Originally published on April 6, 2022 in The Atlanta Journal Constitution:
Whether critical race theory, a parental bill of rights, transgender roles in sports or a dispute over grades, our children are watching how we manage ourselves. They know if we’re shouting at school board meetings and speaking disrespectfully to school administrators and teachers.
Children’s primary psychological development tool is mimicry. How can we expect them to behave if we’re not?
In a new survey of educators from the American Psychological Association, 60% report having experienced physical violence or verbal aggression during COVID-19, mostly from students. That is not a surprise given the condition of children’s mental health.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data collected during COVID-19 reveals children have exhibited elevated rates of anxiety, depression and overall psychological stress. The U.S. surgeon general has issued a warning that depression and anxiety symptoms have gone up by 50% worldwide in children and youth since the pandemic began. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association have all issued a national state of emergency in child mental health in recent months.
Parental behavior has been a cause for concern as well. The American Psychological Association survey found that 42% of bullying, threats, online harassment and slurs directed at school administrators came from parents.
Not only do we have children struggling to maintain emotional regulation and self-control, but they are in homes with caregivers struggling in the same areas. If civil discourse and calm assertion aren’t exhibited in the home, it’s no surprise that tensions are bleeding over into the schoolhouse.
Our national political scene has become a stage for how adults perform conflict resolution. When kids observe insults and name-calling, they will follow suit. When school board meetings deteriorate into screaming matches over critical race theory and parental bills of rights, kids will follow suit.
No matter the opinion, discourse will end when civility ceases. And when discourse ends, so does progress.
The heart of our schools are our children, malleable, shapeable, beautiful minds. Must we make our schools a battleground with civilians getting hurt in the shelling, or can we move it away from rudeness and discourtesy to decorum and respect focused on meeting children’s needs?
The most pressing concern ought to be the health of our children and getting them the educational support to remediate what learning was interrupted by the pandemic. We must provide funding for social and emotional support staff in schools to assist them in navigating confusing feelings of isolation, anger and sadness. We must connect them with resources to assist with food insecurity, trauma coping and community mental health.
Teachers are on the front lines dealing with the fallout of children’s needs not being met during the pandemic and after. Educators and administrators should be supported in their efforts to provide our kids with structure, education and care. Educators don’t go into the profession seeking to get rich; most do it because they want to sow good into the world.
Let’s reward them by showing them respect and giving them the resources that they need to cope with the challenges of the times and their own mental health and safety needs in their work environment.
If we want our children to rise as successful citizens in the broader world, we must rise to the challenge in our homes. Parents must work to maintain healthy communication with those with whom they disagree; as the dinner table disagreements go, so will our town hall meetings. Conflict resolution does not mean canceling a person because we disagree, interrupting their explanations, or bullying them until they concede. It requires hearing a person out, respecting them as a person even if you don’t respect their opinion, and sometimes, when middle ground cannot be accomplished, agreeing to disagree.
Children are desperate for stability and consistency and are looking for help in navigating complex emotions. Adults can and should be a resource of hope and help to them. If you as a teacher, parent or student or someone you know is experiencing mental health difficulty, reach out to get help. It’s not just you who is impacted by your mental health, for the worse or good. Working through our differences, we can all help our schools be places of hope and optimism for the next generation.