The trouble with America’s teenagers began well before the pandemic. In 2019, more than 1 in 3 reported feeling so sad or hopeless at some point over the past year that they had skipped regular activities, a 44 percent rise since 2009, and 1 in 6 had contemplated suicide. Public health measures made all that even worse, as teenagers in communities around the nation grew more isolated than ever. During the pandemic, the number of emergency-room visits for suspected suicide attempts rose by 50 percent for adolescent girls and 4 percent for boys, before settling down in recent months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The city of Tacoma, Washington, appears to be bucking these trends even though more than half of its residents live below the poverty line and its school system, with an enrollment of 30,000, has a history of low high school graduation rates. On a statewide test that measures depression and anxiety among 10th graders, scores actually improved between 2018 and 2021.
Now, communities across the nation are looking to Tacoma as a model of how to help their own teenagers, who, experts say, are experiencing alarming levels of loneliness and alienation. Policymakers and educators say that schools must do a better job of addressing the emotional and social needs of high school students. Scientific research supports this view. Brain studies suggest that the social and emotional aspects of classroom instruction are not only critical to students’ mental health but also improve their ability to learn and can shape a student’s trajectory into adulthood.
School districts are now rolling out programs that go beyond the ABCs and 123s to teach skills not typically the purview of schools: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships and responsible decision making. However, these “social and emotional learning” (SEL) programs are largely piecemeal efforts that don’t match the scale of the problem, experts say. That could soon change, if more funding becomes available through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 earmarks $123 billion for K-12 education.
Advocates of SEL programs insist that they are a potent tool to help combat rising rates of mental health problems—if offered as part of comprehensive, community-wide responses. They point to the experience of Tacoma, which 10 years ago implemented a plan to train teachers, community leaders running after-school activities and parents in ways of helping kids identify and share their feelings, empathize, listen and develop meaningful relationships. As a result, school bus drivers now greet children by name. Teachers begin each day by asking their students to talk about how they are feeling. Kids in trouble know how to ask for help—and for those who don’t, parents and community leaders know to look out for them.
“The graduation numbers were just a symptom,” says Joshua Garcia, the superintendent of Tacoma public schools. “We needed a comprehensive approach to supporting and raising children that ensured they felt safe, engaged, challenged, healthy and supported.”
The program paid big dividends. This year, Tacoma expects to graduate more than 90 percent of its students for the first time, up from 55 percent in 2010. Alcohol use among 10th graders dropped by two thirds in 2020 compared to 2010, and marijuana use fell from 20 percent to around 10 percent. Perhaps most remarkably, last year, at a time when levels of anxiety, depression and suicide skyrocketed amongst teenagers nationwide, Tacoma’s numbers actually went down.
Still, not everybody thinks the programs are a good idea. Some conservatives warn that social and emotional learning is a “Trojan horse” from liberal policymakers, who want to introduce curriculums intended to indoctrinate students. Others have tried to associate the plans with hot-button issues like critical race theory, which holds that racism is endemic in U.S. institutions, and transgender rights. Some parents argue that mental health is not the province of schools. As a result, some red districts in red states have reduced their commitments to SEL—some districts in Florida, for instance, dropped their SEL plans after the state’s board of education banned the teaching of critical race theory. Lawmakers in at least seven states have introduced legislation to ban social and emotional learning outright.
It’s a testament, perhaps, to just how widely acknowledged the teen mental crisis has become that, so far, every single one of those seven legislative measures have failed.
Teenagers who are lonely are more likely to feel depressed, anxious and suicidal; they even feel pain more acutely. Harpazo Hope/Getty
A Loneliness Epidemic
U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy got a feeling for the state of teen mental health during his first term serving as the nation’s top doctor, during the Obama administration. Meeting with small groups of students in 2014 and 2015, he listened with mounting alarm as teenagers shared their experiences.
“I feel like if I disappeared tomorrow, no one would notice,” one told him.
“Nobody really gets me,” he heard from others. “I feel invisible.”
