Recently we have been doing a Social Justice Issues unit and have moved into Social Justice Issues Book Clubs. My topic to plan for the team was Mental Health and Bullying. I found an amazing anchor text “Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Story” by Meghan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones. This text is a compilation of short non-fiction stories, poems, and thoughts from famous authors who either have been bullied, were the bullies, and/or watched the bullying. In our LIVE classes, we have been doing a variety of activities looking at bullying, its impact on mental health, and understanding the mental health issues people face. To say that our conversations have been powerful would be an understatement.
What I was not prepared for in my smug, 18th year in Education mindset was one of those moments where I realized how very little we truly know and understand about THIS current generation’s experiences with bullying and mental health. It all hit me when one student shared a statement in the chat that was immediately echoed by multiple students…
“Every time the notification alarm rings on my phone I am terrified because I don’t know what else someone has said about me.”
I have been unable to get those words out of my head, along with many other topics of conversation and issues that emerged from those conversations. I was aghast to realize that our children are living in fear of their phone or device because the prevalence of something negative being said was so high. I told them “You should never be this afraid of anything and if you are living your life this way ask for help from me, parents, school counselor, and let’s get this turned around.” But, that sentiment, while true, did not even begin to address what those kids had shared in those conversations.
It was a startling reminder that there is a world that we do not fully know or understand that our kids are living in without the right tools. Now, what are the right tools? I don’t have those answers yet – but I am now working on what could be next to help our kids. I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas to move things forward.
You see, I pride myself on the relationships I build with my students, with understanding their struggles and challenges, and with providing a strong positive role model who believes in them. That is something I strive to do and be every day. However, none of that matters, if I don’t fully understand their experience and what they actually need to thrive in it. So, all growth begins with reflection and learning…here is what I have discovered so far:
- In one of the videos I shared with students the boy who created the video as a response to his own bullying he shared that his dad had said “In my day, bullying ended at 3:30 when you made it home.” The boy replied “In our world it is 24/7 and you can’t escape it”. Our kids live in an online environment IN ADDITION to the in-person culture we are so much more familiar with. This idea that they don’t have a respite or the tools to create one for themselves is a mind blowing concept we need to face. No child should live in terror of their device and what newest horrors it might bring.
- Over and over they repeated that they don’t think the adults will help (most cite multiple experiences of teachers dismissing, minimizing, or ignoring completely bullying and unkind behavior). They also said, much to my shock, that the well meaning adults who do try to help often make it worse behind the scenes creating a bigger target on their back from the bullies. There was an overwhelming sense of aloneness in their perspective on unkind and bullying behavior.
- They simply had never really considered any real tools they could use to control their own experience with the negativity. We discussed things like picking your friends carefully, removing negative friends from your life with kindness, deleting social media accounts and/or blocking negative people, blocking the numbers of people who text unkind things, and simply putting away the device and refusing to read it. It is clear to me that the excellent cyberbullying and bullying curriculums out there are not meeting their needs. It seems theoretical vs. practical to them.
- Many do not feel a sense of authentic self. Now, this blog is called authentic teaching for a very specific reason. I learned through years of therapy and work, that the one superpower all of us have is being utterly authentic and truthful to OURSELVES. In living, working, teaching, parenting, being a friend…AUTHENTICITY gives us the ability to succeed and make a real impact on those around us. It is ALWAYS when I am not being true to myself that things fall apart. We discussed at length the need to make sure you feel good about you as the best antidote to the negative environments. If you love yourself, you simply won’t tolerate environments that tear you down. I always tell students one of my rules is “I don’t hang out with people who are mean to me or others.”. I will always be polite and kind to you and I am very forgiving of the bad moments we all have. But consistent meanness and unkindness, I am not going to be a part of that.
- Mental Health has got to be addressed in a much more significant and accessible way. There has been a lot of discussion of the mental health crisis that children and teens (and adults) have faced during the Pandemic. What has NOT been discussed is funding more school counselors, social workers, psychologists, and other mental health support professionals. What has NOT been discussed is the stigma of mental health support for kids and teens still exists and is the predominate way parents raise their kids. Every parent wants to believe their child is just going through something “normal” for their age group and dismiss mental health needs like anxiety and depression which affect 1 in 4 Americans as something that “crazy” people have. There was no doubt in our conversations that mental health and bullying go hand in hand. All bullies have some form of a mental health need. Those being bullied are significantly at higher risk for suicide, depression, anxiety, frequent school absences, and resorting to gun or other violence in response to their fear. If we do not stop acting as though mental health needs are for somebody else’s kids…we will continue to see this crisis in our youth. If we do not fully FUND AND STAFF our schools with the recommended ratio of mental health and community support staff to students per the recommendations, we will continue to not have an adequate support network for our kids.
So, now what?
The steep learning curve I found through these conversations leaves me feeling scared, anxious, and determined to figure out how I can improve as a parent and an educator. I am well aware of my utter lack of answers…but committed to finding some. It’s okay that we don’t fully understand or know what our kids are going through if we are brave enough to admit that we DON’T know and understand. If we are willing to start seeking knowledge, understanding, and being willing to have some tough conversations.
The very first thing I did after that student comment that shook me, was to talk to my kids on our afternoon walk. When I told them what we had discussed, each had a distinct reaction that absolutely matched their personalities. My oldest shrugged and said it had never happened to him and that he just wouldn’t continue in an environment or with friends who acted like this. My middle child immediately discussed an instagram post of over a year ago that had been met with some comments from buddies that were teasingly unkind. He clearly had carried those 3 little comments in his heart while acting like it didn’t matter. My youngest wants to see the good in everyone and she brought up situations as “they were just being funny” or “it wasn’t her it was her friend that pranked me”. Their responses echoed the conversations I had with my students and made me realize in our hectic day to day lives that maybe I am not stopping to ask them enough or the right questions.
I also reminded myself that in these powerful conversations there was a group of kids who DID have the tools and WERE able to navigate these rough waters. Advice they gave each other was:
- Make your own tight circle and be careful who you let in it
- If you can’t find nice friends, be comfortable being with yourself and your family
- Be true to yourself and never let anybody tell you who you are
- Sometimes you just have to pick different friends and let bad influences go
There were also kids who were navigating different waters like being ignored completely by peers and feeling really alone or feeling that personal situations were more significantly impacting their life than any issues with peers.
All of this information can help us do a couple of things as we begin to move this conversation forward:
- Talk to your own children, your students, and other educators about this issue.
- LISTEN and start finding different ways to approach this issue.
- THINK about the culture of your classroom – are you one of those teachers letting unkindness be the “norm”? Here are some previous posts of mine about resetting classroom community. https://authenticteaching.blog/2019/08/02/you-wont-get-the-wows-if-you-dont-know-the-hows/ https://authenticteaching.blog/2019/10/06/beneath-the-iceberg/
- ADVOCATE – Educate yourself and then communicate, vote, and implement changes in your own homes and in school.
We have the power to grow and learn. We have the power to turn the challenges of this last year into something that moves our nation forward and our educational system forward in a new direction. We have the ability to make a difference. The beginning of any new journey or adventure is acknowledging what you DON’T know or understand and seeking knowledge. After all, isn’t that what education is all about?
On a separate note – I always feel that when things can seem a bit bleak – a good short term fix is chocolate. So, if after reading this post – you need a little chocolate pick me up…here is the most delish chocolate banana muffin recipe….Enjoy!