Well-intended initiatives that fail (over and over … again)
The extent of stress, anxiety and depression among students has reached alarming levels.
It goes without saying that schools have to be environments that foster the well-being of our children. Thankfully, in most schools, this holds true: teachers tend to take their role of ensuring the wellbeing, safety and health of their students ‘in loco parentis’ very seriously. In my experience of ensuring my own students’ wellbeing, ‘prevention’ has proven to be better than ‘cure’. I refer particularly to the widely-prevalent bullying-prevention programs, which often try to mitigate the damage of bullying after the fact. Far more effective are the numerous preventative approaches which are intrinsically tied to the core of education, and serve as invaluable components of it: physical education and training, health and career courses, driver safety programs, and service initiatives, to name but a few.
The rationale of such preventative programs are to provide students, teachers and parents with the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to be able to make healthy and safe choices. Such initiatives provides opportunities to:
- think critically about a variety of health and safety issues;
- acquire strategies to facilitate sound decision-making and goal-setting;
- develop pro-active attitudes in ensuring personal and communal health;
- allow students to become knowledgeable of their personal skills, abilities and interests, and of how these can relate to a variety of contexts; in school and beyond;
- acquire the skills necessary to develop and maintain healthy relationships; and
- become aware of the sources of assistance that are available to students, teachers and parents on education, health, and safety issues.
A broad-based education therefore endeavours to allow teachers to assist students and parents in identifying possibilities/issues (intellectual, human, social, health- and safety-related), to maintain and reinforce healthy habits, and to develop the necessary management skills to deal with complex, ongoing change.
Unfortunately, we seem to fail in achieving a number of these goals, mainly due to the fact that preventative programs often lack dynamism and can be tedious, are boring and one-dimensional, or sometimes don’t even exist at all. Essentially, in being ineffective, they fail to serve those entrusted into our care.
“How do you know this?”, you may ask. Well, I ask and students tell me …
The importance of asking students for their honest responses, enabling them to do so safely and discreetly, cannot be over emphasised. In fact, the very first points raised by the National Institute of Mental Health in helping children and adolescents deal with trauma is “listen to them” and “Accept/do not argue about their feelings”.
Unfortunately, very few schools (none that I know of) actually survey their constituents on these issues; nor do they conduct a longitudinal study of any nature to determine whether preventative programs actually have the desired effect. Over the past 20 years, I have made a point to talk to students and parents about these issues, both conversationally and in surveys (even if lacking in scientific approach and data). I have found, on the whole, that the main concerns from the students’ perspective are: a lack of activity (P.E. excluded); the lack of effective threat assessment; and measures to ensure personal safety, including ergonomics of daily functioning (e.g. ‘The chairs make my back hurt.’) and the necessities of mental health and well-being. More importantly, students seem to feel that the situation is not improving.
While our focus on personalisation is justified, it is important that we remain aware of the ‘other’ concerns that students are facing. Even more importantly, we should begin to devise plans of action that actually address the issues with a degree of success.
The first example that probably comes to mind would be bullying prevention (so-called ‘anti-bullying’) programs, which requires various ongoing and engaging initiatives to be successful. Trying to anti-bully after the fact does only limited good; let us instead build physical and social skills into various classes, and develop a personal environment in which teachers actually listen to what their students say, and act upon it. A community that works like this will probably not need an anti-bullying program; for a community that works like this roots out the anxieties, distrust and imbalances from which bullying springs in the first place. Indeed, dynamic preventive programs on the whole (and programs that address anxiety and ergonomics in particular) need and deserve much more attention than we have yet given them, so that we can better ensure the wellbeing, health and safety of our students.