Op-Ed: Feeding Mental Health: We owe it to our children

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The return to full classrooms has shed light on the mental health of our students. Conversations with peers inside schools focused on a series of serious concerns. Similar concerns are straining teachers and school staff across the country. As an Afro-Latino teacher and man, I find myself in a difficult position. Before the pandemic, I was often disheartened by the thought deficit plaguing my classroom, especially my black and brown students.

As we try to get back to the new normal, I see this mindset spreading like the Delta variant. The number of obstacles preventing student success is disturbing. That is why we need educators with the right resources and trained to do the job the right way. We need to tackle the root causes of our students’ struggles. Our children desperately need a safety net.

This school year has been a different experience for educators around the world. Problems include lack of socio-emotional development, where many students struggle with structure and responsibility, and school systems ill-prepared to deal with these issues. In many cases, far too many students have regressed in their ability to navigate the school environment. At the beginning of distance learning, I remember so many difficult times for my students. A student was temporarily displaced from his home because his parents contracted the virus; it was a feeling of fear and isolation so strong that suicidal intervention was necessary. I know students who see the worst in their parents and see their families fall apart.

Inappropriate digital behavior on social media, games, and the internet is evident in the way students behave in the classroom. Trauma, isolation, deficit thinking and stress are words that describe this moment. There were students who did well and struggled during distance learning. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “One in six young people suffer from a mental health problem, such as anxiety or depression, but only half receive mental health services. This highlights the drastic need for change.

We demand that our schools provide quality education, but this must be coupled with strong mental health support. The link between success and well-being is clear. The State Education Commission, an education policy group, says that “educational outcomes and overall health and well-being are inextricably linked.” As a college math teacher, I see first-hand the burdens that impact the mental well-being of students. I also have direct experience of how schools do not adequately support students.

As a student at Denver Public Schools, I remember the most traumatic experiences were times when I didn’t feel supported. Our children are going through the same thing now. We have a system that is not fully invested in creating a healthy environment where they thrive. I have had students who told me their secrets: stories that rocked me, stories that any adult would struggle with. Students carry the burden of these stories in our schools; it’s like walking in quicksand, each step plunging them deeper into a place of no return. We must be prepared to support our students as they are, helping them pick up the pieces of their lives that are too heavy to lift on their own. We need a strong system in our schools and in our communities that helps our children overcome adverse circumstances. When this happens, teachers, parents and communities can see our children transform into voracious learners who can tackle any problem. My goal as a teacher is to see a light of curiosity and courage in my students that shines throughout their lives. Our schools should be the place where there is strong support for this to happen.

There are a number of effective practices that can strengthen our ability to meet the needs of students. We need socio-emotional learning, trauma-informed practices, cultural responsiveness and an increase in the number of mental health professionals. Teachers must be provided with the necessary resources to meet the diverse needs of our students.

The shortcomings of our schools, such as implicit prejudices, are unacceptable. I’ve seen school staff who don’t understand how identity affects classrooms, staff who prefer to tackle behavior rather than root causes. Teachers have to do the hard work of building relationships and dismantling outdated systems.

We need changes to make sure our education system can meet today’s demands. The State Education Commission presented a tiered support system that includes universal prevention strategies, targeted support to a smaller group of students, and intensive services to specific students. There is no better time than now to be revolutionary in our approach to supporting our children. Increased investment in mental health support must become the norm, as the Harvard Center on the Developing Child report shows. He says, “We can strengthen community networks of services for families, primary health care for children and their caregivers, and early care and education programs in a cohesive ecosystem. Every step we take in the future must include a strong support system for our communities.

Our children need us to make informed decisions about how they will receive a quality education. Their basic needs for survival, security, love and esteem must be nurtured. This is when our children can reach their full potential and focus on lifelong learning. It is not a deferred dream, it is a necessity of today. To face the problems of tomorrow, our children need a solid foundation. The mental health of our children must improve; this must be one of our main goals as parents, communities and educators. We must demand that our institutions take responsibility for the well-being of our children, because they deserve it.

Gene Fashaw is an eighth-grade math teacher at Aurora High Point Academy and a candidate for the Denver Public Schools School Board in District 4. He grew up in the Montbello neighborhood of Denver and is a DPS graduate.

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