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The Focused Student: The complex challenge of emotional safety

Fall is just around the corner and schools have started welcoming students back to the classroom. Most kids would probably not admit being as excited as they really are about getting back to books and bells, though the excitement is often more about seeing old friends than learning new vocabulary words or taking tests.

Though it’s not part of the formal curriculum, both parents and students will find themselves immersed in a new subject this year: safety. School safety has risen to a top priority for most schools. While physical safety and mass casualty events garner the headlines, it’s all too easy to overlook the fact that many students don’t feel safe for other reasons. Their anxiety may stem from fear of being bullied, fear of academic failure, or deep-seated psychological issues relating to forces and factors outside the school boundaries.

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Emotional safety is a complex challenge. Research shows that a lack of emotional safety can increase the possibility of physical aggression. The hard part is that emotional safety can be violated by harsh criticism, lack of success, and just downright meanness by students and/or adults. One study found that 81% of school-age males and 72% of school-age females report having been bullied. Though most often deliberate, sometimes this happens unintentionally. The trick is in knowing how to build resilience in all students so they can defend against or shield themselves from such comments. We all know that society is not always kind and our children will have to deal with such comments throughout their life.

There is an extensive research literature documenting the relationship between social rejection and reactions involving aggression. Everyone needs to belong, and exclusion often elicits hostility and aggression. It doesn’t require a PhD to see in the pattern of school shootings a repeated thread of the shooter having been bullied and socially ostracized.

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The responsibility for the emotional welfare of young people falls on all of us. As parents we need to be cautious and aware of what we say, how we say it, and when we say it.

In her new book, “Small Fry,” Steve Jobs’ long-unacknowledged daughter writes about some of the true but brutally blunt statements he made to her, and how they affected her. Without the protective coat built of maturity and experience, children can be highly vulnerable to criticism and commentary. As parents and teachers, we sometimes say things forcefully or sarcastically with the intent of creating a challenge to be met. Sometimes, however, such comments simply create an emotional crater that fills with sadness and despair.

And then there are a student’s peers. Childhood alliances and allegiances can shift on a moment’s notice, and no child wants to be the outsider. Every child wants friends and peer approval, and it is sometimes sought at the expense of children who are vulnerable because they are shy, handicapped, socially awkward, bookish, foreign born, or in some other way “different.” Social media has multiplied this schoolyard problem a hundred times over, creating the ability to spread rumors, gossip, criticism and ridicule around the school (or around the world) in an instant. Add to that the immaturity of the young brain and you have a recipe for disaster. Educating children about the use of social media is extremely important. Social media has become the strong arm medium of bullies everywhere (adult and child). It can be set up to pick on and isolate individuals.

Sadly, many youngsters fail to realize that a moment of indiscretion online can destroy not only others, but can also create a permanent, indelible record that will later be judged by college admissions officers, employers, and even dating prospects. In an effort to be part of the in crowd, young people sometimes do things online that will have a negative impact on them both immediately and in the long-term.

So how do we meet these challenges? I will offer some insights and options in next month’s article.

ROBERT FRANK is the executive director of the Hillside School and Learning Center in La Cañada. He holds a master’s of science degree in special education and has more than 40 years of teaching experience. His column appears on the last Thursday of each month. He can be reached at frank@hillsideforsuccess.org.

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