Teenage suicide, especially by girls, is at an all-time high in the United States. Boys are murdering children with AR-15s in schools. Depression is on the rise on college campuses.
Something is so very off for our children.
It is time to bring in the adults.
After 12 years teaching in last-chance high schools and two years in general education high schools, I saw first-hand how all student self-harm was a symptom of students feeling alone, damaged, and unheard–no matter the economic status or cognitive ability of the student. I learned over time that students need at least one adult who is willing to model being vulnerable, imperfect, and give students opportunities to share any hidden crisis that–left hidden–would otherwise lead to self-harm, addictions, depression, or violence against others.
Here is the traditional argument against teaching teachers about compassionate listening: What?! Teachers aren’t counselors! Schools are for learning math and English, not talking about feelings.
My question is: Do you have to be a counselor to listen compassionately then refer a child to a counselor? If kids don’t get themselves to counselors, when do they talk about feelings?
I’m from rural Idaho, where there are lots of guns, and no one I met as a teenager liked to talk about feelings. While I didn’t shoot up my school, I was an “A” student who had my share of hidden hurt. That hurt internalized until I wet myself every day for a week while walking home. At the time, I blamed myself. I know now that I was having an amygdala-triggered, physical reaction to being so afraid of another weekend with my bipolar dad. I wasn’t about to take myself to the counselor’s office, but I would have opened up to a coach or a teacher if any of them had known how to ask and what to say once I let the hurt out. (Here’s a hint: “That sounds hard” and “Let me walk you to the counselor’s office” are always compassionate responses).
At the last school at which I taught, compassionate listening led to students opening up about: cutting, suicidal ideations, bulimia, depression, bullying and LBGTQ issues. My job as a teacher was to integrate into the curriculum a safe means for students to reveal hurt if they needed to. Then I passed students along to proper supports, like the counselor. These were students who wouldn’t have gone to the counselor on their own either.
After the latest school shooting in Florida, as a mother and a teacher, I’m done pretending like business-as-usual in schools is going to cut it: It is time to grow up and be brave about where we spend our efforts (and our money) in schools. How much are children learning when they are stewing in anger? Or despairing in silence about their parents’ divorce? Or a child is who so lonely, yet so well behaved or so on the spectrum that the adults assume the child prefers to always be alone? If adults do not intervene, kids learn that adults don’t care and that they as people don’t matter.
Especially on the heels of the No Child Left Behind/ Every Teacher Blamed/ Watch out for Triggers/ Litigation era, teachers have veered away from having important conversations with students about students’ emotional lives:
“You seem sad. Everything okay?”
“You wrote about being angry at your dad in your essay. I was angry at my dad growing up, too.”
“I’m sorry it feels so hard for you. Can I walk you down to the counseling office?”
While teaching workshops on hidden student crises, teachers’ top fears consistently involve the following: Listening to students’ hurts will somehow make a student’s situation worse or the teacher will somehow become responsible for the student’s situation. Unless they are taught safe vulnerability practices and compassionate listening strategies, teachers shut down or avoid conversations with students about feelings and hurt altogether.
In reality, the opposite is true. Kids are thinking about these hurts whether their teachers acknowledge it (and them) or not. Talking about it means that the child or teenager is heard. That child or teenager feels like they matter. They know they are not alone and how to ask for help. This is violence prevention.
It is really so much easier than our minds make it out to be. As it turns out, to be the person who turns a student’s life around, all a teacher needs is a little direction and a lot of permission. And that starts with the public being brave enough to put the focus on feelings and students’ hidden crises rather than test scores. Focusing on feelings, student loneliness and trauma boosts test scores anyway—but we are an image-obsessed, get-it quick, FOMO, helicopter parent nation, and logical solutions require that everyone to take a deep breath, grow up, and be brave.
So while I am heartbroken, I am also embarrassed and emboldened to become a more responsible adult. It should not be the children who are tasked with leading the revolution. Adults are in charge because we are the people who make the hard decisions that keep kids safe. It’s now time to tell our children that we are sorry—we were distracted. We are back now, and we will take care of you. Our children deserve nothing less than that.
Preventing school shootings requires that teachers and school staff are trained in empathy, vulnerability, compassion, and looking for signs of trauma. Peer-to-peer and staff-to-student. It isn’t hard, but it is brave to make that choice over fears about test scores and college admissions.
After all, what if my child’s teacher gets trained in vulnerability, compassionate listening, and and looking for signs of student trauma instead of that PD on academic rigor? Sure, my child will go to a school in which no student is overlooked, bullied, or unheard, but will my kid still get into Stanford?!
Though research proves that emotional wellness increases academic performance, we have been making our children crazy by telling them that being a superstudent will ensure them lifelong happiness and financial bounty. Take more AP classes! Diversify your application by taking another sport and attending three more clubs! We would do better to ask ourselves how much college admissions matter right now to grieving patents in Florida. How much do admissions matter to the traumatized students who are burying their friends?
Let’s give vulnerability and empathy a chance. Trauma research shows that the earlier that students in crisis who have ONE connected, compassionate adult with whom they can share their hurt (often, a teacher), the more resilient that child is in later grades and in their physical and emotional health over a lifetime.
When kids can’t be heard, some find guns. I don’t care if no one uses the professional development that I teach schools. I DO care that schools start focusing on what our kids need to be emotionally healthy and feel like their lives matter.
Teacher and staff training in vulnerability, empathy, compassion, and signs of trauma is the most effective form of:
Preventing school shootings
Alcohol and drug abuse prevention
Mitigating student stress in high-achieving schools
Mitigating the affects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) on students’ brain development
Supporting students on the autism spectrum
Supporting students with ADHD
Helping students in the #1 skill that will add years to their lives: Creating and maintaining friendships.
Be heartbroken AND be brave:
Do you know a school board member? Have this conversation and ask that your schools get this training.
Do you know a teacher or principal or counselor or school staff member? Have this conversation and ask that their school get this training.
Do you know other parents? Have this conversation and ask that their children’s schools get this training.
When the adults start modeling and teaching vulnerability, empathy, compassion, and bravery, our children become better prepared to parent when it is their turn.
Contact me for a professional development workshop at your school on Uncovering and Addressing Hidden Student Crises (or to refer you to resources):