Original article written by Adam Piore for Newsweek
The trouble with America's teenagers began well before the pandemic. In 2019, more than 1 in 3 reported feeling so sad or hopeless at some point over the past year that they had skipped regular activities, a 44 percent rise since 2009, and 1 in 6 had contemplated suicide. Public health measures made all that even worse, as teenagers in communities around the nation grew more isolated than ever.
During the pandemic, the number of emergency-room visits for suspected suicide attempts rose by 50 percent for adolescent girls and 4 percent for boys, before settling down in recent months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The city of Tacoma, Washington, appears to be bucking these trends even though more than half of its residents live below the poverty line and its school system, with an enrollment of 30,000, has a history of low high school graduation rates. On a statewide test that measures depression and anxiety among 10th graders, scores actually improved between 2018 and 2021.
Now, communities across the nation are looking to Tacoma as a model of how to help their own teenagers, who, experts say, are experiencing alarming levels of loneliness and alienation. Policymakers and educators say that schools must do a better job of addressing the emotional and social needs of high school students. Scientific research supports this view. Brain studies suggest that the social and emotional aspects of classroom instruction are not only critical to students' mental health but also improve their ability to learn and can shape a student's trajectory into adulthood.
School districts are now rolling out programs that go beyond the ABCs and 123s to teach skills not typically the purview of schools: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships and responsible decision making.
However, these "social and emotional learning" (SEL) programs are largely piecemeal efforts that don't match the scale of the problem, experts say. That could soon change, if more funding becomes available through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 earmarks $123 billion for K-12 education.
Advocates of SEL programs insist that they are a potent tool to help combat rising rates of mental health problems—if offered as part of comprehensive, community-wide responses. They point to the experience of Tacoma, which 10 years ago implemented a plan to train teachers, community leaders running after-school activities and parents in ways of helping kids identify and share their feelings, empathize, listen and develop meaningful relationships. As a result, school bus drivers now greet children by name. Teachers begin each day by asking their students to talk about how they are feeling. Kids in trouble know how to ask for help—and for those who don't, parents and community leaders know to look out for them.
"The graduation numbers were just a symptom," says Joshua Garcia, the superintendent of Tacoma public schools. "We needed a comprehensive approach to supporting and raising children that ensured they felt safe, engaged, challenged, healthy and supported."
The program paid big dividends. This year, Tacoma expects to graduate more than 90 percent of its students for the first time, up from 55 percent in 2010. Alcohol use among 10th graders dropped by two thirds in 2020 compared to 2010, and marijuana use fell from 20 percent to around 10 percent. Perhaps most remarkably, last year, at a time when levels of anxiety, depression and suicide skyrocketed amongst teenagers nationwide, Tacoma's numbers actually went down.
Still, not everybody thinks the programs are a good idea. Some conservatives warn that social and emotional learning is a "Trojan horse" from liberal policymakers, who want to introduce curriculums intended to indoctrinate students. Others have tried to associate the plans with hot-button issues like critical race theory, which holds that racism is endemic in U.S. institutions, and transgender rights. Some parents argue that mental health is not the province of schools. As a result, some red districts in red states have reduced their commitments to SEL—some districts in Florida, for instance, dropped their SEL plans after the state's board of education banned the teaching of critical race theory. Lawmakers in at least seven states have introduced legislation to ban social and emotional learning outright.
Studies have confirmed that loneliness is not only common but also consequential for people's mental health and physical health. Teenagers who are lonely are more likely to feel depressed, anxious and suicidal; they even feel pain more acutely. (For older adults, loneliness is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, cancer and early death).
Joseph Allen, a clinical psychologist and psychology professor at the University of Virginia who specializes in adolescent social development, compares it to malnutrition. "Teens are primed for social connection," he says. "It is the period of life where one learns how to form deep connections that are going to matter for everything from romantic relationships, to work with colleagues, to friendships in adulthood. And when they're deprived of it—and COVID is an extreme example of that—it's like watching a child go through a growth spurt without getting any protein in their diet. If they're not getting what they need, it's not a pretty picture. It doesn't end well.”
One factor that contributed to skyrocketing rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers, says Allen, is the introduction of the iPhone and the rise of social media, which took off around 2009 and 2010. "It's given young people a way of being socially involved," he notes, "but that is lacking in depth for the most part. It doesn't give them what they need. It can't replace the real thing.”
A combination of factors, including an emphasis on rote learning, the rise of helicopter parenting and social media, have served to stifle teenagers.
"Teenagers are not just capable of, but are driven to make deep meaning of complex issues and to really be visionary and connected to stuff that is deep, that's about identity, that's about reputation, that's about who I could be," she says. "And we cut them off at the knees. We do not trust our kids nor expect them to manage themself. It's overly scheduling kids and it's telling kids where to sit in class and what to do and when. All these very tight restrictions where everything that counts as achievement is defined by somebody else.”
Over the past decade, official adoption of SEL has exploded in school districts. By 2021, about 68 percent of the nation's 14,000 school districts had adopted some form of SEL curriculum, while about 27 states had adopted kindergarten through grade 12 SEL standards or competencies. Now, with growing recognition of the teen mental health crisis, SEL has increasingly begun to make its way into high schools. In 2018, 37 percent of secondary school principals said they had adopted some form of SEL. By 2021, that had risen to 70 percent.
"The idea is to give the teenagers an experience of connection with others and a positive experience with vulnerability—which is not necessarily the norm in adolescent experiences," says Allison Williams, senior vice president at Wyman, a 124-year-old youth development organization, which works with schools and community groups to implement programs that help teens develop and thrive.
"Four months afterwards, we could see higher levels of social support, better school engagement and lower levels of depressive symptoms. This suggests to us that they were able to start internalizing the lessons of the program and carrying that forward into their experiences.”
Many education experts believe the best kind of social and emotional learning is when the entire community, and not just the schools, takes part. Tacoma's program is a case in point. The city began in 2012 by rethinking the way they approached education, asking a series of simple questions: How could the district get kids to want to come to school? How could they help them feel they belonged? How could they replace apathy and hopelessness with a genuine desire to learn? The parents and teachers of Tacoma wanted their children to get more than a diploma—they wanted them to thrive.
Today, classes in Tacoma schools and after-school activities often begin with an opportunity for every student and teacher to "check in'' with how they are feeling—a practice aimed at normalizing the expression of emotions. Even before the pandemic, each grade carved out time for what the school calls "relationship building circles," both in the classroom and in teacher training sessions. The circles usually begin with a warm-up question, where each individual takes a turn answering a question, such as "what is a value that you hold?"; "who did you learn that value from?" and "what value have you heard someone else speak about today that really resonated with you?'”
"Students have a chance to know each other better," says Laura Allen, who leads Tacoma's Whole Child initiative (she is not related to Allen of UVA). "They have a chance to understand where someone else is coming from and how they connect. There are oftentimes tears in circles, vulnerability and empathy. And there's some power in just people listening and feeling that you belong. Especially coming out of COVID that people have been thirsty for.”
The ability to connect is just one of the skills SEL aims to hone. Other advocates emphasize the importance of integrating curriculum into schools, which makes it easier for teenagers to connect what they are learning to their own lives and figure out how they fit into the world.
"What's really significant about the adolescent period is that we seem to be designed to figure out where we fit in, how we can make a difference and where we can belong," says Andrew Fuligni, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist who co-directed UCLA's Center for the Developing Adolescent. "A sense of meaning, and a sense of connection, are protective for teenagers against depression."
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