A young girl turns to her father after being bombarded with news of violence and threats at schools across the nation and with a solemn face asks, “Daddy, do I have to worry about being safe at school?” The father gulps with a long pause and replies, “Of course not, honey, because adults will always keep you safe.” So goes the challenge for every parent, teacher, and school administrator. Are we willing to rise to this challenge?
During school, the last thing anyone needs is to have children distracted while wondering about safety. Unfortunately, such concerns are not only valid, but also create anxiety that interferes with concentration. Such anxieties detract from a healthy learning environment. So, how do we convince children that adults will keep them safe?
Addressing small issues before they grow into major problems is a key strategy.
This approach is essential, but understand that what occurs in schools mirrors our current societal practices. Too often, we react only after a crisis or tragedy arises, rather than focusing on prevention. This narrow scope leads to incomplete and ineffective solutions omitting key causes of problems like violence. For example, in school violence situations a common thread remains. That common thread is mental illness.
Although the incidence of anxiety and depression is rapidly increasing among children and adults, the topic of mental illness is consistently avoided. However, no one disagrees that with demands on children both at home and school that stress levels are rising. Stress remains a loyal friend to mental illness.
Children often possess few, if any, healthy strategies to diffuse stress and even adults struggle to keep stress in check. Often children believe they ned to solve problems independently refusing the help of an adult. Meanwhile, stress slowly erodes their controls opening vulnerability to everything from sleep and appetite changes to anger, anxiety, depression, and aggression.
To keep children safe and promote healthy learning, adults must be willing advocates for children. That means taking the time and energy to discuss concerns with children. We also need to teach children healthy and effective tools to deal with stress, fear, conflict, and other issues. How? First, adults must model healthy behaviors and work towards promoting healthy behaviors.
Rather than reacting to a problem or tragedy, we must be proactive. We must work in our homes, schools, and communities to recognize mental distress, while sharing healthy strategies in dealing with problems whether it be as simple as addressing a playground disagreement or as complex as recognizing mental illness.
Finally, we must intervene when there are signs of mental anguish and offer the support and guidance children need to maintain mental health. In some cases, this can be accomplished through parenting techniques, in other instances, professional help may be required. Seeking and accepting help early is key to restoring mental health. Therefore, recognize that children and adults alike need support, intervention, and tools to stay healthy not only from the physical standpoint, but also from the mental aspect. Now is the time for each of us to openly discuss mental health strategies to help our children experience healthy learning.
(c) 2010 Chris Marchioni, MD