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 Kids who don’t learn skills needed to connect with one as they grow up may end up sabotaging their success at school and later in life. (FatCamera/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Give students time to talk in structured, purposeful and thoughtful ways

Loneliness and social isolation are driving a national mental health crisis. Adults suffer too, of course. But we’re raising kids with anti-social habits who will turn into young adults who may ultimately retreat from the world or become difficult to live with.

Teachers report that many kids are already difficult. Undisciplined students have pushed some teachers out of the profession and maddened parents who want schools to come down hard on classroom chaos so their own kids can learn.

We need to cultivate empathy, actively, if we want kids to consider how their actions make others feel.

Schools have many problems, but poor social health undergirds them all. Who can bother with academics when burdened with feeling that no one cares?

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy cites frightening public health statistics in his 2023 report, Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation. The tip of the iceberg includes:

  • Increased premature death rates comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, drinking 6 alcoholic drinks a day or chronic obesity.
  • Increased risk of depression and anxiety, especially among young people.
  • Increased risk of suicide, suicidal ideation and self harm
  • An increased rate of loneliness among young adults every year between 1976 and 2019
  • A 50% increased risk of dementia among older people
  • A mere 39% of the U.S.reporting that they feel “very connected to other people,” with the lowest rates among young adults.

The report’s bad news continues for 68 pages. Loneliness is a public health epidemic.

Locally, only 29% of adolescents grades 6-12 report feeling a “sense of belonging” at school, according to the 2023 SurveyWorks. It seems as though Rhode Island’s schools are hothousing disconnection.

Humans are hard-wired to be social. But relationships are objectively messy. Especially in a convenience culture, it’s almost insulting to have to deal with the feelings, demands, conflict and heartbreaks that other people invite. Better to hit the delete key or “block” or worse, commit cyber revenge.

Social health is the foundation for mental health. Friends, family, sports pals, clubs, colleagues give us perspective, build our resilience and offer comfort in times of distress. Strong relationships increase levels of oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone.”

But in schools, things get weird. Educators frustrated with kids’ antisocial behavior are begging for an army of mental health workers to… what…? Fix the kids? Heal them? To conduct one-on-one therapy with an impossible number of distressed kids?

First, that army does not exist.

Second, even if it did, schools don’t have the resources to buy their services on the scale they need.

Third, while some kids really do need professional help, one-on-one services won’t begin to touch the schools’ more general social needs.

Kids don’t have sandbox skills anymore – taking turns, sharing, listening to one another, resolving conflicts, speaking truthfully and from the heart, in short, connecting with one another. Lacking those skills sabotages their success, at school and in their future.

Not unreasonably, teachers complain that every social problem is foisted on them. Solving poverty is out of their wheelhouse, for example. But they certainly can build time in a school schedule to practice civil face-to-face talking.

Why schools? Because, to paraphrase bank robber Willie Sutton, that’s where the kids are. And that’s where the solution to bad behavior is to jump to punishment or become resentful about and at the students. Kids need to be taught.

Granted, adults aren’t exactly experts at sandbox skills either, although teachers really ought to be. Kids learn social norms from adults and older peers who model desirable behavior. I hate student handbooks with their punitive rules for kids, but no mutual deal with the adults.

Time is schools’ gold standard, so redeploying precious time might seem nuts. But cramming class periods with covering content won’t improve achievement scores, as decades of local and national assessments tell us.

Instead, I believe schools would have more success splitting students into small groups paired with an adult – morning circle at elementary; advisory at secondary – to discuss their goals, aspirations and how they’d like to be treated. Advisories were specifically designed to counteract the alienation of anonymous, “factory-model” schooling.

Sadly, many schools implemented advisory curricula of pointless ice-breakers that failed to create community. Quickly, the weekly hour of advisory devolved into wasted time, free periods when the kids could text or watch YouTube. Ten-minute homerooms got re-installed.

Give the kids back that hour to build a sense of belonging, feeling valued, trusting they’ll be heard. Let the kids talk. Listen to them. Support their mental health.

This spring, as administrators are creating their schedules for next year, they’d do themselves a favor by ensuring that small groups of humans can create purposeful, supportive tribes.

The kids’ mental health can’t wait for K-12’s intractability.

First published: RI Current News, May 10, 2024

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