Concerns about toxic stress, deep childhood/youth anxiety and trauma are in the spotlight in schools and communities, not because they are new issues but because we are beginning to come to grips with the impacts and outcomes for so many kids.
Reports in Canada and the U.S. suggest that one in five youngsters is “suffering from” anxiety. Note that it doesn’t say “is effectively coping with…or has developed strategies to overcome anxiety.” These kids are in all of our classrooms and their capacity to learn and to thrive is compromised. Their mental and emotional energy is being drained dealing with a barrage of inputs, experiences and perceptions that make survival a much more pressing priority than learning. Looking ahead, what can we expect? Our schools are changing: we are welcoming more immigrant and refugee children, some of whom have very fresh and terrifying images and experiences of war, destruction and famine. We also know that a larger number of local kids have been impacted by trauma. This year, we have youngsters arriving from a summer of fires and floods, feeling a sense of dislocation, fear and loss. For these students, the capacity to cope may be very different in September than it was in June.
There was a time when social-emotional and mental health issues were directed to counselors or district staff for attention from those highly trained specialists if such resources were even there. In other venues, an old belief system was still operating, one that revolved wholly around expectations of self-control and willpower – a flawed and inappropriate way to address dysregulated behaviours and overwhelmed children. For still others, the whole topic was pushed outside the frame of a school’s focus because those things should be dealt with at home.
In light of what we know today about how our minds function and in keeping with our commitment to every child, every chance, every day, it is no longer responsible to rely solely on specialists or on believing that “just get over it” is a remedy. Nor can we count on the home or external agencies to “deal with” the impact of social-emotional stressors on the children we teach.
It’s true that the number of organizations focusing on mental health is growing rapidly. It is essential that in concert with such work, we are full participants (and leaders) in a universal call to action. Everyone working in the schoolhouse should be aware of and in tune with their unique role in impacting the trajectory of kids’ mental health, safety and long-term success. Children at the center of such a commitment should see evidence of coordinated support surrounding them.
Because we know that kids who are overwhelmed can’t learn, more and more schools are creating safe and reassuring environments where those children can begin to experience what it’s like to let down their guards and participate in the learning journeys we have designed for them. Sanctions and negative consequences don’t create that possibility. The bus driver, playground supervisor, classroom teacher, education assistant and everyone else who interacts with kids during throughout the school day understands the profound influence they can have: deliberate or unconscious; positive or negative. Take a moment to watch this brief video from the Atlanta Speech School. It illustrates exactly what this looks like. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VxyxywShewI The video is under 4 minutes long – a tiny (and powerful) investment of time to remind us of what school can look like through the eyes of the learner.
Where’s your school in this journey? Take a look at the three generalized types described below to consider whether school mental health is out of the closet and has become central to your professional mission and journey. Given what we know about learning, the learner and our roles in providing safe, healthy and nurturing environments, the path forward should be evident.
School #1: Unhealthy - Out of Touch, Out of Order and Out of Time
•Increasingly tougher standards/no nonsense
•Zero tolerance leading to more exclusions. Many challenging & challenged kids disconnected from school
•We’re ready to teach when you’re ready to learn
•Increased security and restrictions/less community engagement
School #2: Well-Intentioned But Not Sustainable
• Evidence of commitment to all children
• Culture of compassion embraced by staff
• Frequent access to specialized school-based resources outside the classroom
• Well developed referral system to external agencies with hope and confidence that they can make a difference
School #3: The Places We Are Becoming
• Universal positive strategies for kids at risk. It’s everyone’s job
• Monitoring and celebrating successes based on sustained positive changes for our most vulnerable populations
Prioritizing social-emotional health and safety as foundations of our learning environments may cause some to say “Where will we find the time?...I’m already trying to jam too much instruction into an already crowded day…” To those objections we say that when one in five kids is overwhelmed and unable to learn and reach her potential, we have to make changes. We ask ourselves, “Without learning, has teaching occurred?” Let every school work to become a place that fits the kids rather than one that expects the kids to fit the school.