Are the Kids Alright? 

May 2, 2022

Some adults seem unable to grasp that young people are scared. Terrified. And angry. They feel abandoned. We can do better by our kids. 


Teacher Twitter is a trove of information about what is happening in classrooms across the country. One constant refrain is that the kids are alright. It’s even a hashtag: #TheKidsAreAlright. 

But are they? Doors are being slammed, desks are being overturned, and the sounds of voices that are just beginning to deepen are saying things to each other and adults previously reserved for reality shows on MTV. They are smoking/vaping, taking edibles, and pill-popping in hallways, staircases, and bathrooms. And when they aren’t yelling, screaming, or trying to get high, they are doing things that seem to come straight out of Hunger Games novels. Fights are bigger, louder, more vicious.  

I work in a school that used to boast about being able to count the number of fights in its over 20 year-history on one hand. But in the first week of this year, they saw three fights. They saw five in the second. In Queens, NY, two students were stabbed across the street from their high school. Nearly every week, schools and local police departments are having to determine which of the many shooting and bombing threats are credible.

Storytelling
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Small steps – like listening circles – can
help bring a school community together.

As the number of violent incidents have increased across this city and the country, there has been a correlating rise of violent episodes in schools. Adults have expressed deep fears about students by saying things like “they’re reckless,” “they’re mean,” and “they’re scary.” One deeply religious teacher called a student “demonic.” Insert blinking eyes emoji here. 

Professionals who work with children and adolescents say the rise in school-related violence was expected because of the trauma of social isolation, watching parents and caregivers lose jobs and having to grapple with the compounded stress from financial hardship, death, loss, and grief – all attributed to the pandemic.  

Some adults seem unable to grasp that young people are scared. Terrified. And angry. They feel abandoned. They feel hopeless. When they want to talk to adults about what is happening, adults are not able to be present because of their own challenges, or they don’t know what to say because they themselves feel powerless, abandoned, and hopeless.  

Some young people aren’t even talking. They are screaming silently into a void and self-harming. Rising rates of teen deaths attributed to suicide are alarming. Are the kids really alright? 

Some students have managed to transition back to in-person school effortlessly. My own daughter, a graduating senior, was looking forward to being back in her performing arts high school because she gets an opportunity to dance for almost three hours a day. My nephew, also a graduating senior, was excited about filming and submitting game footage to the colleges that were recruiting him for their lacrosse teams. 

While I was privileged to work from the relative and contextual safety of our home, my daughter still had two major panic attacks that were frightening to the both of us to the extent that she asked for and received a therapist. And I experienced my own sense of helplessness as the best that I could do was be present in her heartache at missing out on all the important social milestones she had imagined, performing on the "Fame" high school stage, dating, and hanging out with friends. 

However, in schools where there are very few outlets for student voice and expression, the experiences are vastly different. I recently spoke with a dear friend who has a daughter with intense psychological, emotional, and academic needs. She shared that her daughter had left the house in the middle of the night with plans to “make an attempt.” She had been experiencing bullying, intentional isolation, and painful shaming around her challenges. Ironically, one of her bullies was the adult who oversaw the anti-bullying initiative at the school. Thankfully, my friend was able to find her daughter in time and have her admitted into a children’s hospital.  

Maybe not all of the kids are alright. 

But they can be. And we can do better to make sure they are. When schools create spaces for students to tell their stories, share their fears, use their voices to challenge, question, advocate for themselves and each other, students get to be alright.  

In one school, I learned that a student’s aunt had died from Covid-19 at the beginning of the pandemic. This caused her household to expand by three as her mom became the legal guardian of her nieces and nephew. A few months later, her family was forced to move into shelter housing, so she spent the majority of the quarantine unhoused. But she showed up for virtual school every day without any staff member being aware of her situation.  

She shared all of this with me – a stranger – because she had come to the principal’s office to express concerns about her ability to keep up with the schoolwork from the three AP courses on her schedule. I could see her distress as she was waiting and asked if there was anything I could do. I listened, passed her a box of tissues, and helped her organize talking points so she could tell the principal exactly what she wanted him to know. I encouraged her to speak with her guidance counselor and trusted teachers. She has since joined the student government and become an outspoken and respected advocate around creating activities to improve student mental health and wellbeing. 

This was the same school that reviewed all their qualitative and quantitative data to assess how everyone was doing two years into the pandemic. They learned that not only were the kids not  alright – neither were the staff. They instituted monthly community-building events, SEL workshops for adults, and implemented listening circles when communications broke down and harm happened. These seemingly small steps have had positive impacts within the school community. 

Admittedly, it can be incredibly challenging for some to bear witness to the hurt and pain of others. And some stories need more time and require resources most schools do not have. But those instances are rare, and with support from organizations like Morningside, school staff are better able to pivot and identify the best avenues to pursue. 

Many of our kids will be more than alright if we give them the time and space they need to identify and name feelings, be seen and heard, resolve disagreements, be accountable for their behavior, and co-create communities of empathy, deep care, curiosity and joy.