May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to address the mental health crisis in young people. There are many things contributing to the stress and anxiety students are experiencing like trying to catch up after COVID, dealing with social and emotional issues, even dealing with public discord and things they see on social media.
One way schools can help alleviate students’ stress is by listening to their concerns and putting systems in place so they are heard. Yet, this is not a one-size-fits-all approach.
To ensure equity, each student must be kept at the center, giving them a voice in their education and an environment that allows them to speak up about what’s most important to them. Equity is having a system that is responsive to the needs of each individual child, not one response for all children.
Giving kids a voice
When a child brings an issue forward, keeping that individual at the center of the conversation and listening to them, without judgement or reaction, is critical and fosters an environment that encourages them to open up and talk about their needs with adults they trust. This increases the likelihood that they’ll share what’s bothering or stressing them out and prevents mental health crises.
There must be a process in place that takes the concerns they raise and determines what types of supportive learning opportunities the school or the young person’s trusted adults will provide. Some solutions may address the individual student, some may help a small group, and others may even be beneficial for the whole school. It’s important to know that a school doesn’t need to create an “everybody” answer to be equitable, it must have right answer for the right kid(s).
Listening to students’ needs
Actively listening and responding doesn’t mean a school must adopt and accept everything kids say, but it means responding appropriately. If a child says, “My friends and I have been talking about this and we think our school should take this action,” there should be mechanisms in place so adults can give the most effective recommendation, whether the issue on the table is physical or psychological.
If a child’s concern cannot be met, responses can range from, “That’s a great idea but is not something we can do within the school because of these reasons, however, we suggest you do XYZ” to, “This would be great for a community organization we can connect you with that can help.” With this, the student understands that they are heard and can decide what to do next based on the school’s recommendation.
A great example of this approach is Great Oaks Legacy Charter School student advocacy club, led by Nathan Deguid. Nathan recently wrote an article for NJ.com about the role of advocacy to effect change in a community. It creates a bridge between students and adults so if an individual has an idea that the adults in school cannot help with – due to lack of time or resources, for example – they can bring it to the club to figure out who to go to and how to get them to listen. It makes more room for an individual student’s concern or idea to be heard. Nathan says, “Before you can mobilize a group of people, you have to create or present a safe space for all people to voice their opinions.”