Murthy soon came to believe that a widespread sense of alienation was a key factor driving sky-high rates of depression, anxiety and suicide.
“When I would proactively raise issues around loneliness or isolation in conversation during these town halls and small group discussions, it’s almost like the floodgates open,” Murthy recalls. “My concern has been growing that this is a profound challenge that we face—that it is in fact foundational.”
Since then, more studies have confirmed that loneliness is not only common but also consequential for people’s mental health and physical health. Teenagers who are lonely are more likely to feel depressed, anxious and suicidal; they even feel pain more acutely. (For older adults, loneliness is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, cancer and early death).
Joseph Allen, a clinical psychologist and psychology professor at the University of Virginia who specializes in adolescent social development, compares it to malnutrition. “Teens are primed for social connection,” he says. “It is the period of life where one learns how to form deep connections that are going to matter for everything from romantic relationships, to work with colleagues, to friendships in adulthood. And when they’re deprived of it—and COVID is an extreme example of that—it’s like watching a child go through a growth spurt without getting any protein in their diet. If they’re not getting what they need, it’s not a pretty picture. It doesn’t end well.”
One factor that contributed to skyrocketing rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers, says Allen, is the introduction of the iPhone and the rise of social media, which took off around 2009 and 2010. “It’s given young people a way of being socially involved,” he notes, “but that is lacking in depth for the most part. It doesn’t give them what they need. It can’t replace the real thing.”
The research of Kay Tye, a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences, who studies the neuroscience of loneliness, confirms that the perception of social exclusion is a driver in loneliness and isolation, which she has found is a physiological state that can be observed with brain imaging. Social media, she believes, lacks many of the cues that release the hormone oxytocin when a person makes a social connection with others. Instead, the social media experience largely consists of watching other people interact from afar, passively witnessing them making comments and responding without any real-time feedback. The medium, she suggests, replicates the feeling of exclusion, even when a teenager is not being actively excluded from a group on social media.
“You don’t get eye contact,” she says. “You don’t get any sort of touching. You can’t even laugh together. So there’s no brain-synchrony connection. There’s only the feeling that you’re missing out. There’s only the social exclusion. Social media is almost a misnomer. It’s amplifying social deficits and providing very, very few of the benefits. The types of interactions that benefit our health and that let our systems know that we are getting social contact that’s positive are missing from social media.”
School reforms have compounded these effects. In previous generations, schools usually provided some sense of connection. But the nature of school has fundamentally changed in recent years in a way that contributes to the spike in mental health issues like depression and anxiety and suicidal tendences, says Karen Pittman, cofounder of the Forum for Youth Investment, a nonprofit education policy think tank in Washington, D.C. She blames the No Child Left Behind Act, which, starting in 2002, required states receiving federal funding to come up with uniform academic standards and annual testing that measures the ability of schools and teachers to meet those standards. The emphasis on testing took away teacher flexibility and depersonalized school, critics maintain.
In response to No Child Left Behind, she suggests, many schools increased the amount of time spent preparing for tests, imposed rigid requirements on curriculums designed to prepare kids for the test, and cut programs designed to engage students and help them develop social and life skills.
“School used to be heavily focused on those social aspects of school, not to the exclusion of academics, but really making sure young people felt attached enough to school,” she says. “They came to school, and they engaged in school. And even if they weren’t doing well academically, they still had reasons to come and to try.”
Empathy and the Brain
The changes seen in schools in recent decades are part of a larger problem, says Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a professor of education, psychology and neuroscience at the University of Southern California. A combination of factors, including an emphasis on rote learning, the rise of helicopter parenting and social media, have served to stifle teenagers.
“Teenagers are not just capable of, but are driven to make deep meaning of complex issues and to really be visionary and connected to stuff that is deep, that’s about identity, that’s about reputation, that’s about who I could be,” she says. “And we cut them off at the knees. We do not trust our kids nor expect them to manage themself. It’s overly scheduling kids and it’s telling kids where to sit in class and what to do and when. All these very tight restrictions where everything that counts as achievement is defined by somebody else.”
