By Jane Mueller
We all know the story of the frog in the boiling water. The premise is that, if you toss a frog into a pot of boiling water it will immediately acknowledge the danger and jump out. However, if you toss a frog into a pot of room temperature water and slowly heat the pot, the frog will adjust to the increasing temperature and gradually be boiled to death.
In its Mental Health of Children and Adolescents report, the Department of Health reported that, in 2014, almost one in seven Australian children and adolescents aged 4 to 17 years experienced a mental disorder. While a follow-up study has not yet been undertaken, it is believed this figure has escalated since that time and we now hear the words ‘mental health crisis’ in mainstream media. Here, we find ourselves in a pot on a stove and it’s heating up.
Educating today’s children for tomorrow’s world requires a forward-thinking approach to not only such things as pedagogy and technology, but to the neuroscience and psychological elements of child development. I don’t proclaim to be an expert on children’s mental health, but I do believe we have a moral imperative as educators to be aware of the research and to implement strategies that best counteract the growing mental health crisis.
So, what can we, as schools, do to dial down the temperature on students’ mental health?
I’ve drawn together seven themes that have appeared strongly in my own research. And some of them mean reverting back to the greater freedoms that once existed for children.
1. Connectedness. Connectedness is a fundamental psychological human need. Schools can support children by immersing them in a culture where authentic connectedness is not built through inward-looking values such as status and competition, but through outward-looking values such as kindness, compassion and
forgiveness. When influenced by such a culture, children develop lifelong skills and qualities that can result in connectedness, purpose and fulfilment.
2. Agency. Adults feel anxiety and stress when they have minimal control over their lives. It’s the same for children. Today’s children are micromanaged more than ever before and do not have the decision-making authority and freedoms they once did. We can be quick to jump in and rescue a child before they make a mistake, thereby taking away the sense of agency and accomplishment that comes from owning a decision and recovering from it. Children need space and time to enter a state of diffuse thinking, in order to build connecting bridges to areas of focussed thinking. The simple act of valuing and reinstating unstructured play, promoting idle time, and giving students space to make mistakes and reflect on them, is a starting point for restoring student agency, autonomy and control.
3. Optimism. Children thrive in a mindset of gratitude and optimism. This doesn’t mean we don’t acknowledge the bad times and allow children to feel the depths of grief. In fact, children must feel they have permission to authentically feel the lowest lows and to develop the resilience to bounce back from sadness and disappointment. At the same time, we have a responsibility to guide students away from dwelling on what might go wrong, and towards dreaming about what might go right. Knowing that emotion chemicals take about six seconds to break down, we can assist children in shifting their thinking from the power and emotion of the amygdala, to the rational and logical prefrontal cortex by simply guiding them to name their feelings and to consciously resolve to draw on hope and optimism.
4. Nature. Don’t underestimate the power of greenery in the school environment. A lack of green space can affect cognitive development and increase the risk of mood disorders. Studies have shown that hospital patients with bedside windows overlooking natural vegetation require less pain medication and heal quicker. If your school grounds don’t lend themselves to gardens, get creative with, for example, a BYOP (bring your own plant) initiative in the classroom. Not only will the natural colours and smells bring a sense of calm and assuredness, the plants will produce increased oxygen in the learning space.
5. Sleep. Schools don’t usually have the authority to directly affect children’s sleep routines, but they do have the opportunity to influence and educate parents on the benefits of quality sleep, and to promote sleep hygiene.
6. Physical Activity. In the past, children would sit to take a break from standing. Now they tend to stand to take a break from sitting. Children’s bodies are not made to sit still; they need the freedom to move in order to develop balance and spatial orientation, whilst also expelling energy. Schools implement quality Health and Physical Education programs, but this is not enough. The simple inclusion of agile furniture, which would normally be introduced for pedagogical benefits, can also be
introduced with the knowledge that they promote greater physical movement for children.
7. Nutrition. We want parents to provide healthy meals for their children not through the compliance of school policy, but because they understand the importance of nutrition. In today’s busy society, the convenience of less-than-healthy food can often win out over the time it takes to prepare wholesome meals. Schools can draw parents’ attention to the many companies that provide offer freshly-prepared meals with minimal fuss and at low cost.
I fear that in this era of compliance and outcomes - where industry tends to value only that which can be measured - society has at times made the mistake of viewing children as human doings instead of human beings. Children are not objects or sources of data. They cannot and should not be measured. They are our most precious humans who each come with wonderfully colourful backgrounds, talents, struggles and quirks. They need to be celebrated for the individuals that they are and for the adults they will become, and this starts with acknowledging and refocussing on the human element of childhood.
It’s not too late. It’s never too late to dial back the temperature on this stove top.
Jane Mueller is the principal of Living Faith Lutheran Primary School in Brisbane. She is passionate about using the latest research to influence student learning.