Everyone, not just our kids, has experienced what we all hope will be a once in a lifetime shared traumatic experience with COVID 19. Add to that the significant trauma so many of us, especially people of color, are experiencing as we have watched and participated in the necessary fight for equity and an end to historical and systemic racism as it has been captured by various media sources across our nation. None of us have a crystal ball to be able to predict with any certainty what the future will hold.
However, there are some logical projections that the toll of living through COVID 19 and the angst associated with the fight for equity are likely to have on the social, emotional and behavioral well-being and psyche of our kids as they prepare for the upcoming school year, whatever that might look like. Compounding this reality is the fact that the data prior to these recent events was more than alarming with respect to children’s mental health across our region’s communities and schools.
The 2019 Pennsylvania Youth Survey (PAYS) report issued by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD) for Columbia, Northumberland, and Union counties indicates that around 40 percent of students grades six through twelve reported having felt sad or depressed most days in the last 12 months. Further, 14 percent of adolescents reported having planned their suicide with one in ten reporting having made one or more suicide attempts. These alarming trends were already present in our region well before the most recent set of events.
While it is, of course, difficult to say with certainty the impact these most recent traumatic experiences will have on our kids, it is logical to anticipate that these experiences are not likely to improve the status of children’s mental health in the region. Acknowledging this reality, these challenges provide us with a necessary reason … an opportunity … to re-think how we approach educating our Valley’s youth.
Our Valley’s schools are, understandably, in the process of developing multiple contingency plans for next school year, given the array of possibilities that may emerge. Given the experiences of this past spring, and despite the remaining uncertainties, our local schools will be far better prepared to successfully deliver instruction than was the case this past spring. However, as important as academic instruction is, in many ways, it becomes less seminal as the degree of emotional stress and strain on our youth increases.
The hard reality is this: in order for our youth to grow and develop in the manner we hope and have come to expect, we need to place a dramatically increased focus on the overall health and well-being of our kids. This is not to suggest that our local schools have not already been moving in this direction as many already have or are exploring programs and practices to address these types of needs. However, we have all been constrained by our own history, which has created structures in our schools that view such programs that focus on social-emotional-behavioral wellness as “extra” rather than core or seminal to how our education system operates.
A clear example of this is that there are only a few school systems in our region that have adopted district-wide social-emotional learning curricula. One of the challenges frequently noted in schools is “where to fit this in on top of everything else?” …in other words…it is viewed as an add-on rather than core to the curriculum. Ironically, neither of us ever recall hearing the statement “where to fit this in on top of everything else?” when we are talking about math, reading or science, as these content areas are viewed as foundational to a child’s academic success. There is no question that student learning becomes even further challenging with kids who are depressed and are struggling with how to manage their emotions
Even if the school doors open this fall somewhat as they always have, schools will be welcoming back kids who have experienced significant trauma for a half-year without the school support system, which often provides key mental health supports and services that are vital to their well-being. As we noted earlier, our region already had significant and growing concerns about children’s mental health prior to the traumatic events of 2020. Acknowledging these realities and their inherent uncertainty, now may, in fact, be the ideal time to reflect on what really deserves to be the foundation of educating our kids.
It is actually pretty simple to understand. The greater the wellness we collectively achieve, the greater the likelihood that we will thrive in our region. Contrarily, if we continue to ignore the risk factors we have highlighted, the greater the likelihood that our kids will struggle.
The age-old adage of being “healthy, wealthy and wise” starts with “healthy” for good reason. Our wellness requires feeling not just physically safe but also psychologically safe and having a strong sense of belonging. These are the building blocks to achievement and success, and, most of all, gateways towards personal happiness. Perhaps it is time for us to re-think our model of education.
Tim Knoster is the Executive Director of the McDowell Institute at Bloomsburg University. Joanne Troutman is the president and CEO of the Greater Susquehanna Valley United Way.