I’m Concerned About a Student

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

From England: For the last 3 months I have covered a class as the teacher is on maternity leave. Obviously as a teacher you notice certain things about your students. There is a girl in my class and it’s fair to say she isn’t happy. I saw this in the second lesson I began teaching that class and the reason I’m writing this is because of something she wrote. The first thing I noticed is she severely self harms; multiple cuts that appear quite deep. She tries to hide this but when I was talking to her the sleeves of her cardigan had slipped down. She seems very vacant and doesn’t appear to be paying attention most of the time. I’ve been working at the school for 1 and a half years and I remember once she came in to school under the influence of alcohol and was sent home. But what she wrote today really concerns me and I can’t get it off my mind.

We’re studying monologues and I asked the class to write one. She wrote about her life when she was younger, saying she was ‘carefree and happy’ and then she changed to the present and she wrote about feeling empty and down, and waking up each day wishing she didn’t. She also wrote about her friends distancing themselves from her and feeling that she had no one who cares for her. In her monologue she called herself stupid twice, however the piece of writing was well structured and of a high level.

What concerned me the most what she wrote at the end — “I wish I didn’t fail last time, because I do not want to fail again.” I passed it on to the head of department and they simply dismissed it as attention seeking however as unprofessional as it seems I do not know what else to do. I am meant to be giving her extra lessons as she is not on task in English or some of her other lessons. Does anyone know how I can possibly understand what she means or try and either get her help or help her myself as I feel as though the piece of writing was a cry for help.

A: This isn’t just a “cry” for help. It’s a huge shout! She has let you see her arms. She wrote a monologue she knew you would read. It’s important not to dismiss what teens say as just a “bid for attention.” It is a bid for attention. It needs to be taken seriously. She has already cut herself deeply once. Whether by accident or on purpose, she could go too deep again and perhaps kill herself.

I hope there is a counselor associated with the school. You can’t (and shouldn’t) take this on by yourself. You don’t have the training to help her. But you can be someone who takes her seriously and who pulls in the appropriate assistance. Do what you can to get her to a counselor. Find out if there is a hotline or adolescent help line in your area and give her that information too.

Teachers are often the first to notice when a teen is in real distress. If the family is unstable, a teacher may be the only adult in a kid’s life who can provide some direction and support. I hope you will hold onto your empathy for such students. In my mind, providing some compassion and concrete help is just as important as correcting their grammar.

One caution: Sometimes kids like this are so needy they mistake good intentions to provide help as personal interest. If you speak to her alone, make sure your door is open or ask another concerned teacher to join you for the conversation.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 22 Mar 2014

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2014). I’m Concerned About a Student. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2014/03/22/im-concerned-about-a-student/