Schools are doing their best to help kids with mental health, but I wonder if they’re on the right track. My district uses SEL (Social Emotional Learning) lessons, surveys and counselors, but a lot of parents see the SEL techniques as controversial. Without parents on board, will it work? If not, what will?
You’re right. If parents don’t support it, it won’t work. That goes for everything schools do, including education itself. That’s why it’s important for schools to bypass controversial experimental methods and focus on ideas with broader support.
SEL is viewed as contentious for a number of reasons: No one can agree on what it actually means. Delving into kids’ psychology is perceived by many as beyond the scope of schools’ academic aims. SEL sometimes deals with delicate subjects like race, sexuality and gender identity. Teachers are spread too thin as it is. And, of course, it’s expensive.
But would turning away from SEL mean schools ignore the rise in student mental health concerns? Not if they put into place uncontentious, common-sense strategies that are likely to help. Here are 5 that might qualify:
1. Enforce discipline. Schools with poor student discipline are chaotic, loud, dangerous and disorganized. That kind of environment can take a serious toll on kids’ mental well-being, as indicated by a 2020 study from Dartmouth. Schools with poor discipline also experience higher rates of bullying and sexual harassment, which multiple studies show can result in depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. Kids with mental struggles often come from tumultuous homes, so a disciplined school setting could serve as a healing counterbalance.
Thus the simple task of tightening up behavioral expectations, penalizing students who act out and making schools a safe, orderly environment would go a long way to helping kids’ mental and emotional stability.
2. Zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol. If you read my column on June 1, you already know about the destructive effects of marijuana on kids’ mental health. You also know that drug use in schools is rising due to its increased availability and newer, difficult-to-detect forms. Alcohol is also prevalent and studies show it can have similarly devastating effects on kids, including depression, suicide, psychosis and behavioral problems.
Teaching the unhealthy outcomes of drugs and alcohol while implementing measures that extinguish their use on campus would undoubtedly aid students’ long-term mental wellness.
3. Course placement. Studies show that academic stress can result in anxiety or depression. The answer is not to water-down existing courses to dilute the potential for stress, but to make sure that students aren’t given high-pressure courses before they’re emotionally ready. Why are sixth graders taking high school algebra or ninth graders taking college English? Properly enrolling students in courses proportional to their emotional maturity levels can help reduce mental health concerns.
4. Digital diminution. Scads of studies show that increased screen time can result in a variety of mental health concerns among kids. A 2020 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), for example, suggests that smartphone use can lead to increased “mental distress, self-injurious behavior and suicidality among youth.”
It’s hard to say you’re in favor of mental health if you’re also in favor of kids using cell phones in school or spending more time staring at laptops. Banning phones and minimizing screen time would yield immediate mental health benefits for all students.
5. Reduced class sizes. Most of us would agree that for kids to be mentally healthy, they need to be able to turn to experienced adults who can help them cope and develop. Teachers generally embrace this role, but it becomes nearly impossible if classrooms are overloaded. Smaller classes enable teachers to expand their responsibilities, permitting them to serve as advisors for the kids who need extra attention.
These 5 ideas are hardly da Vincian in their creativity, but sometimes the best answers to our hardest questions are those that have been staring us in the face all along. While we search the sky for a sleek rescue helicopter, we should not overlook the logs floating in front of us on which we might safely, if slowly, drift to less treacherous waters.