Immordino-Yang’s opinions grew from her own experiences. In the mid 1990s, when she was 23 years old, she taught math and science to teenagers who had recently immigrated to the U.S. She became fascinated by how much easier it was to teach students who were driven to make sense of their new country and their place in it and who recognized that the concepts she was introducing would help them understand the world around them and their place in it. She went back to school and got a Ph.D. in the neuroscience of teen learning and identity.
In her lab, Immordino-Yang has scanned the brains of scores of teenagers. She has identified signature neural patterns and ways of thinking, learning and relating to the world that are associated not just with greater neural development but with better outcomes in mental health years down the line.
In one particularly insightful study, she had teenagers watch a series of short documentary stories about other teenagers, including Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Prize winning Pakistani education activist who fought back after the Taliban took over her town and banned girls from attending school. Then they climbed into a brain scanner and were asked to indicate how emotionally engaged they were by the story and how meaningful it was to them.
When moved to emotion by a video clip about another teenager, students tended to toggle between two different networks of the brain. The first network was associated solely with feelings of empathy and involved parts of the brain involved in outward-directed attention. The second network involved parts of the brain associated with daydreaming, complex conceptual thinking, identity and meaning, a network of structures known as the default mode network. This part of the brain lit up when the students were doing what Immordino-Yang calls “meaning making”: connecting the story to their own experiences, their conception of the world,and their place within it.
When Immordino-Yang studied these students again several years later, she realized how important social and emotional learning can be to schooling.
When she rescanned their brains after a hiatus of several years, she found that the more a particular individual’s brain had toggled back and forth between the two networks in the original experiment, the more they did so years later while daydreaming in the scanners, suggesting the early tendency had led to greater brain development in subsequent years. More important, this skill was predictive of how the individual scored on a wide array of metrics that touched on self-esteem, relationships, work, school and how happy they were as young adults. What this means, Immordino-Yang thinks, is that this ability to toggle between the two brain networks is indicative of a person’s ability to find meaning in the world around them.
The work has important implications about teaching and learning. Social and emotional development is traditionally thought to be largely separate from cognitive development—doing math is cognitive, having a friend is social, being depressed is emotional. But Immordino-Yang’s research shows that these are false dichotomies: social, emotional and cognitive activities are all of a piece. “In the brain what we’re learning is that these big network dynamics undergird all of it,” she says. “And you can’t make real distinctions between social, emotional and cognitive.”
What works best in an educational setting, she says, are approaches in which the social, cultural, emotional, cognitive aspects of the learning are integrated. This happens through project based learning, involving interactions with other students, and “experiential kinds of discussions where people are delving on their own into what matters or they’re learning how to care about stuff that they hadn’t cared about before. ”
Even an algebra class can be an opportunity for social emotional learning. Students working collaboratively in teams to solve a complex math problem, for instance, have to engage with others, listen to one another’s perspectives and deal with any frustration that arises. “One of the things we hear time and time again, especially from our educators, is that sometimes kids become so frustrated that they completely shut down,” says Aaliyah A. Samuel, president and CEO of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a nonpartisan nonprofit that serves as a clearinghouse for more than 80 SEL programs. “Imagine if not only the educators, but the kids, had the skills to say, ‘I’m feeling really overwhelmed or frustrated by this problem, and rather than giving up, I’m going to talk through my areas of a frustration, identify where they are and then get the support to be able to persist and work through that.’ Persistence is part of the social emotional learning skills.”
Connecting With Students
The term “social and emotional learning” was coined at CASEL 30 years ago. It gained traction among some NGOs and youth agencies and in early childhood education after the 1995 publication of psychologist Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence, which emphasized the importance of skills besides simply the intellectual.
Over the past decade, official adoption of SEL has exploded in school districts. By 2021, about 68 percent of the nation’s 14,000 school districts had adopted some form of SEL curriculum, while about 27 states had adopted kindergarten through grade 12 SEL standards or competencies. Now, with growing recognition of the teen mental health crisis, SEL has increasingly begun to make its way into high schools. In 2018, 37 percent of secondary school principals said they had adopted some form of SEL. By 2021, that had risen to 70 percent.
