Red Zone

Graphic of a continuum of colours (from left to right): dark green, moss green, lime green, yellow, orange, red

The red zone reflects more severe, intense, and long-lasting mental health challenges. This section of the module will review the mental health issues that most commonly co-occur with LDs, and clarify the ways in which educators can support students at this stage.

To begin, watch this video in which Valerie shares her experiences of coping with mental health challenges as an individual with LDs. As you work through this section of the module, keep Valerie’s story in mind, and see if you can relate the Red Zone concepts to her experiences.

*Note: Valerie mentions suicide in her story. Pages 132 and 133 of Supporting Minds offer guidance about what to do and what not to do to support students who show signs of suicidal thoughts and behaviour.

Click here to access the transcript of this video.

When students are experiencing issues in the red zone, they may display a variety of challenging behaviours, both externalized and internalized.

Externalizing behaviours are feelings directed outwards, which are often more noticeable. These may include:

  • aggression (e.g., hitting, yelling, cursing)
  • defiance or oppositionality (e.g., not listening, not following rules or instructions)
  • temper tantrums or outbursts

Internalizing behaviours are feelings directed inwards. These are less visible, and often go unnoticed until the student becomes so distressed that they begin to engage in externalizing behaviour. Internalizing behaviours may include:

  • withdrawal
  • avoidance
  • somatic complaints
  • anxiety
  • depression

Diagram showing the internalized behaviours within a circle, and the externalized behaviours outside the circle

Figure 1: This diagram depicts the internalized and externalized behaviours that students may present when struggling with challenges related to LDMH.

The Ontario Ministry of Education resource, Supporting Minds, offers helpful descriptions of the various mental health problems that students may experience, including indicators to look out for and strategies to support these students. Click here to access the document Supporting Minds: An Educator’s Guide to Promoting Students’ Mental Health and Well-being.

This section of the learning module will focus on anxiety and depression. These mental health issues affect students’ ability to learn and demonstrate their learning, and students with LDs tend to experience a higher rate of both anxiety and depression [i]. It is helpful for educators to be aware of these mental health problems and the associated behaviours that may present themselves at school; however, remember that diagnosis and intervention are guided primarily by mental health professionals.


Anxiety is a basic human emotion. It reflects an uneasiness of mind, in which we anticipate threat. Anxiety is our brain’s early warning system, alerting us to potential danger and activating our sympathetic nervous system. Anxiety can also be maladaptive. Sometimes the brain perceives situations – such as test taking, entering a room full of people, or being alone – as “dangerous”, which activates the fight, flight or freeze reaction. However, it is not helpful to be flooded with anxiety during a test, as anxiety interferes with concentration and with the ability to retrieve information from memory.

For students with LDs, many situations may evoke feelings of anxiety, but this may not reflect an anxiety disorder. There may simply be a need to give the individual time and support to adjust to the situation, and ensure that appropriate accommodations for the LD are in place. As mentioned earlier, a recent study by Margari et al [ii] found that 30% of individuals with LDs met criteria for diagnosed anxiety disorders, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Anxiety becomes a diagnosed disorder when it:

  • significantly interferes with everyday functioning (e.g., inability to attend school, avoidance of all social activities)
  • is persistent (symptoms lasting at least 6 months, not simply due to a change or new situation)
  • is out of proportion to the actual threat or danger

Recognizing Anxiety

Students may not be able to verbalize their worries, and their behaviours may be different depending on the age and temperament of the student.

  • Younger students may have difficulties sleeping, or may be prone to bedwetting, crying, tantrums, protesting separations and not settling after a short period.
  • Older students may have stomach aches, difficulties sleeping, frequent questioning, or a need for reassurance. They may also avoid attending school, withdraw from friends and family, daydream or look out the window, fidget, and/or frequently ask to use the washroom.
  • Teens may show signs of withdrawal from family, friends or activities, spend more time on the computer, alter their sleep patterns, talk back or not answer questions, and refuse to attend school and/or use drugs or alcohol.

Having LDs may complicate the picture of anxiety. For example, behaviours such as being restless and fidgety, having difficulties concentrating, or not following instructions could reflect elements of LDs (e.g., language, memory, attention) or could reflect distracted worrying that is associated with a Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Similarly, avoiding social interactions or not initiating conversation could reflect language, processing speed or visual-perceptual challenges of LDs, or could reflect a Social Anxiety Disorder.

Supporting Minds offers a comprehensive table of classroom strategies to address anxiety-related symptoms on pages 34-37. Click here to access the document Supporting Minds: An Educator’s Guide to Promoting Students’ Mental Health and Well-being.


“It is more than “just sadness” when problems with mood persist and affect students’ thoughts, how they feel about themselves, and the way they behave and interact with others [iii]."

Depression is a mood disorder that affects the way students feel, think, and act. They may feel sad, hopeless, angry, irritable, or ‘numb’, and be unable to enjoy the activities they would normally like [iv].

Recognizing Depression

At school, signs of depression might include [v]:

  • difficulty concentrating in the classroom
  • fatigue
  • incomplete work
  • frequent absences
  • irritability or feelings of frustration

Having LDs can also complicate the picture of depression. For example, a student with depression and LDs might struggle with a slower rate of thinking and difficulties with concentrating, which could reflect either the depression or the LD, or both, which is why a careful assessment by a trained mental health professional is often required to figure out patters, timing and/or changes in behaviour.

Supporting Minds offers a comprehensive table of classroom strategies to address depression-related symptoms on pages 47-48. Click here to access the document Supporting Minds: An Educator’s Guide to Promoting Students’ Mental Health and Well-being.


[i] Svetaz, Ireland, & Blum, 2000

[ii] Margari, Buttiglione, Craig, Cristella, & de Giambattista, 2013

[iii] Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013, p. 41

[iv] Canadian Mental Health Association, 2014

[v] Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013, p. 42