School districts might devise solutions to understand students better. Here’s one suggestion. Bring back a more personalized homeroom with smaller student groups (10 to 15 students) along with an adult mentor for at least 20 minutes each day.
Students need smaller groups to get to know each other and feel supported to understand there’s no shame in depression or feeling bad, and it would help for them to know they’re not alone.
Because schools are experiencing a shortage of teachers and staff, mentors for these smaller groups could include teachers, paraprofessionals, staff, PTA parents, and interested community members who participate in formal preparation in how to understand middle and high school students and facilitate positive group interactions. Each mentor would undergo background checks.
Most remember homeroom for taking roll and listening to announcements replaced now with general classes. But an anchor class where small numbers of students check in with each other and a mentor prepared to understand students and their concerns is worth considering.
In 2004, the FBI and the Secret Service completed a comprehensive study researching threats and characteristics of school shooters. Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates.
They describe a statement by a shooter after the fact.
A young man who brought a rifle into school, killing two students, and wounding several others, told us from his prison cell: “I was really hurting. I didn’t have anybody to talk to. They just didn’t care (page 7).”
They continue emphasizing:
In an educational setting where there is a climate of safety, adults and students respect each other. This climate is defined and fostered by students having a positive connection to at least one adult in authority. In such a climate, students develop the capacity to talk and openly share their concerns without fear of shame and reprisal. They try to help friends and fellow students who are in distress, bringing serious concerns to the attention of adults. Ideally, when this climate of safety is created, students experience a sense of emotional “fit” and of respect. Problems are raised and addressed before they become serious. As a result, the potential for school violence diminishes.
When a member of the school community shows personal pain that might lead them to harm themselves or others, someone is available. Young people can find an adult to trust with this information so that it does not remain “secret” until it is too late (page 7).
Creating a safe school climate makes sense, but when in a school’s busy schedule do students get to meet and learn and care for each other?
How many schools are connecting students with adult mentors and with each other?
It’s rarely clear what opportunities middle and high school students have to get together, other than sports and extracurricular activities, with their teachers or adult mentors, in meaningful ways.
Changing gun laws is critical. But if protecting citizens, especially children, is not a priority by now, it may never be. Teachers and school staff have little control over a student’s home life and whether or not they have access to guns or weapons of any kind.
Adding more counselors, school psychologists, and reducing class sizes so teachers can better get to know their students is also critical. Still, policymakers have failed to support the changes that would help schools better understand the problems students bring to school.
Solutions to date like arming teachers are controversial. Metal detectors, more school resource officers, even shooter drills also raise debate.
Also, for years school districts have relied on threat assessments described here.
Threat assessment is a process of evaluating the threat—and the circumstances surrounding the threat—to uncover any facts or evidence that indicate the threat is likely to be carried out. Student threat assessment can be distinguished from profiling in part because the investigation is triggered by some form of threatening behavior by the student rather than some combination of demographic and personal characteristics.
Certainly, threat assessment, shooting drills, and other safety protocols are essential, but what’s less apparent is how schools work to address student interactions and how children relate to each other before there’s a problem.
Mentors who recognize students who feel disengaged or are experiencing difficulties need a collection of local resources, outside counseling centers, or residential placements, if available, to refer students to if they need additional support.
Let every student know that there’s someone at school to listen and help them through their difficulties, including other students who will care.
This homeroom gathering shouldn’t be treated like group therapy or involve behavioral assessments, tracking, and surveillance. This group should put away phones, no social media.
The group leader might include topics for discussion, but students should be able to carry the conversation and listen to each other every day. It’s simply a time to talk and listen.
We underestimate the power of students given time to connect and support one another in their hurried day, overly focused on success.
Revisiting homeroom, bringing students together with a mentor every day might be the best way to help students unite against student disengagement and mental illness.
Paul Bonner says
I can remember being excited by the possibilities that were to come with the transition from junior high school to middle school back in the early 1990s. I had been working in a challenging junior high where the approach seemed highly impersonal for too many students. The concept of an advisory period proposed as justification for the change seemed intuitive. What I didn’t anticipate was that this was all lip service. Resources would not be provided to allow this exercise for students. Teachers were simply expected to add another task to their day. The only real difference between middle school and junior high was that we now included 6th grade, which created another series of problems brought on when introducing pure-pubescence to early adolescence. A healthy and productive school that serves all students requires a close knit community. Until the education establishment recognizes this, schools will remain vulnerable to violence.
