Our children today are growing up in a world that is distinctly different from the world we grew up in. It is harder and a far cry from yesterday where time moved slower and life was not so chaotic and cluttered. Today, children are growing up on tonics of fast-paced technology, fed with entertainment 24/7 (ichats, texting, Facebooking, Youtubing, etc.) all giving the appearance of fullness, but in reality, leaving them starving for fulfillment, happiness, emotional connection, and creativity. On top of it, almost every child today is found juggling between so many things, living an overscheduled life that not only makes them end up feeling completely overwhelmed and exhausted, but also potentially harms their physical and mental health. Since a child’s ability to learn and function well across all areas is directly linked to their overall state of well-being, these mental health problems can affect academic development and often have dire long-term consequences on health, social, and employment outcomes.
A Stressed Child vs a Happy Child
The sad truth is that the significant increase in the rate of mental health issues among children has become a matter of concern today. Children are showing signs of distress and facing an increased chance of developing depression and anxiety due to chemical changes in their brain arising from puberty, societal and academic pressures, and uncontrollable factors in their home life. Increased levels of cortisol due to stress limits their brains ability to process information as it puts them into the “Fight or Flight” mode all the time. All the energy of their body is focused on survival not learning. This is why they end up struggling in school. Long-lasting stress not only changes the brain chemistry, but also has the potential to change their brain anatomy and gene expression. It weakens the architecture of their developing brain, which leads to lifelong problems in learning, behavior, and physical and mental health.
When a child is happy and emotionally balanced without the threats of stress, there is an increase in 4 key neurotransmitters – dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins. These keep their brains and bodies functioning in the perfect place where they can engage and learn. The more we work towards this awareness for children (and adults) and use strategies to get them there, the easier it is for the them to do well, not only academically, but also socially and emotionally.
To raise happy and stress-free children, mental and emotional well-being needs to be prioritized — i.e., the physical, social, mental, and emotional state of a child, along with academic learning.
Educating the Mind without Educating the Heart is no Education at all
Our emotions need to be as educated as our intellect. Schools can and do provide the most reliable conduit to achieve this goal and address the alarming trend of mental health concerns among children and young people worldwide. Since children spend maximum time at school, it puts them in a unique position to provides an ideal environment for promoting mental health and emotional well-being.
Traditionally, schools have focused on students academic learning. But, schools today do recognize the opportunity that forming, shaping and developing social and emotional skills presents and are changing the way they deliver education to the students. However, Social Emotional Leaning (SEL) remains at the periphery of education. It needs to be made a part of the core! Due to the high accountability on academic results, most schools are unfortunately unable to spend instructional time on anything not directly related to academic content. While a robust academic curriculum is important, emotional well-being is fundamental and foundational for academic attainment. Therefore, focus of education needs to be broadened beyond academics to serve the whole child, preparing them academically as well as emotionally for the challenges they will face inside the classroom, and for the world they will enter when they graduate. When children learn skills to increase pro-social behavior and compassion, it helps them live a more balanced life. Adopting a framework where well-being is a fundamental component benefits not just students but also teachers and schools.
Since we cannot, and should not, separate how we feel (about ourselves, our relationships, our environments) from teaching or learning, it makes the case for SEL in schools absolutely clear. Adopting a well-designed and well-implemented SEL program is one of the key strategies for providing consistent SEL opportunities for all students. Research shows that when social-emotional skills are embedded in a school pedagogy, not only does it result in more positive behavior but higher academic achievement. Students participating in SEL programs showed improved classroom behavior, an increased ability to manage stress and depression, and better attitudes about themselves, others, and school. Being able to understand their feelings and the how and why of their behavior gives students the confidence and therefore a greater chance to live a more accomplished and rewarding life. Moreover, by producing benefits to student’s health and well-being, establishing these programs also offer a significant return for the resources and time invested by schools.