Many of the articles, profiles, and research summaries in this Chronicle issue, sponsored by Along, focus on the importance of teacher-student relationships. They highlight the role of teachers in promoting students’ resilience in the face of stress and upheaval. Indeed, it is hard to predict what is going to happen in this new year as we continue to face the deadliest pandemic in US history, respond to the call for racial reckoning in our country, and address the mental health needs of young people. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began, there was a documented trend of increased rates of mental health challenges for young people. The pandemic has only worsened these trends, so much so that the US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy recently issued an advisory for a mental health crisis for young people. Researchers have also documented the academic toll that school closures have taken on students’ academic achievement. Not surprisingly, the most profound learning losses were among more marginalized students.
Although there are many reasons for these losses, one factor may be the loss of regular contact with teachers and the other school-based mentors during the pandemic. Children’s relationships with their teachers and other caring adults at school affect their connection to school, motivation, academic performance, and psychosocial well-being. Students spend a great deal of time at school, and the classroom is the source of many of their interpersonal relationships. Indeed, recent analyses of the national Adolescent Health (Add Health) study have indicated that teachers are the single most nominated type of mentors (10%), a rate that is more than double maternal grandmothers (4.8%), uncles (4.6%), religious leaders (4.1%), and employers (4.2%). Close relationships with teachers can boost students’ well-being and academic success, over and above parent and family support. In fact, some experts have concluded that at least one strong relationship with a teacher is the “single most important ingredient” for vulnerable adolescents’ academic development and success. Good student-teacher relationships are characterized by low levels of conflict and high levels of closeness, as well as actions and conversations designed to support children’s motivation to explore as well as their growing ability to regulate socially, emotionally, and cognitively. Likewise, school counselors, nurses, and social workers are typically the first line of defense for children who are struggling emotionally. In fact, nearly all students who ever obtain mental health services receive them at school. American youth are twenty times more likely to receive their mental health care in schools than in mental health centers in their communities.
Researchers at the Search Institute recently asked almost 700 leaders, teachers, and direct service staff in youth-serving organizations and schools across Minnesota about the barriers that they face in building relationships with young people. Here is what they said:
- 58% of staff have different experiences than youth
- 49% of staff hesitate to share power with youth
- 43% lack time specifically dedicated to building relationships with youth
- 41% cited that the external systems we operate within are structurally racist
- 41% reported that the school/program is NOT effective in helping youth navigate the challenges related to trauma
- 19% identified that organization policies or structures make building relationships with youth difficult
Likewise, the Search Institute found in another study that 83% percent of adults surveyed reported being intentional about building developmental relationships with young people, whereas, only 46% of young people reported experiencing strong developmental relationships with adults. The pandemic has led to additional losses in the school-based support that many youth derive from caring teachers, counselors, coaches, and other natural mentors.
As these findings make clear, caring adult-youth relationships do not happen in a vacuum and require us to remove barriers to their formation while also acknowledging social and racial barriers that undermine developmental relationships with and between young people. To address the complexity of the pandemic and intersectionality with race and mental health of young people, there is a need to identify and remove systemic barriers. Finding ways to make caring adults more available to those youth who need them most, while addressing the structural inequalities that hinder their formation will require significant policy change and collaborative efforts that address inequality and promote the positive development of all youth.
In support of our continued conversation on how to support today’s youth, this issue of the Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring is sponsored by Along, a free digital tool designed to support educators to build developmental relationships with their students in easy and fun ways. Along was developed in partnership with educators, youth, and researchers—including both authors of this post and Wallace Grace featured below— to help educators and students build the types of relationships that can help young people thrive. Visit Along.org to learn more.