Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

What Teens Say They Need, and How Schools Can Adjust

Students say they want a voice in the big education decisions that affect their lives—and their top concerns are backed by plenty of research.

September 18, 2020
Capuski / iStock

As school districts around the nation reopen following months of planning and debate, students—individually and in youth-led organizations—are arguing that they should have a say in the big decisions being made that impact their education, writes Charlotte West for The Hechinger Report.

“From Virginia, Kentucky, and Arizona to Washington and California, [students] are making their voices heard by arming themselves with data, testifying before school boards, and petitioning local and state lawmakers,” West reports. “They’ve been letting officials know that while they want to see their friends, they recognize the seriousness of the virus and hope districts prioritize student mental health and improving online learning, especially for vulnerable students.”

Many of the pandemic-related concerns expressed by students in West’s report line up with what the research concludes: there is an urgent need for increased attention to high school students’ mental health; increasingly, students of color, and their classmates, are acutely aware that diverse perspectives are missing from the curricula; and strong, nurturing relationships are crucial to academic success, even as we switch to remote learning during the pandemic.

We took a look at the research and culled the best ideas from educators about how to be responsive to what high school students are saying they need in this moment.

Kids Want to See Themselves—and Their Classmates—in the Curriculum

The current national reckoning around racial injustice needs to be reflected in the curriculum too, students say, and more inclusive lessons should take the place of one-size-fits-all instruction.

“For African American males in the Seattle School District, we don’t see ourselves reflected within the curriculum,” Ajala Wilson-Daraja, a freshman at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, Washington, tells West. “So it makes it harder for us to grasp the importance of whatever we’re learning and connect it to real world issues and things that are going on in our community.”

The research, and many educators, agree. “Indigenous communities, and people of color in the United States, continue to suffer debilitating and systemic discrimination…,” notes a position paper by the National Council of Teachers of English. “Part of this discrimination takes place in the form of erasure, and these communities continue to face a school curriculum that, for them, frequently downplays or does not include their communities’ work and contributions.”

Provide a Range of Voices: When kids see themselves reflected in the curriculum—in history lessons, for example—”they not only develop a deeper appreciation of the subject but become more civically active,” writes Holly Korbey. Research shows that when kids feel a sense of belonging and identity in school, they’re more likely to mature into engaged citizens. And a 2010 study of ninth- and 10th-grade students found that girls performed better on a chemistry quiz when textbook lessons featured images of female scientists, leading researchers to conclude that “using pictures of both female and male scientists leads to closing the gender gap in [science] performance between boys and girls.” Or, as Korbey writes: “the simple act of representation can level the playing field.”

Diversify your Materials: Infuse your lessons with texts by authors of color. “Students should be introduced to texts by Black authors that speak to Black experiences, Black perspectives, and Black accomplishments,” writes educator Rann Miller. “These authors remind children and adults that Black excellence is not confined to athletics and entertainment. How can we promote the academic excellence of Black children without introducing them to Black intellectuals—individuals they can see themselves someday becoming?”

Primary sources, such as diaries and letters that supply first-hand, eyewitness accounts of an event or period in history, can elevate diverse, and often marginalized, voices from bygone historical eras. Also consider building supplemental materials such as songs, videos, podcasts, and websites into lessons as a way to “provide a more expansive, authentic, and celebratory view of diverse cultures,” write educators Liliana Lopez and Gary Pankiewicz. Supplemental materials can help provide “cultural contexts in ways that may be easier for students to understand,” Lopez and Pankiewicz suggest.

Ask Hard Questions: Use open-ended prompts to help kids dig into the cultural context of the materials you’re exploring with questions like: “what did you think about the characters in the story?” Or use conflict in texts to start conversations about bias, asking questions such as: “is any character’s struggle related to aspects of their identity?” This can help move along the conversation to tackle larger concerns related to power and privilege, and unfair institutions and systems, note Lopez and Pankiewicz.

