By Kevin Kuczynski
Where would our education system be if we invested the dollars for standardized testing in supporting the emotional needs of students? Today, these standardized test scores have ultimately become the measuring stick for student achievement. Despite the increased demands on me as a high school counselor, I frequently wonder what students’ learning and achievement would look like if we focused on their emotional needs and not just their academic successes. Too often we measure success only by a test score instead of the emotional well-being of a student as a whole. There needs to be a balance. Educators need to find ways to more proactively support both the emotional and academic needs of their students. Standardized testing has created an imbalance, and, even though testing will not go away, we need to serve all students. Students are so much more than a number; they are individuals with needs that require support, some more than others.
Although it is not the school’s job to raise children, society has thrust schools into that role. This role, though frustrating to many, is one that we ought to embrace. We must get to know our students as individuals with emotional needs in order for us to help them achieve academic success. If we as educators were in the position of many of our students, we would not take an interest in education either. Students’ lack of interest is not because they don’t care or because they are apathetic. It is because more and more of our students are struggling emotionally and trying to survive each day—they will deal with tomorrow when it comes. This requires a focused response on the part of school districts to meet students’ ever-growing emotional needs. Here are four ways teachers, schools, and districts can take action to promote emotionally healthy students.
1. Build Relationships with Students
Teachers need to reach students by striving to build relationships with them. Too often, teachers simply ask “How are you?” and students respond “Fine.” and move on with the day. We must strive to connect with students. We must go beyond the common surface questions to really dig deeper and establish a greater connection with them. We must inquire about what interests them, what they are passionate about, and what their hopes and dreams are for their futures. We can do so by having conversations with students as they enter class, giving students journal writing assignments, or attending their after school activities. Students need to know that we care about them as people just as much as we care about them as scholars. They must know that we are interested in their lives outside of the classroom just as much as their performance inside the classroom. There is no substitute for building relationships.
2. Offer Professional Development Training on Emotional Health
School districts must provide professional development where teachers can learn about the signs and symptoms they need to be on the lookout for when it comes to emotional health issues like stress, anxiety, or depression, among others. These warning signs become critical because intervention early on in a student’s crisis is so important. Students’ concerns need to be brought to the school social workers and counselors’ attentions in an effort to assess the severity of the issue and refer students to professional therapists when necessary.
3. Make Emotional Health Resources Available
Schools currently provide numerous resources to students to aid their academic development, such as textbooks and online tutorials. Schools need to consider doing the same to support the emotional needs of students. Providing self-help books for students can guide them in working through their emotional needs. Various resources, such as my book Behind the Counselor’s Door, can encourage students to work through their struggles and get their lives back on track. Just as most schools provide resources for teens to consider driver’s education programs, free and reduced lunch programs, college information, and career planning resources, schools must provide resources that support students emotionally.
4. Partner with the Community
It is important to recognize that addressing the emotional well-being of students must be a collaborative effort with the community. It takes many people from various arenas to serve students. Educators play a vital role, but hospitals, counseling centers, and community agencies must work together to help meet the emotional needs of students and their families. Partnerships with local organizations often give parents and students the opportunity to attend evening therapy at the school at an affordable cost. This allows students get the support they need outside of the classroom so they are able to focus and learn material inside the classroom. Additionally, this gives students someone to speak with about a self-help book they may have read and want to discuss. Therapy sessions for students outside of school have been decreasing as employers cut back on insurance coverage and increase premiums. Thus, counseling sessions must become more accessible to students in need. These emotional needs don’t just go away; most likely they worsen over time, creating an intricate web of problems that needs to be unraveled through therapy. Partnering with the community to make sure students have access to the therapy services they need can only promote emotionally healthy students.
Our students will one day be our future community leaders. Our investment in them is vital and well worth it. We must do everything we can to ensure that students are thriving both emotionally and academically so that they can grow up to be healthy and successful adults who might one day raise children of their own.
Kevin Kuczynski is a high school counselor in Warren, Mich. and the author of Behind the Counselor’s Door. He received his bachelor’s degree from Cedarville University and his master’s degree from Liberty University. Visit his website.