Most of these programs are limited to school and after-school activities. For instance, UVA’s Allen has developed an SEL program, called the Teen Connection Project, to help adolescents who feel isolated. Studies suggest that SEL is particularly helpful for students who are loners and feel they don’t have deep connections with any of their friends. According to studies by the CDC, adolescents who say they lack authentic connections to others are significantly more likely to report persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness (35 percent versus 53 percent), consider suicide (14 percent vs. 26 percent) or attempt suicide (6 percent vs. 12 percent).
Allen’s project leads small groups of teenagers through a moderated curriculum consisting of 12 experiences designed to create a sense of connection, vulnerability and intimacy, and leave them feeling someone has actually listened to and can relate to what they have to say, which makes them more likely to forge deeper emotional connections with others in real life. In early sessions, teens choose a favorite quote about the importance of connection from well-known figures like Lady Gaga, Socrates and Martin Luther King. A moderator goes around the room and asks students to share why they chose it. By the time the group reaches later sessions, the students are often feeling comfortable enough to share intimate details about their lives and feelings that they have never told another person before.
“The idea is to give the teenagers an experience of connection with others and a positive experience with vulnerability—which is not necessarily the norm in adolescent experiences,” says Allison Williams, senior vice president at Wyman, a 124-year-old youth development organization, which works with schools and community groups to implement programs that help teens develop and thrive. “Four months afterwards, we could see higher levels of social support, better school engagement and lower levels of depressive symptoms. This suggests to us that they were able to start internalizing the lessons of the program and carrying that forward into their experiences.”
Many education experts believe the best kind of social and emotional learning is when the entire community, and not just the schools, takes part. Tacoma’s program is a case in point. The city began in 2012 by rethinking the way they approached education, asking a series of simple questions: How could the district get kids to want to come to school? How could they help them feel they belonged? How could they replace apathy and hopelessness with a genuine desire to learn? The parents and teachers of Tacoma wanted their children to get more than a diploma—they wanted them to thrive.
To come up with a plan, Garcia, who was a deputy superintendent at the time, approached the chancellor of the University of Washington, Tacoma and leading academics and asked them to help him harness the latest research in child development. He and his colleagues enlisted the support of community leaders and the heads of local nonprofits. Then he and his collaborators began selling a new vision to the citizens of Tacoma. It aimed to create a “full village approach,” to “wrap around the district’s students 24-7″—an initiative aimed at developing and nurturing the growth of the “whole child,” a term often associated with the social emotional learning movement.
Today, classes in Tacoma schools and after-school activities often begin with an opportunity for every student and teacher to “check in” with how they are feeling—a practice aimed at normalizing the expression of emotions. Even before the pandemic, each grade carved out time for what the school calls “relationship building circles,” both in the classroom and in teacher training sessions. The circles usually begin with a warm-up question, where each individual takes a turn answering a question, such as “what is a value that you hold?”; “who did you learn that value from?” and “what value have you heard someone else speak about today that really resonated with you?'”
“Students have a chance to know each other better,” says Laura Allen, who leads Tacoma’s Whole Child initiative (she is not related to Allen of UVA). “They have a chance to understand where someone else is coming from and how they connect. There are oftentimes tears in circles, vulnerability and empathy. And there’s some power in just people listening and feeling that you belong. Especially coming out of COVID that people have been thirsty for.”
The ability to connect is just one of the skills SEL aims to hone. Other advocates emphasize the importance of integrating curriculum into schools, which makes it easier for teenagers to connect what they are learning to their own lives and figure out how they fit into the world.
“What’s really significant about the adolescent period is that we seem to be designed to figure out where we fit in, how we can make a difference and where we can belong,” says Andrew Fuligni, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist who co-directed UCLA’s Center for the Developing Adolescent. “A sense of meaning, and a sense of connection, are protective for teenagers against depression.”