Putting Relationships First

“I would like more personal connections with my teachers and counselors,”  Chaffey High School senior Olivia Sanchez, in Ontario, California, told West, looking ahead to a school year that will almost certainly be conducted remotely, and echoing concerns expressed by kids from elementary through high school. “We already knew our teachers in the spring, but personal connections are important at the beginning of the year so [teachers] get a sense of where you’re at so they can help you with distance learning. Because everyone is in a really different environment at home,” Sanchez adds.

The importance of positive, nurturing relationships in schools is well documented—the research is clear that when teens feel a sense of belonging, it translates into academic success and motivation to succeed—but with distance learning stretching into the new school year, kids say they’re especially desperate to feel like they’re part of something bigger.

Reach Out to Every Child: Start by prioritizing connection, letting your students know you’re thinking about them and care about them. For kids with access to technology, a simple daily hello via video might be the only time they see you that day. For students without internet connectivity, try calling by phone, or texting—consider rotating through a small group of students each day to make this manageable. “Taking the time to reach out and call each kid takes forever,” sixth- and eighth-grade English teacher Cathleen Beachboard told us, but it’s worth it: “The first few days [of remote learning], I had only a few kids logging on, but now I have almost 98 percent attendance.”

Make Connecting Easy: Check-ins don’t need to take long: using the roses and thorns approach, or asking students to select emojis to match their moods, are simple ways to take the temperature of the room and let everyone know that you care about them. You can also quickly identify the kids who might not be emotionally prepared to learn, and set a time to meet and chat. “I posted on Schoology to give me a thumbs up, thumbs sideways (meh), or thumbs down to describe their day. … I encourage them to take selfies of their thumbs,” says high school teacher Javier Rivera via Twitter.

Build in Peer Contact: Eighth-grade English teacher Kasey Short sets up virtual groups via Google Classroom to keep students connected to each other and rotates the groups weekly. “I will set up discussion threads with four to five students so they can discuss assignments, ask each other questions, and stay connected,” Short explains, noting that it’s important to pair kids with classmates outside their immediate social circle so they branch out and learn collaboration as a transferable skill.

Providing Social and Emotional Supports

Serious mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and self-harm are on the rise among American teens. When the ACLU of Southern California’s Youth Liberty Squad surveyed 640 students in April, more than half the respondents said they needed mental health support. Schools are “the de facto mental health system for many children and adolescents,” write the authors of a recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics, and they provide mental health services to 57 percent of adolescents who need care.

Right now, teens learning remotely are—without the support structures of school—balancing academic expectations with “the global health pandemic, countering feelings of boredom, stress, anxiety, and fatigue that weigh heavily on their mental and physical health,” Anthony Flores-Alvarez, a senior at Manuel Arts High School in Los Angeles, told West.

Greet Students at the Door (or Virtual Door): In his classroom, educator David Tow greets each student at the classroom door because it’s reassuring for kids to know an adult in their lives cares about their wellbeing, and the research supports that. During remote learning, sixth-grade social studies teacher Sarah Farr queues her students up in a virtual “waiting room”—a feature in the settings of tools like Zoom—so she can admit and greet each child by name.

Schedule Check-Ins: Tow also builds in time for “one substantial check-in with every student, no matter how they seem to be doing,” each month. “It’s easy and cheap in terms of time invested, but can yield important insights,” he writes. He also sets formal office hours—which can be managed remotely, too—and uses them to meet with students about “more than just academic concerns” because, he adds, “most of my students just want or need someone to talk to.”

Know How and When to Get Help: Ultimately, it’s critical for teachers to know how to connect students with professional help when kids’ mental health needs exceed what classroom teachers can handle. “The best attempts of teachers pale in comparison to the support, resources, and guidance of professionals,” Tow says. “I cannot advocate enough for teachers and all school staff to get to know your on-site school psychologists or mental health counselors (if you are so lucky), or to find those very important names and numbers immediately.”

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