Sunday, February 24, 2019

Protect the Mental Health of Students and Teachers

As February comes to an end, we’ve been reflecting on the important movements in education 
highlighted this month. The Black Lives Matter at School movement is fighting for racial 
justice in schools across the country. Teachers Against Child Detention highlights the 
educators’ role as mandated reporters and exposed the U.S. government’s awful policy of 
detaining immigrant children in detention centers. The one-year anniversary of the Parkland 
school shooting reminds us of the students and teachers who turned their trauma and grief 
into a crusade to end gun violence, calling out the despicable inaction of our politicians. 
When children in our country do not have culturally relevant curriculum or counselors, when 
children are imprisoned, when children fear for their lives in school, we are damaging them. 
Our children need our advocacy more than ever before. While teachers have always been 
passionate champions for their students, 2018 was a year when they demanded that our 
leaders listen to them. We have seen first-hand how NOT listening has had serious 
consequences for our nation’s children. The truth is that teachers are fighting daily against a 
system of education policies forced on schools by non-educators that does more to add trauma 
to children’s lives than to reduce it. Teachers are witnesses and first responders to the harm 
that is being caused. 
NBC news recently reported that the increase of children showing up in emergency rooms 
due to a mental health crisis is “staggering.” The American Academy of Pediatrics also 
reported that children’s admissions to hospitals for suicidal thoughts and self-harm more than 
doubled from 2008 to 2015. Additionally, serious behavioral issues in schools have 
increased nationwide. Many theories are discussed as to why this is happening. Too much 
screen time. Addiction to social media. Over-scheduling of structured activities. What is left 
out of the conversation is the reality of how education policies and practices of the past two 
decades contribute to this crisis and are a significant factor adding to the increase of mental 
health issues among children and the adults who work with them. We are speaking out and 
we urge physicians, mental health professionals and parents to speak out with us.
In 2001, when No Child Left Behind required schools to test students in grades 3-8 in reading 
and math every year, it led to an increased emphasis on getting students prepared for these 
academic tests. Parents of kindergartners were warned that their children would be behind if 
they didn’t have their sight words memorized or read a certain number of words per minute.  
The kitchen sets, blocks, puzzles and dress-up centers that used to be a crucial part of learning 
in early childhood classrooms disappeared. This change was short-sighted and not at all 
supported by early-childhood educators and research. It failed to recognize the important brain 
development that occurs through complex and imaginative free play, such as developing 
executive functioning, self-regulation, problem solving, critical thinking and social skills. 
The Alliance for Childhood issued a joint statement from doctors, child development experts 
and early childhood educators urging Congress to rethink this policy. Stating that, “the political 
push for even more standardized testing… has ignored the adverse health consequences of such 
policies.” Their warning was ignored.
This loss of play in school, while damaging to all children, was even more devastating for 
children who live in neighborhoods with a dearth of safe spaces to play. Many children who 
only had access to quality play experiences in school, now had no access at all. A policy for 
which the stated purpose was to leave no child behind, pushed many children backward in 
important developmental skills.

With the adoption of Common Core standards in 2010, again experts in early childhood 
education were ignored as not one K-3 classroom teacher or early childhood expert was part 
of the group that developed them. The Alliance for Childhood once again issued a statement  
warning of the consequences for the health and development of children in grades K-3 if 
Common Core standards were implemented in the early grades (link 6). Their warning was 
It is no surprise then, that as children are missing out on important developmental skills in 
the early years of their education, emotional, behavioral and mental well-being begin to suffer. 
One can picture a sort of uphill snowball effect… as students move up in grade level and are 
expected to focus on more and more complex material, the lack of these skills make it difficult 
for them to cope. Missing out on developing important social skills in early childhood can 
also lead to problems getting along with other children and increased aggressive or bullying 
behavior. For students who have multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) or are 
dealing with toxic stress from ongoing trauma in their lives, missing out on quality play-based 
learning in the early grades closes a window of opportunity for building resilience. 
Current education policies are harming them.

There is plenty of evidence too, that the mental health of the adults in schools is suffering. A  
survey done by American Federation of Teachers and the Badass Teachers Association in 2017 
found that teachers report poor mental health at twice the rate of the general workforce. They 
also experience workplace bullying three times more often than other workers. This 
environment reduces the ability of teachers to help their students. Teachers are often with 
students for more waking hours than their parents. Creating stressful environments for teachers 
harms students.  We know that caregivers are essential in preventing toxic stress for children, 
but they can only achieve that goal if their own stress is in check. You cannot train teachers to 
prioritize their own mental-health yet keep sending them into dysfunctional environments 
day after day where they have no control over what they teach and how.
A lack of control over what happens to you is a top reason why people become depressed 
in their jobs. There is no question that the grading of schools and evaluating of teachers 
and administrators based on test scores has resulted in educators feeling a complete lack 
of control over their own fate. Often, teachers are forced to go against their own training,  
professional judgement and the most basic needs of their students, marching on with narrow, 
scripted curriculum, keeping up with pacing guides, unmanageable paperwork and posted 
objectives in order to check off a box on an evaluation form or meet a cut-score on a test 
at the end of the year. This, even when many of them don’t have enough copies of books, 
teacher’s guides, or even paper and pencils for the students. Yet the policymakers and 
reformers insist that educators be accountable. They are the ones who need to be held 
accountable for the decline in mental health among children and the adults who work with 
As we fight for justice and safety for our children, as politicians continue to ignore the damage 
they have done to our children by selling schools to corporate interests, we need to send the 
message loud and clear to our communities and public leaders that teacher work environments 
ARE students learning environments. We refuse to allow our students to be damaged. To be 
present for them, to dry the tears and buffer the stress many of them have in their own lives, 
to put relationships with them front and center, we need to improve school culture for all and 
stop allowing education policies to turn schools into depressive, anxiety-producing stress
factories. Self-advocacy IS self-care. Continue the fight education warriors. 
The fight for children is our fight! We stand together!
Co-authors Maureen Matz and Sandy Goodwick are both members of the BATs Quality of 

Worklife Team