We recently took part in Mental Illness Awareness Week, a time to acknowledge the growing mental and emotional health crisis among our children, and a time to realize that our response to the pandemic is only making things worse. Schools and communities are certainly working to address this troubling trend in a variety of ways — everything from increasing mental health support and screenings, to implementing social-emotional learning initiatives. Yet, we are also simultaneously fixating on how our kids have fallen behind after 18 months of disrupted learning. This narrative of loss and the ensuing pressure to “catch-up,” may be well-intentioned, but the impetus is undermining our kids’ well-being.
The concerns are justified. Kids did suffer during the pandemic. And the impacts were all the more severe for marginalized and disadvantaged families who too often faced the insurmountable barriers of access to their education, which set them up for being described as “falling behind” today. What we’re missing, though, is that the deeper problem of “falling behind” lies within the rigid, wholly arbitrary benchmarks and antiquated beliefs about effective learning methodologies of school. In the rush to recapture the status quo, we are in grave danger of missing this historic opportunity to reboot school: to leave the flaws of our old system behind and create equitable learning experiences that will allow all kids to thrive emotionally, socially, and cognitively.
Instead of challenging and changing the system, we have, intentionally or not, burdened and blamed individuals. Teachers and tutors are tasked with the impossible job of making up for time lost to challenges and deficiencies of remote learning. Parents are feeling pressure and stress about their own shortcomings in keeping their kids “on track” and at “grade level” after a year of remote learning. Meanwhile, all this talk of the “Covid-slide” perpetuates a deficit mentality that sees kids as vessels to be filled or machines to be perfected — and the pandemic as an obstacle in the face of those goals. It sends our children the troubling message that they’ve been damaged by the effects of the pandemic: that they are “behind”; that the last year and a half was “lost.”
Moreover, this narrative of needing to “catch up” reinforces the notion that students need to stay moving — at all costs — on the conveyor belt model of learning, a one-size-fits-all system that values benchmarks over human beings. This puts pressure on kids to perform, prove their worth, and keep up with a competitive school culture that doesn’t actually help them to succeed. In reality, it stresses their emotional and physical health at a time when we need to protect their immune systems the most.
This prognosis isn’t theoretical; I’ve witnessed it first-hand. As an activist and filmmaker who has been sounding the alarm bell about toxic school stress for more than a decade, I’ve met thousands of children (and their parents) across the United States who have been made ill by a pressure-cooker academic culture. Five-year-olds who felt stupid because they had trouble with reading. Teens who barely slept, barely ate, and were literally losing their hair over academic stress. Students who felt doomed to a life of failure because they could not pass the requisite tests.
Nearly one in three teens have said that stress drives them to sadness or depression, and the top source of that stress, named by 83% of teens, isn’t social media or friends or family. It’s school. One study documented a spike in youth emergency psychiatric visits during the academic school year, as opposed to summer.
As we emerge from the worst of the pandemic, it’s not time to wring our hands about “academic slide” and “learning loss.” It’s time to finally address the toxic culture of our schools — head on. In New York’s Port Washington district, Superintendent Michael Hynes has seen how over-scheduled, over-directed kids who spend their high school years succumbing to the pressure to perform eventually hit a wall. “Kids are human beings who need time for rest, play, and connection,” says Hynes. “Creating more opportunities for these experiences at school in the present moment will actually benefit their long term development.”
“Catching up is not a term that’s ever been used at High Tech High, let alone post-pandemic,” says Sarah Strong, who teaches at the San Diego area lab school. With a focus on diversity, equity, and project-based learning, they don’t sort out “high” and “low” achievers in classrooms, or pathologize kids as “ahead” or “behind.” Instead, they embrace that all students — however they score — bring unique perspectives to every learning experience, which supports connection, collaboration, and agency over individual performance.
I wish I could celebrate that we are at a turning point, as the pandemic has forced us to take stock of what we value most — and we all seem to agree that our kids’ health is at the top of the list. It should be reassuring that COVID relief efforts are increasing resources for mental health support at school, or that school districts are changing policies to make no-school mental health days official. But we need to ensure that these efforts, however well-intentioned, address not only symptoms of stress but also root causes. After all, it’s not our kids that need fixing, it’s our schools.
In order to forge a better path forward, let’s start talking about what our kids really need to flourish, not just in the week and months ahead, but for years to come. In order to imagine all that we can gain if we use this moment to transform our schools, we must first stop talking about what was lost.