Protect the Mental Health of Students and Teachers

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As February comes to an end, we’ve been reflecting on the important movements in education highlighted this month. The Black Lives Matter at School movement is fighting for racial justice in schools across the country. Teachers Against Child Detention highlights the educators’ role as mandated reporters and exposed the U.S. government’s awful policy of detaining immigrant children in detention centers. The one-year anniversary of the Parkland school shooting reminds us of the students and teachers who turned their trauma and grief into a crusade to end gun violence, calling out the despicable inaction of our politicians. When children in our country do not have culturally relevant curriculum or counselors, when children are imprisoned, when children fear for their lives in school, we are damaging them.

Our children need our advocacy more than ever before. While teachers have always been passionate champions for their students, 2018 was a year when they demanded that our leaders listen to them. We have seen first-hand how NOT listening has had serious consequences for our nation’s children. The truth is that teachers are fighting daily against a system of education policies forced on schools by non-educators that does more to add trauma to children’s lives than to reduce it. Teachers are witnesses and first responders to the harm that is being caused. 

NBC news recently reported that the increase of children showing up in emergency rooms due to a mental health crisis is “staggering.” The American Academy of Pediatrics also reported that children’s admissions to hospitals for suicidal thoughts and self-harm more than doubled from 2008 to 2015. Additionally, serious behavioral issues in schools have increased nationwide. Many theories are discussed as to why this is happening. Too much screen time. Addiction to social media. Over-scheduling of structured activities. What is left out of the conversation is the reality of how education policies and practices of the past two decades contribute to this crisis and are a significant factor adding to the increase of mental health issues among children and the adults who work with them. We are speaking out and we urge physicians, mental health professionals and parents to speak out with us.

In 2001, when No Child Left Behind required schools to test students in grades 3-8 in reading and math every year, it led to an increased emphasis on getting students prepared for these academic tests. Parents of kindergartners were warned that their children would be behind if they didn’t have their sight words memorized or read a certain number of words per minute. The kitchen sets, blocks, puzzles and dress-up centers that used to be a crucial part of learning in early childhood classrooms disappeared. This change was short-sighted and not at all supported by early-childhood educators and research. It failed to recognize the important brain development that occurs through complex and imaginative free play, such as developing executive functioning, self-regulation, problem solving, critical thinking and social skills.

The Alliance for Childhood issued a joint statement from doctors, child development experts and early childhood educators urging Congress to rethink this policy. Stating that, “the political push for even more standardized testing… has ignored the adverse health consequences of such policies.”  Their warning was ignored.

This loss of play in school, while damaging to all children, was even more devastating for children who live in neighborhoods with a dearth of safe spaces to play. Many children who only had access to quality play experiences in school, now had no access at all. A policy for which the stated purpose was to leave no child behind, pushed many children backward in important developmental skills. . .



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