Updated: Nov 25, 2020
Today's schools are facing a diverse number of challenges when addressing social and emotional wellness, and as teachers we are taking on far more roles in the classroom than we ever have before. This is probably not news to anyone reading this blog. Most schools don't have enough money for resources to support students in the social-emotional realm, and often we're not even sure what resources we actually need to support all of these challenges. We, however, have an incredible resource within each and every one of our schools, a resource that we are not capitalizing on - our very own students.
The idea I am presenting, I believe to be a win - not only for teachers, but for the students themselves. Giving students a platform or voice often has us concerned that our students aren't trained to deal with these "adult" problems, or they have no background knowledge on how to help each other. The truth is, they are already dealing with these problems everyday, and potentially far more often than we think or know. Friends and peers are talking to each other about the challenges they are facing, and it is often another student who brings a concern to the teacher. It’s not that we wouldn’t eventually find out, figure the issue out, but students' peers often know about issues far sooner than we teachers ever will. And let's be honest, we have far too many students on our caseload to really be aware of the relatively manageable challenges our students are facing.
What do we do? How do we help? How do we start reaching out to the students who need us, sooner, BEFORE it becomes an emergency? At these points, the challenges are far more difficult then we as teachers can handle. I propose that we find time to give our students a voice, an opportunity to talk with each other, and a place for them to support each other. Students would not necessarily receive training on mental or physical health, but instead we would provide them with training on how to be a good listener, how to be present with someone else, and how to be a compassionate and empathetic peer. Our students don't have to know what to do in every scenario, they just need to know these three important topics to be ready to share with an adult: harm to self, harm to others, or harm by others. If they know that these things cannot be kept as secrets, we can give them the opportunity to develop good listening skills; but the key to this process is that it has to be done in a space where they know they can trust each other.
So often, students are afraid to share things with their peers for the fear of being judged, of what might happen next if they say something, or the fear of nobody listening. I don't want my students to be therapists for each other. I don't want them to be medical professionals for each other. I just want them to be available to listen to each other. If we use our students in this capacity, then maybe we will be able to deal with problems that are smaller and more manageable.
Connecting students with each other is a no-brainer. Why don't we provide this opportunity to students more often? Think of that student sitting by themselves in the lunchroom. Why are they sitting by themselves? Why doesn't anyone talk to them or sit with them? Because it's too late! Our peers have to see those signs before that child is sitting all by themselves, because then an adult needs to intervene, and it no longer feels like an authentic relationship. We all need to feel like somebody cares about us, and we, as educators, need to provide those opportunities for students in a natural way. Something that I do with my student leaders includes working on things like facilitation of tough conversations - giving them an opportunity to listen to each other, and support those who haven't had a chance to speak. We also practice using norms and protocols, we practice learning to observe body language, but most importantly, we build the relationship from the day the freshmen walk into our building. We assign two to three student leaders to every freshman advisory (10-15 students).
I'm really fortunate that my students have an opportunity to work in my leadership class on the skills listed above, as well as work collaboratively to develop topics and ideas then use interactive activities to do with the freshmen. Not having a formal course offered in your school doesn't mean you couldn't implement something like this in your school. Are your students separated by grade level in homeroom, or an advisory? Why not find some students from an upperclass advisory homeroom, and integrate them into freshman advisories? Here is a perfect opportunity for you to collaborate with one of your own peers, demonstrating to your students how to take a risk. Have your chosen upperclassmen talk with the freshmen about things they can easily connect with, like upcoming events, or what they are looking forward to this weekend, this week, this year. Maybe offer them the chance to share their contact information (Snapchat, Instagram, or Twitter) and suggest that if they are comfortable they can give out their cell phone numbers. Remember: this needs to be something your student leaders decide to do. Honestly, they're going to eventually give that information out whether you want them to or not, but by giving them an opportunity to do it in a way that builds connection is really valuable. It has the potential to ensure that every student in 9th grade has somebody, an elder peer in the building, that they can count on, which can be a priceless resource.
Maybe you're asking: Why would my upperclassmen do it? Or maybe you're wondering: Who should I choose to fill this role? Honestly, these opportunities are such a benefit for your upperclassmen students, as well as your freshman. Giving your upperclassmen opportunities to use their voice, giving them a chance to share advice, and learning active listening are skills that are underrated, in my opinion. If your schedule has even a 10 minute window of time where all the school is doing the same activity, like homeroom or advisory, use this time and do an experiment. Pick two or three upperclassmen students and see if they want to be a peer leader. I also encourage you to pick students that maybe haven't been a team captain or student council president. Give a kind, caring student who may be a little shy an opportunity to be a leader to students that already look up to them.
If this activity sounds like something you want to do, I encourage you to try it, tell someone else, and share this post with them. If you think the ideas I am sharing could be useful in a training session for you or your school - please contact me today for a discovery conversation to see if we are a good fit. I really want to spread the world with strong, confident leaders. I can work with teachers, students or your own children, there is really nothing we can’t try.