Any parent who’s been around the block a few times knows that kids behave differently at school than they do at home. It’s an environment where they spend a huge amount of time, and where they interact with far more people—both adults and other children—than they typically do at home.
So of course the school environment has a big role in shaping how kids act and how they feel. I thought about this while listening to three articulate school psychologists talk, as part of Speak Up for Kids, about how we can make schools safer places—not just physically safe, but safer for learning and healthy development.
The presentation, by the National Association of School Psychologists, focused on what schools can do to support the mental health of their students. Some kids need help from a trusted adult to weather a short-term crisis; some need help to strengthen social skills and manage behavior; some need long-term support to deal with psychiatric or learning disorders.
One important goal is to make school a safe place for all kids to ask for help when they need it, or they think a friend needs help.
Melissa Reeves, PhD, a school psychologist and special education teacher in South Carolina, made a very interesting suggestion, I thought, to help make progress on this front. She proposed that learning about mental illness should be part of a school’s health curriculum. “One of the most powerful things schools can do is to educate students about emotional health,” she said. “What is depression? What is anxiety? Let them know that there are biological factors.”
Reeves said she uses a diabetes analogy: “You can’t control whether you have diabetes or not, but we can learn different interventions to address the severity of the diabetes. For some that might mean a change in diet. Some might need insulin. With mental illness, it might mean counseling. Some may need medication to address the neurological component.”
She notes that educating children about mental health, encouraging them to talk openly about it and ask questions, tends to reduce stigma directed at kids who have a psychiatric, learning, or behavior issue.
The more kids understand, the better chance they have to accept—not just tolerate—children who are different, and that is the single best way to make schools safe places for all children to learn and grow.