Where We Stand: Supporting All Children as If They Were Our Own

By Randi Weingarten

As America's classrooms grow ever more diverse, each one a different kaleidoscope of cultures, languages, and experiences, it is an apt time for American Educator to focus on English language learners and the importance of community schools. The articles in this issue offer strategies to engage and uplift students academically. And, just as importantly, they acknowledge the importance of supporting students’ social, emotional, and psychological well-being.

As Afrah Saleh, an English language development specialist featured in “More Than a Warm Welcome: Supporting Immigrant Students in Dearborn, Michigan,” puts it, “Before we can even begin to talk about academics, we have to make sure [students are] emotionally OK.” The partnership in Dearborn unites educators, administrators, the teachers union, social workers, and families to provide a range of social and emotional supports for students and families. Unfortunately, such robust supports are lacking in too many schools and communities, and, as a result, the mental health resources available for children, teens, and young adults don’t come close to meeting their tremendous needs.

For millions of young people in America, childhood is not the joyful time it should be. Nearly half of the children in the United States experience at least one major traumatic event or circumstance. Every five days, a child under 13 dies by suicide. A majority of teens worry that a shooting could occur at their school. Children are growing up in a time when natural disasters that used to be “once-in-a-generation” catastrophes are alarmingly frequent. Increasingly, teachers and school staff are the first responders to students’ social and emotional needs. America’s children need help, and so do the educators responding to their needs.

America’s mental health crisis is particularly acute for young people in marginalized groups. Low-income children and families are disproportionately affected by mental health challenges. Native American children have the highest rate of suicide in the country. Latino and African American youth have higher rates of depression than their white peers. And discrimination has taken a mental and physical toll on Muslim Americans, nearly one-fourth of whom suffer from depression.

The trauma that immigrant children endure can be especially severe. Many are terrorized in their native countries and again on their journey to the United States, then are further traumatized by the conditions in U.S. detention centers and when family members are separated from each other. Countless immigrant children live in fear that their family will be deported. The distress these children face can have a lifelong impact. Yet, despite all of this, immigrant children are less likely than other children to receive mental health services.

Fully half of the children and teens with a treatable mental health need do not receive treatment from a mental health professional. Out of necessity, public schools step into the breach, functioning as the country’s de facto mental health system for children and adolescents. Educators are confronted daily with their students’ social and emotional needs, yet schools across the country lack the social workers and counselors necessary to help our children deal with their trauma and difficulties.

While elected leaders too often neglect their responsibility to help people have a better life, my union and our members have made community our responsibility. The AFT has responded to the earthquakes in Puerto Rico—donating tents to use as schools and coordinating mental health providers to help survivors. Demands for social workers and other student supports were central to the recent teacher strikes in Los Angeles and Chicago. Educators from Tallahassee to St. Paul are focusing their contract and legislative agendas on these issues.

The AFT’s most in-demand professional development resources concern trauma-informed practices. In El Paso, for instance, as others have moved on, we’ve brought these resources and other supports in the aftermath of the Walmart shooting. Educators know that children’s emotional well-being is as important as their physical health—and that both are essential to effective learning. They know that, too often, when a child “acts out,” and the school lacks the necessary resources, instead of getting help, the child is punished or inappropriately labeled. And we know that this is especially common for black, brown, and otherwise marginalized children.

One way to address the growing needs of our students is by investing in community schools, as “Classroom Teachers in the Community Schools Movement: A Social Justice Perspective” shows. The social, emotional, and academic benefits of the wraparound supports offered in America’s 5,000 community schools are well-documented—and make the case for the AFT’s and other advocates’ goal of 25,000 community schools by 2025.

No childhood is without pain and struggle, but too many young people live with both every day. America is failing them, and only by investing in mental health services in our schools, healthcare systems, and communities can we help children in need to be healthy and happy. Community is our responsibility; we should support all children as if they were our own.

American Educator, Spring 2020
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