Academics and Mental Health

An adolescent boy doing homework.

Watching our youth this past year complete their school from home and online has given us an opportunity to see how HUGE the impact school has on mental health, and vice versa. Whether positive or negative, moving from in-classroom to home-learning has been significant for youth and parents alike. Let’s look closer at how children are learning and performing in school, and how their mental health is impacted.

Elementary School Age Youth – 5 Years-Old to 13 Years-Old (K-5th/6th Grades):

Classwork, homework, teacher reinforcement, and social connections are significant throughout elementary school. All children learn at different paces and will usually ebb and flow, one-month they may be focused, and the next month distracted, this is a healthy and normal pattern for children. If you’re noticing that your child is falling behind academically in specific subjects often or if it has been more than a month and they are still struggling, then it’s time to start exploring with them what’s happening. It’s important to catch delays within the earlier grades so supports and/or accommodations can be put into place before they become overwhelmed and insecurity grows.

A common cycle is reflected here and usually begins in elementary school. The frustrating part about this cycle is that some youth do have a hard time with specific subjects or broad skills such as reading or math that can impact numerous subjects. This is not due to laziness or lack of effort. Our Working Memory nicknamed the Learning Engine plays a significant role in learning. When youth have a working memory deficit or a processing speed delay it can interfere with the ability to complete math and/or reading tasks, due to not being able to recall information in the moment or process it as needed. Majority of cases, when considering a deficit in part of the brain, it is found that the working memory is not able to function at the same pace as the rest of the brain, creating a gap. This gap is called a discrepancy and is also referred to as a performance gap – the space between the youth’s potential and their performance. Again, this is not laziness or lack of effort, but is more related to a certain part of the brain not being able to keep up with the rest. 

There are numerous ways that our brain’s ability to learn is impacted outside of a working memory deficit. The below list can cause our working memory to have a delay or our processing speed to struggle to keep up.


Social Anxiety


Test Anxiety

Family Conflicts

Time Restraints from Activities

Insufficient Sleep

Too much Screen Time

Lack of Exercise

Traumatic Experiences

It’s important to identify specifically what could be impacting a student’s ability to learn and demonstrate their knowledge.

Middle School Age Youth – 12 to 15 Years-Old (6th/7th Grades to 8th/9th Grades):

For the majority of parents, middle school was a ROUGH time. This truth has not changed…middle school is tough. Numerous classes to maintain, more homework, and social rigor increases as each person seeks acceptance and approval from their peers. In addition to this, hormones impact the mind, starting as early as 3rd grade. A common pattern with middle and high school students is, they put pressure on themselves to achieve certain grades and then project that pressure onto their parents which is a subconscious response. This pressure can lead to building anxiety and disappointment which in turn leads to anger and resentment from the youth towards their parents. Much conflict and hurt comes from this misinterpretation.


The best way to resolve this is to choose a neutral time, when emotions are calm, and decide together what the goals (not expectations) can be for the quarter. You can then establish SMART goals to check in with one another each week or biweekly on how progress is coming.

High School Age Youth – 14 to 18 Years-Old (9th Grade to College):

High school students have the added pressure of maintaining a GPA, college admittance, AP courses, sports, and employment. There is also an increase in social rigor that includes dating, driving, changes in friend groups, parties, and social media use. Adding in potential family stress, substance use, moving homes, socioeconomic differences, body image, health issues, etc.

During the teenage years it is important to ensure that communication is clear and that the connection is strong. There is an ongoing struggle between parents and teens as adolescents are working to develop autonomy and independence, while parents are in the stage of wanting to pass things down to the next generation – These two desires are in conflict with one another. Reflective Listening is an effective tool to help decrease misunderstandings and allow us to empathize better.

Reflective Listening:

Choose a neutral and emotionally calm time to discuss the conflict, concern, or just a comfortable conversation to allow connection. In the listener’s own words, they summarize the speaker’s most important points. Being sure to include emotional content, even if it was only communicated through tone or body language. The speaker will then clarify or confirm as needed and the speaker and listener will switch roles.

As Parents & Caretakers:

As parents we also need to be aware of our own biases and where we are with our own emotions. We have all had our own experiences when we were in school that, despite our efforts, will impact our ability to meet our children’s needs. The insecurities our children experience around their academic performance can be significant and heartbreaking when left unaddressed for years or throughout their school careers. Referring to the cycle presented above, it doesn’t always stay a cycle, it can begin to spiral. The emotions become heavier and harder to overcome. This can lead to feelings of hopelessness, self-hatred, and (in some cases) scary thoughts of hurting themselves because they don’t know other options to relieve the distress. 

As parents and caretakers, we need to take time to notice the struggles of our children and meet them where they are emotionally, with openness, empathy, and support as we explore the academic struggles. Reaching out to teachers, school counselors, medical providers, and mental health providers can give students the skills they need to be successful. Raising children requires a village, we are all excited to be part of your village!

Candace Basile, LCSW

Candace Basile, LCSW

Candace is a therapist in our South Jordan Counseling office.

a happy father receives a kiss from his son

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