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Adverse Experiences are not Destiny

As we head into a new school year, it’s hard to not feel overwhelmed. Rather than a run of lazy, hazy days, for many, summer brought record-breaking heat-waves, thousand-year floods, and unprecedented wildfires, not to mention one-hundred-degree seas. As they open their doors, schools are still trying to fill positions left open by educators who were too stressed and exhausted to teach another year. Hospitals and clinics are overwhelmed by too many patients and too few healthcare workers. Communities of every size are struggling to provide the services needed to effectively address addiction, homelessness, and mental illness. Children and adolescents are experiencing extraordinary levels of anxiety and depression, and their parents are straining to find them the medical and emotional care they need. Meanwhile, many politicians embrace hatefulness and division as a cynical campaign strategy, and the groups they target are always the most vulnerable to begin with.

It would be all too easy to focus only on the stressors impacting society and despair.

But while it is true and well-documented that traumatic experiences can have effects on children well into adulthood, it is also true that families, schools, and communities can take actions to mitigate the harmful impacts. A 2019 study examining the impact of Positive Childhood Experiences makes clear that positive experiences and caring adults can help children flourish despite adversity. As the study authors note:

Even as society continues to address remediable causes of childhood adversities such as ACEs, attention should be given to the creation of those positive experiences that both reflect and generate resilience within children, families, and communities. Success will depend on full engagement of families and communities and changes in the health care, education, and social services systems serving children and families.

A recent report from NWEA revealed that “students across the U.S. fell further behind academically last school year despite extensive efforts to help them recover from pandemic learning setbacks…”, and it will be tempting for districts and building leaders to focus heavily on remediation and test scores.

But it would also be a mistake.

As students return to classrooms, it is more important than ever to ensure that the classrooms they enter prioritize deep connections, belonging, and wellbeing. Experiences of joy, safety, and belonging are powerful counterbalancing forces to adverse experiences – and these experiences are essential not just for emotional health, but for academic success. As expressed by Sue Roffey, et al in a 2019 issue of Educational and Child Psychology:

School belonging is commonly defined as: ‘the extent to which students feel personally accepted, respected, included and supported by others in the school social environment’ (Goodenow & Grady, 1993). It has been found to be a predictor of a range of broad academic, psychological, and physical health benefits in young people. A sense of school belonging can not only buffer the effects of student anxiety and depression but also boost academic engagement and motivation. It has been related to a myriad of further beneficial outcomes including resilience, gratitude, sleep, and self-esteem. School belonging has also been shown to decrease the incidence of factors that are not conducive to education, such as bullying, misconduct, school dropout and truancy. And it does not take much to increase a sense of belonging. There is a plethora of brief interventions that demonstrate that with very little cost and effort, the issue can be effectively addressed.

It is only when students (and adults) experience joy, safety, and belonging that they will be ready and able to learn, not to mention “catch up.” Creating these spaces isn’t “fluff” or the “icing on the cake”; it’s an essential part of the learning process of human beings.

In 1863, the poet William Blake wrote that “joy and woe are woven fine.” It’s easy to see the threads of woe right now in our social fabric. It’s our job this year to weave in the joy.

Wondering about what joy could look like in your classroom or school this year? Reach out!

Image credit: Tim Mossholder/Unsplash


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