Much of my day I spend thinking of my twins. Now that they have started pre-K, learning about their days at school has become an exciting part of the evening routine as they talk about the things they have learned, and their new friends.
But beyond their academic achievements, like all parents (and teachers), I care deeply about their relationships and interactions with their peers.
As our children get older, the fear of bullying and harassment too often turns into a reality. Our children constantly try to see how they fit in the world around them while navigating their feelings of self-worth and self-esteem. At times, when our children feel powerless and do not have the skills and support they need to express their feelings in a healthy way, they lash out at others physically and verbally.
The negative effects for the victims, the bully and bystanders include, among other things, depression, anxiety and substance abuse, all of which can last well into adulthood. The mental health of our children and their social-emotional learning are inextricably linked to the bullying epidemic we face in our city.
October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and this week is Mental Health Awareness Week. But the reality is that we must vigilantly and proactively address bullying and mental health needs year-round. With a social media landscape that is challenging to navigate, an emphasis on a child’s test score over the whole child, and political leaders setting the wrong example for our children, it often feels like we are fighting an uphill battle.
There were nearly 6,000 incidents of harassment, discrimination and bullying in New York City schools during the 2017-18 academic year, significantly higher than years prior. Across New York state, 4,500 students were hospitalized for self-harm in 2016. These students are more than just these alarming statistics, and we must work together to do better.
All of our children must be able to learn in a safe and supportive environment free from bullying. Politicians who want to focus solely on test scores and select data points are depriving children and educators the tools we need to succeed.
Schools have found success when implementing social-emotional learning and restorative justice practice. Social-emotional learning teaches children to identify what they are feeling, manage their emotions, make responsible decisions, and build relationships. Restorative justice seeks to get to the root causes of conflict and address those issues with the victim, offender and community.
And while some view social-emotional learning and restorative justice programs as distractions from academia, it is in fact our job as parents, educators and community members to facilitate our children as they learn who they are and their role in our community.
This type of learning not only grounds our kids, but when these programs are implemented, scores go up and suspensions go down. Our children spend more time learning, and they become more engaged in their education and their future.
Negative interactions, like harassment and bullying, go down as well. Rather than bullying, children are more likely to positively address their emotional needs. Rather than become a victim, children are able to express their feelings in a healthy manner. Rather than be a bystander, children can become an “upstander” and address harassment when they see it.
Benefits go beyond the classroom. Consider that most careers require adults to collaborate and interact with one another. Employers look for candidates with “soft skills” like the ability to work with others to problem solve. And in an age where those at the top all too often abuse their power, we must do better to teach our children empathy at a young age so they do not become bullies in the work place.
While the city’s education department has made positive steps toward implementing restorative justice practices in our schools, we are still far from where we need to be for our children to fully internalize and utilize these practices in their daily lives.
In this era of high stakes testing, it seems that the only metric to measuring a child, teacher and school’s worth is a single exam at the end of the year. It is heartening to see educators teach our children more than just what is on the test, despite the structural disincentives to do so.
We must ensure that teachers and schools are properly incentivized to embrace who our children are as people, not as numbers. Educators must have access to resources we need to properly intervene in instances of bullying.
We must make a greater investment in student mental health resources and guidance counselors to stem the bullying epidemic and give our children the skills to succeed in school and beyond.
For the take of my twins, all of our children, and our community’s future, all of us — educators, parents, community members, students — must work together to foster collaborative and inclusive school environments.
The author is a public school educator, and a candidate for city council.