Mitch Lyons, Coordinator for the Social Emotional Learning Alliance of Newton (SEL4Newton) submitted the following Guest Post
As was heard at the October 21st School Committee meeting where Newton’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey was unveiled, since 2012, with little variance, Newton North and Newton South High Schools have 80 students who will attempt suicide, about 400 who will purposefully harm themselves, and 800 who feel “so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that they stopped doing some usual activities.” (http://www.newtonma.gov/civicax/filebank/documents/97603)
These are our children under our care. They didn’t walk into high school and suddenly become depressed, self-harming and even suicidal. These issues started earlier that that.
In 2014, after three suicides by high school students, there was much activity from our community leaders. But, honestly, we have lost focus since then. We need to find ways to support our children now, before something horrific happens.
Have we become desensitized to human suffering if we do not find these numbers frightening?
I cannot say enough good things about the tireless student support service employees from Newton North and South that were at the October 21st School Committee meeting who truly believe and work toward addressing this issue. Their work is inspiring and heartfelt. Newton’s Health and Human Services Department similarly has done laudable work in establishing Newton Cares among other work. Yet, unfortunately, the data has not changed in any significant way since 2012. Given that we love our children, that we care, we cannot walk away without doing more.
Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the educational process that teaches children how to recognize and regulate their emotions and acquire the “people” skills that help to build long-lasting relationships with others. That is too simplistic a definition for a complex undertaking by educators, but SEL has proven efficacy in helping children navigate the emotional roller coaster of what makes up our lives. SEL teaches the “whole” child”, which means that academic knowledge alone is not enough for our children to lead a happy and successful life. To quote a brain scientist, “We perceive ourselves as thinking creatures who feel, but in biology, we are actually feeling creatures who think.” SEL addresses how our emotions play a crucial role in our lives. Employers strive to acquire workers who possess emotional intelligence (www.eiconsortium.org) and people with emotional well-being, both physically and mentally, are healthier (https://familydoctor.org/mental-health-keeping-your-emotional-health/).
Newton Public Schools has embraced SEL as “one of the foundation blocks of NPS” as have many school districts in Massachusetts and throughout the country, but while SEL is being implemented within our elementary schools, it is still making its way systemically into middle and high schools. To reduce the startling statistics from the HHS Youth Risk Behavior as shown in High School, we must begin with bringing SEL taught in elementary schools into homes and out into the community to reinforce these skills.
In my work coordinating SEL4Newton (www.SEL4Newton.org), a citizen-driven initiative with a mission to bring awareness of SEL skills to parents and a pilot of the Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Alliance for Massachusetts (www.SEL4MA.org) of which I am president, I have heard a repeated lament that there is not enough school funding for SEL. True or not, it’s not an excuse for inaction.
Let’s focus on what we and our leaders in this community can do, with or without funding. Let’s use the example of the Children’s Kids Room at the Newton Free Library who has highlighted SEL books in their room so parents can learn about SEL topics with their children.
Here are some ideas and I would welcome more from those who read this article.
- Let’s change our mindset about talking about emotional well-being. Let’s talk about it openly like it’s a “foundation block”, as the NPS website calls it, and not a side issue or an add-on. It’s not, it’s absolutely crucial to our children’s future emotional well-being.
- Let’s publicize it. In letters to the editor, Op-Eds or on social media, let’s put down on the record how we care about the emotional well-being of our children and what steps we can take to improve. Let’s take this message out to parents instead of making them come to NPS meetings.
- Let’s prioritize it by collaborating among all departments in this city and not work in silos. Let’s have the whole community talk about the skills necessary for emotional well-being.
- Let’s take the Youth Commission’s suggestions made last year to the School Committee and act on them.
- Let’s support the Newton Public School’s agreement with SEL4MA and join the all-volunteer SEL4Newton as a resource for parents to learn how to bring the skills of SEL into our homes which is the first venue for future emotional health, into places of worship where empathy and compassion is taught, in businesses where emotional intelligence is valued and onto playing fields where sport psychology has taught the same skills as SEL for over a hundred years. Over 100 people have already joined SEL4Newton and we hope all who read this become members.
- Let’s form a commission to brainstorm all the ideas we can come up with to promote SEL skills and then effectuate those recommendations with the same relentlessness and vehemence that our children’s emotional health is assaulted everyday by what they read and hear in the news, on social media and in their daily emotional lives.
Our children need us now. Let’s stand up for them.