By now there have been thousands of tributes to Robin Williams. We knew he was an amazingly sensitive actor, and his comedic genius, my guess, will never be duplicated. I believe, like others, that Williams had a special gift with his hyper ability to string one-liners off without, it seemed, much prior thought.
Williams loved children and young people. His compassion was obvious in both his acting roles and his charitable causes. Movies like Good Will Hunting and the Dead Poets Society especially related to young adults and teens and dealt with student difficulties, the beauty of learning and finding your calling.
So my tribute to Robin Williams is to write about the seriousness of mental illness in both children and teens and how it relates to their schooling. According to the CDC, every year, approximately 2 million U.S. adolescents attempt suicide. Even very young children can struggle with emotional difficulties.
Our public schools should be doing more to address mental illness in both children and teens.
Unfortunately, the corporate takeover of public schools and the attempts to convert schools into simplistic, one-size-fits-all factory learning (preferably with every student online), leaves little room for the complexities children and teens bring to school when it comes to mental health.
Who is paying attention? Consideration of these problems is usually reactive.
Until there is a school shooting, a suicide, a bullying incident, or a student is arrested for outlandish behavior, and these days that can include very young exasperated children in kindergarten, school officials do little to address the mental health needs of children. When they do, it is usually in a punitive manner. The incarceration rate of youth is high and the draconian zero tolerance laws leave students with mental health issues lost in a world that cares little about them.
How do principals and teachers address the serious mental health needs of children, when the overall focus is to make good test scores and little else?
Here is what public schools should not be doing:
1. Ignoring parents who come to them with concerns about their child’s behavior. Or not reaching out to parents when the school recognizes that a student is acting different and shows warning signs of mental illness.
2. Laying-off guidance counselors who provide services concerning mental health to children and their families, or who redirect families to those who can help their children. Or pushing high school guidance counselors into only the role of career counseling. They also should not be stripped of their counseling duties in order to focus solely on administrating high-stakes testing.
3. Eliminating special education teachers with special training in understanding emotional disturbances. These teachers should also not be replaced with substitutes like Teach for America who know little about teaching students with these problems.
4. Putting all children, even those with serious emotional disabilities, in oversized regular classes and then withdrawing support. Also, the poor test scores of these students should not be used to shut-down their special ed. support programs! Students with mental difficulties should be given waivers on such tests.
5. Making class sizes so huge that teachers are unable to get to know their students and understand the personal problems they may face.
6. Dumping tons of meaningless paperwork on teachers to take them away from the kind of information about a student that really matters.
7. Not taking students and what they say seriously.
8. Never providing students an outlet to express themselves. Not including free journal (narrative) writing or rarely, permitting students to ask questions and state their opinions.
9. Removing the arts like drawing, painting, drama and music. These subjects are often therapeutic to students with mental health difficulties.
10. Refusing to provide alternative kinds of education programs within the public school district for students who need a different way of learning.
11. Pushing aside students with anger management difficulties or never structuring their environment to assist them in a compassionate manner.
12. Not providing teachers with professional development to understand how to best identify students in crisis.
13. Ignoring gifted and talented programming for students with extraordinarily high intelligent quotients, who see the world differently and exhibit high sensitivities.
14. Acting like high-stakes testing is a true measure of a student’s worth.
15. Reducing or eliminating a student’s right and access to a legitimate break from school work.
16. Using corporal punishment or verbally abusing students when they are troubled.
17. Making fun or talking about students in a derogatory manner behind their backs or to their faces.
18. Eliminating school nursing positions. Without nursing services students might not have their medication administered correctly.
19. Not communicating with other staff members about a student’s mental health problems.
20. Refusing to set up meetings with teachers and parents concerning a student’s behavioral and emotional difficulties.
If you can think of other examples of what public schools should not be doing when it comes to assisting students with mental health problems please let me know and I will add it to the list.
Public schools can go a long way towards assisting students who have serious mental health problems. They can lend support and guide students to the right place to get help. They can display sincere compassion and be a positive anchor in an otherwise rough sea.
We need to readdress what public schools should mean in our democratic, free society and how they can assist students in crisis.
Rest in peace, Robin Williams.