Since the mental health needs of schools was amply demonstrated during the pandemic, a significant portion of American Rescue Act funds will likely be used to fund programs in SEL. By June, almost a third of states planned to spend some COVID relief funds on SEL programs, according to a recent analysis by FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.
A protest against critical race theory in schools in Leesburg, Virginia, in June 2021 Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty
The biggest pushback against the SEL movement has come from the culture wars. The conservative campaign against critical race theory (CRT) has proven to be a potent and motivating political issue in red states ever since the George Floyd protests and the publication The 1619 Project by the New York Times, which suggested slavery and Black contributions played a larger role in U.S. history than previously suggested.
There’s some disagreement over what role CRT has in high school curriculums, or if it is even taught at all. Although CRT is usually not explicitly mentioned in high school in curriculums, conservative activists and politicians have asserted that it is tucked away, hidden, in some SEL programs. CRT “will be concealed as a number of different things,” one article published on the right-wing website The Federalist recently stated. “Most common is something including ‘social justice,’ ‘equity and diversity,’ ‘multicultural education,’ or ‘social-emotional learning,’ which is the most deceptive because it doesn’t sound like it involves race at all!”
The sentiment led to widespread protests at school boards around the nation in 2021, though the issue seems to have died down in recent months. In one widely reported instance last year, conservative activists suggested that a school district in northern Georgia, which had assigned an administrator to oversee social and emotional learning, would teach critical race theory. At a school board meeting in May, 2021, so many protestors against CRT showed up that hundreds of people had to stand outside. The board that night approved a resolution banning the teaching of critical race theory and the 1619 project, even though there were no plans to do so in the first place.
“Our intentions have been wildly mischaracterized,” superintendent Brian Hightower told the crowd. When he said the district planned to move forward with its SEL program to address mental health and rising youth suicide rates, he was booed.
One reason questions about racial identity and inclusion have often been associated with the social emotional learning movement is that the ideas first gained popularity in efforts to address the problems in inner-city schools, which are disproportionately Black. CASEL itself was formed to further the ideas pioneered in the late 1960s by Yale researchers who designed programs to turn around New Haven’s failing inner-city schools. Many of its early beneficiaries were students of color, for whom the experience of racism was ever present, and who felt alienated from a curriculum that did not include people who looked like them.
CASEL officials emphasize that education is local and that there are a wide variety of curriculums to choose from, which can be tailored to local goals. “SEL is not a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Samuel. “It should not be. Education is a local control issue for a reason. And the same should be with the selection of social emotional learning programs. Because what works in one community, in one school and for one family may not work for another.”
Advocates caution that SEL is no easy fix for the mental health crisis. It will take all levels of society working together. In the age of COVID-19 and widespread social media use, there is no “easy panacea,” says Justina Schlund, CASEL’s Senior Director of Content & Field Learning.
Even Tacoma, with its aggressive “wrap around” approach, is struggling. The district still has a high population of homeless students, poverty rates remain stubborn and the murder rate has ballooned.
“We’re battling just like everyone else,” Garcia told Newsweek. “By no means are we perfect. But we started way before the pandemic, and when the pandemic hit, we had a greater awareness of the need and had some infrastructures of support to help our kids.”
Although Tacoma students have improved on statewide tests designed to measure anxiety, the numbers are not as low as school officials would like them to be. Students went from 29 before the pandemic to 21 (on a 42-point scale), and depression went from 28 to 20 (on 60-point scale). But School district officials have been closely tracking the mental health of their students through the pandemic, and at one point found that 72 percent of their 10th grade students were unable to control worrying, and 41 percent reported feeling depressed, says Tacoma’s Allen.
“We’re struggling, and we’re doing our best,” Allen says. “But when our kids get depressed, when they want to isolate, want to turtle, they want to check out from everything, we pull them in. The more we pull them in, the more we connect, the better they do. It’s really the antidote that they need.”
Another word for those kinds of measures, suggests Pittman of the Forum for Youth Investment, is what used to be known, in the days before No Child Left Behind, simply as “good teaching.”
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