Students are walking into schools carrying a lot of extra baggage this year. They have always been able to try and hide behind imaginary masks of indifference, smiles, or anger, but now they are also hiding behind the physical masks they are required to wear.
Look for warning signs of distress, and be sensitive to what may seem like even subtle cries for attention or help.
Let’s put aside the stress that comes from virtual learning for the sake of this piece and look at the other factors that are causing stress for young people today.
Those students who were already facing economic or medical stressors at home are finding these problems exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic.
Students who pride themselves on being strong or the one that everyone else turns to are finding themselves overwhelmed, trying to cope with depression, anxiety, and hopelessness for the first time.
Even in “normal” situations, young people have used their adolescent years to push the limits and question what they have always known and been taught, brandishing bold social, political, and religious ideas that often do not align with those of their parents or the mainstream.
But this year, this social/familial/political right of passage has intensified with the seriousness of such issues throughout the country and around the world along with a deep polarization of issues that is more intense than it has been in a couple of generations.
While adults are the ones who should be modeling civil discourse, the media is filled with examples of people shouting over each other, refusing to listen, and demanding the other side concede without any willingness to compromise.
Many of these students are either arguing with their parents about their beliefs or pretending to agree just to make them happy. While we can all relate to that transitional stage of life in which we experimented with different ideas and explored a variety of philosophies, we must also consider the intensities and volatility that are unique to the matters at hand today.
There have been pockets of unrest and violence throughout the nation in the last 50 years, but the widespread anger and violence (whether justified or not) is not something that American youth have had to face on such a large scale since the civil rights movement and the integration of schools.
Students are having to navigate a world that is filled with chaos and unrest, and even mask-wearing has gotten mixed into the fray of political issues.
While there isn’t much we can do about the toxicity students are seeing in the media or consequently may be dealing with at home, we can give our students the safe space to express their beliefs and concerns, teach them how to speak and listen respectfully, and model for them what good citizenship and compassion look like.
What Schools Can Do to Help
As we get closer to the election, many are going to get caught up in some pretty intense ideological disagreements at home which will spill over into the school. The discourse online (where they spend so much of their time) and the discourse in some of their homes is causing high levels of anxiety, fear, and anger in our kids, and we really must be constantly aware of that. For some, this has become a source of hopelessness and apathy regarding schoolwork. Be careful not to incite or stir up these issues by comments made to or in front of students.
It may be appropriate to teach students about how societies or individuals have faced injustices throughout the world or throughout history, not in an effort to minimize the current issues, but in order to provide hope and to inspire problem-solving.
Try and find tasks or projects that they can be successful at. Is there a problem at the school or in the local community that they could work together to solve? Is there a group your class could partner with to help others?
Then, think of ways you could even tie these things into your academic content.
What pieces of fiction or nonfiction could your students read that address overcoming injustices or societal issues? Could they write letters to local, state, or national leaders? What about blog writing?
Maybe explore the communities in other nations that have been divided by civil unrest only to bring about social justice in the long run? Or look at people groups in other parts of the world who have had to face crippling poverty.
In what ways could scientific ingenuity be used to solve problems of food waste and food insecurity? How can rural and urban communities work together to ensure that there are no more food deserts in communities without ready access to fresh, unprocessed food?
Are there examples of leaders with deeply opposing points of view who were able to engage in civil discourse and work together to find solutions?
Sometimes, the perspective of what is happening in other parts of the world or that there are healthy and appropriate ways to problem solve can help students see things are not quite as hopeless as they may seem.