assistants.
“Services have definitely increased because the need has increased,” he said. “We have way more special education assistants per capita than many other districts, and that’s all because of the need level we see in our classrooms. And we want our teachers and our students to be supported.”
Agassiz Centre for Education (ACE) administrator Sandy Balascak says many of her student’s behavioural issues stem from mental health issues, but she doesn’t think actual cases of anxiety have increased.
“I think the difference now is that we have created a climate where they are willing to talk about and identify those issues rather than just acting out,” Balascak wrote in an email to the Observer. “We have worked to get them comfortable with recognizing the issues and defining them without stigma. Speaking for our school, I can say that we have always had a high number of kids with anxiety, but few of them would have admitted it in the past; whereas most are very open about it now.”
But anxiety disorders in youth aren’t always properly addressed, or addressed at all.
Dr. Ashley Miller, a BC Children’s Hospital child and adolescent psychiatrist with a specialty in mood and anxiety disorders, said it is difficult to determine if the rate of anxiety disorders is increasing or if people are simply being diagnosed more frequently.
Either way, extreme anxiety can be crippling in combination with the demands of youth.
“If you have an anxiety disorder on top of the normal changes and stresses of adolescence, it certainly makes the transition years – especially grade eight, going into high school, or grade 12, leaving high school – more difficult,” Miller said.
And anxiety doesn’t always appear as nervousness or apprehension.
Two common expressions of anxiety in teens or youth are refusals and anger outbursts.
“Often you’ll see refusals to do something or kids saying they don’t like something anymore,” Miller explained. “It’s possible they just don’t like it, but it’s also possible they’ve become anxious about some aspect of it…For example, a kid says, ‘I’m not doing my math homework.’ It’s more likely that they feel overly challenged and are scared they can’t overcome [math] then they just don’t want to do it.”
Teens are known for having an ‘attitude’ but sometimes, outbursts of anger or frustration are hiding anxiety disorders.
“When kids are trying not to show their vulnerability and that they are actually scared about something, they get angry or frustrated that people aren’t behaving in the way they need them to,” Miller said.
She emphasized that anxiety is completely normal and something all humans experience. It’s only when anxiety starts creating dysfunction that it needs to be addressed.
A number of online resources such as AnxietyCanada.com, FoundryBC.ca, KeltyMentalHealth.ca provide resources for youth and families dealing with mental health issues like anxiety. Another option is the Breathr app – created for youth to develop ‘mindfulness’ for managing difficult or stressful situations.
Basic factors like sleep, screen time, exercise and the amount of time spent outdoors can make a huge difference, but one of the best ways to move forward is communication.
“Anxiety disorders and problems are very common and the best thing to do is talk openly about it,” Miller said. “Whether it’s a child talking to a parent…teachers [or] educators and finding the help if it’s needed.”