Nancy Bailey says
Thanks, Paul. I remember this transition though earlier in the 80s. As a resource teacher I taught some of the same students in a middle school 3 years straight and the differences between 6th and 8th were great.
I had a large homeroom every morning. While there were too many students and the goal was to take roll and listen to morning announcements, I got to know some students well. They were eager to chat with me about the school, etc. It was a way to catch our breath before the start of school day and it wasn’t a class, no worries about grades etc. so I was not threatening.
Sheila Resseger says
This post and the plea for time in the school day for students to know they are respected and cared about as individuals brought the mind this heart-warming video about a 4th grade teacher in Japan. He asked, “Why do we come to school?” A child raised his hand and answered, “We come to school to be happy.” To my surprise, the teacher readily agreed. What he was able to accomplish with his calm, reassuring approach to teaching his students should be a model for teaching/learning in our schools. And notice–not a digital device for tracking/monitoring/data accumulation in sight. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qeprj9vPtSM
Nancy Bailey says
I forgot that he was a homeroom teacher. Thanks for reminding us of this, Sheila! Great video.
School Safety Solutions: Why my son’s Independent (catholic faith based), all boy’s HS works and prepares them well for college life, work life and socially after HS.
1. 40 min class time
2. a 6 day schedule
3. free periods every single day for eating lunch, doing homework, socializing, getting academic help
4. absolutely NO PHONES allowed in the building (the phone gets confiscated and 6 days of after school detention is mandated)
5. The boys sports/art/music./theater/clubs etc. are celebrated/respected by teachers/admin and in return, the students show respect to their teachers and their whole school environment. When students are seen as whole and complete human beings, they are more inclined to take their schoolwork more seriously.
6. no piling on of extra homework or busywork….just because
7. no standardized testing and no common core. Teachers are allowed the autonomy to really teach their students and have active and lively conversations/debate within the classroom.
Pretty much like my public HS days of the late 70’s/early 80’s. Happiness in school is important. Happy kids are less likely to turn on their peers and teachers. Happy teachers are more likely to offer advice and time to a student who may be struggling.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you, Lisa. I like this but am confused by the 6 day schedule.
Roy Turrentine says
Homeroom was way more important when I first began teaching. That was before the addition of so many things for school to solve. Got a problem with teen pregnancy? Let the schools teach sex ed. Got a violence problem? Let the schools teach a particular style of conflict resolution.
The problem is that school was invented to teach about reading and logic. All other additions are pretty well going to fail without dramatic differences in the the way we do things.
Nancy Bailey says
Thanks, Roy. I’ve heard that same point a lot. Teachers feel they must teach something, and even 15-20 minutes of downtime seems like too much time wasted.
Homerooms are so obsolete that I have never had a homeroom teacher in middle or high school. I am 31 years old and graduated in 2009.I first heard the word “homeroom” and “homeroom teacher” was in a cartoon when I was 13. The boy on the cartoon was Japanese not American. That country school system has smaller learning environments with the same students in a group and the teachers move around something mentioned in the cartoon and strangely related to the cartoon’s weird plot, so this fictional child knew his peers and was supported by the peers and teachers in a way not seen in the USA. Why did they get rid of homerooms at schools? Almost certainly, Money! School security need to be trained to deal with children or else we become like Israel or Mayotte (France) where paramilitary police patrol schools and public areas and this scares children. and adults alike.
Beth Hankoff says
Being known at school is so important. Smaller classes, homerooms, and mentors have all worked in my own family and the schools we have attended. For myself, I could not not stand my Jr High School because I felt like a number. No one cared about my personal issues or needs, they just gave me the same generic busy work as everyone else. When I started refusing to go to school, we found a small private school where the teachers would ask how you were and mean it. They would also work with you to place you at the right level for different subjects. My children had similar issues and also thrived at smaller schools. One had a mentoring program that was fabulous. My younger son wanted to go to public high school. It worked out well because they used a block schedule – 8 periods over two days. Freshmen had a study period on one day and a study skills class for half of the second day with more study time for the second half. They could get a note from another teacher giving permission to leave their designated study room to go get help elsewhere. In other words, lots of time with the teachers in the classes where he needed the most help! I love that the teachers did not have to stay after for this, too. The school climate was positive and accepting, too. Proof that this can be done.
Nancy Bailey says
I love this! Thank you for sharing, Beth!