The inevitable debate that occurs after the tragedy of a school shooting is usually centered around gun control and mental health. With regard to gun control issues, keeping guns out of the hands of young people emotionally at risk and those with mental health issues is something on which we can all agree. Politicians need to address gun control in a non-partisan way, and, hopefully, do their part in making sure that this never happens again.
But the cause of violence in schools is never the result of one issue. Mental health, and the emotional well-being of our young people is another critical issue which needs to be addressed as well.
As a parent, grandparent, and former teacher, I’ve seen students struggle with emotional issues as much as with academic issues. And as a Student Teacher Field Supervisor, who is presently in the schools, those issues are still prevalent. Just this past week, my student teacher approached me about a young girl in the classroom. The student was disruptive, argumentative and clearly having a problem in class, for no apparent reason. Yet, there was something causing this student to behave the way she did that clearly had nothing to do with academics.
It's a challenge for teachers to address all the things that affect a student’s ability to function in class, in a productive way. Educators need to not only identify and address the student's underlying issues that are causing disruptive behavior and help that student, but also maintain a positive learning environment for the rest of the class. This is not an easy task, and teachers need to be supported in their efforts.
As educators, we’re primarily focused on identifying students at risk academically, but we also have to put greater resources into supporting efforts to identify kids who are at risk emotionally. Students’ improved emotional well-being will not only lead to all around better academic outcomes but will create a more positive learning environment for everyone as well.
What Can We Do?
So how do we move forward to implement a system that addresses the emotional well-being of young people? First, it is important to understand that the school and school district cannot be solely responsible for dealing with and solving the growing concerns of the emotional well-being of students. It is unrealistic and completely unsustainable. Second, it will require a cooperative effort between parents, teachers, counselors, social service agencies, community groups, law enforcement, and various other government agencies to provide education and support to families and young people.
We need to begin by identifying students at risk as early as possible. That means beginning in pre-school and continuing to follow those students throughout elementary school and beyond. But identifying students at risk is only part of the process. It is essential to provide early intervention programs to address and help students become confident and resilient young people who are able to resolve conflict in a non-violent way. The goal is to ultimately ensure that all students feel part of a school community where he or she feels valued and becomes a welcomed and contributing member of that school community.
So, what are some of the critical steps?
*Parents, teachers, and counselors working together to identify and discuss concerns about students.
*Identify whether there is a clinical diagnosis for a student’s behavior and help guide the family to provide whatever help the student needs – whether it’s counseling, medication, or both.
*Identify specific resources available to families for early intervention, such that parents, teachers and counselors are working together to help that student. Cooperation and collaboration is necessary because “it does take a village to raise a child!” As a society, we need to prioritize resources for families to access that kind of help.
*If a student is experiencing social, emotional, or behavioral issues, educators need to work with parents and counselors to provide in-school help and support and follow up with parents at home, such that there is an ongoing cooperative partnership.
This will require additional resources to allow teachers the needed time to collaborate with parents and counselors to provide this ongoing support.
How do we shift the focus in education to include not only a strong emphasis on academics but also on the emotional well-being of kids?
In the area of curriculum and environment, consider the following:
*Implementing programs to teach empathy, sharing, and caring to students.
*Provide curriculum courses dealing with conflict resolution in which students have the opportunity to discuss real problems and discuss real solutions.
*Provide opportunities for students to participate in a wide variety of activities which promote the uniqueness of students in a welcoming and inclusive environment.
In the area of student support and counseling, consider the following:
*Provide additional on sight counseling and mental health opportunities for students.
*Reduce the counselor-student ratio, shifting their focus to include not just scheduling classes or academic counseling to helping support the students with any emotional or support issues.
*Bring in additional mental health professionals to support teachers and other school staff and personnel to identify and provide help to all students in need.
*Provide additional after-school programs where students connect with adults for help and support as well.
*Reduce teachers’ academic workload so they can take a greater role in supporting students in non-academic ways.
We can all agree that supporting the mental and emotional well-being of our children is critical. We have to make it a priority and provide the necessary resources to implement programs and provide support to families and educators to work together to help children grow into emotionally healthy and academically prepared students.