At one point last week, in the aftermath of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, my own teenage children and their friends were in my kitchen discussing it, along with the ever-growing epidemic of depression, anxiety, and even suicide among their peers. Eventually, they were all shouting – not at each other – but rather outward at the world and to the adults running it, as they reflected deep sadness, as well as feelings of frustration and powerlessness. What else could I do but listen and try to hold back my own tears?
While shoveling snow the following morning, I had a few thoughts about how we, as individuals and school communities, really do have the power to elicit change. Still in my jacket, I came in and recorded this video. I hope you’ll listen/watch, then check out the resources below.
Give your students an opportunity to organize and be heard.
Providing older students with opportunities to gather together to voice or demonstrate their concerns and opinions gives them a sense of purpose and cultivates connectedness between them, while also being extremely educational. There are several nationwide and local events being planned that schools could join or simply use as a starting point to plan a version that makes sense for their own school community. For example, check out this piece on a Maine school in which students organized an inspiring peaceful protest on Friday or this one about students in Andover, MA. For additional inspiration, listen to the shooting survivors themselves talk about the nationwide march they are organizing to take place in March. This article just released by EdWeek provides insight on what district and school administrators are doing across the country amid walkouts and protests on gun violence, including the school walkout scheduled for March 14th. I encourage school leaders to meet with student leaders to brainstorm the best and safest ways to allow their voices to be heard. In the end, it can have little effect on the school day, but a tremendously positive effect on student morale while providing a hands-on lesson in civic engagement.
Find simple ways to take action collectively.
Feelings of sadness, empathy, and compassion are prevalent and natural responses to events such as a school shooting, so are the feelings of anger, helplessness, and fear. To help empower children and youth (and ourselves) to ease feelings of helplessness, try sharing simple compassionate and connecting practices such as Yoga 4 Classrooms PEACE BREATH which involves sending peace and love to the students and families involved, and to the world. This exercise could be done in the classroom or over announcements with your entire school. You can find the script, as well as additional resources on helping children cope with frightening news. Using world events to start discussions and perhaps even provide opportunities for students to share ideas, write, and otherwise brainstorm meaningful ways to make a difference will help them feel empowered and connected.
Reach out to your representatives and demand change.
Whether it’s gun control legislation and/or more funding for mental health services that you feel is important, don’t just think about it (guilty here), but let your reps know where you stand. Right now. You can contact your state senators here (see state search upper left) and your congress representatives here (search by zip code upper right). One person can make a difference, collectively we can have a transformative impact.
Make social and emotional learning a priority.
Consider that socially and emotionally healthy children will have less chance of developing mental health issues as they grow up. They will also be more successful in nearly every way at navigating their adolescent and adult worlds. The Every Student Succeeds Act, though still not enough (in my opinion), does encourage more of a focus on whole-child education than did No Child Left Behind, which had an inordinate focus on academic achievement. Within ESSA, there is a bit more space and opportunity (and funding allocation flexibility) for schools to focus on professional development that empowers teachers with trauma-informed tools and strategies for encouraging the development of social and emotional learning competencies. Two of the competencies, self-awareness, and self-management, provide the foundation for the development of the others which include responsible decision-making, social awareness, and relationship skills. The evidence base is growing in support of yoga and mindfulness education as a means to promote these skills. And in my 11+ years of observation working with schools, it typically only takes one inspired staff member, parent, or administrator to step forward to get the ball rolling to see it integrated. One.
Support your own emotional resilience and well-being.
Events like school shootings have a ripple effect that touches every school and teacher across this country, and yet those feelings must be put on a side burner so that you can attend to teaching and addressing the needs of your students. But as they say, you have to put your own oxygen mask on first in order to sustain your ability to assist others. Making staff wellness a priority is critical to the well-being of the entire school. As well, it can prevent teacher burnout.
A while back, we wrote “An Antidote to Teacher Stress: How Yoga and Mindfulness Can Support Resilience In and Out of the Classroom.” Since then, I have continued to be inspired by the (video) at the schools we’ve been fortunate to support who consistently share they are more resilient, effective, and feel more fulfilled both personally and professionally following their training and positive experiences with classroom integration of yoga and mindfulness. Even without that, you can pick up a guide like Barbara Larrivee’s new book, A Daily Dose of Mindful Moments, right now and immediately start using simple, resilience-building mindfulness tools throughout the day. Try starting your next staff meeting with one of the activities therein to center and connect within and with one another, and then reflect together on the effect.
Truly, there are no small actions. By taking care of ourselves, by finding ways to connect with and support each other, by standing up and voicing our concerns, and by supporting our students’ current and future mental health in evidence-based, tangible ways, we will be taking collective action toward real and positive change. Though I’ve shed more than a few tears since Feb. 14th as I know you have, I’m still beyond hopeful that together, we CAN be the change we wish to see in the world.
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Yours in peace,