The past couple of weeks, lawmakers, school personnel, parents, and students have been grappling with what to do in the wake of the Florida tragedy, and a multitude of other school shootings since the beginning of the year. Tensions have been high, and understandably many people are feeling unsafe each day as they walk through the school doors. Yet as everyone tries to understand the keys to making our schools more secure, another phenomenon is reaching epidemic proportions. It is what I will call the “contagion of threat anxiety” that so many students are feeling.
Locally, we have not been spared of this phenomenon, and as schools across the area have gone on repeated lockdown and lockouts, administrators and teachers with whom I have spoken have acknowledged that the educational environment has been anything but a calm, positive place of learning. Frankly put, as one principal noted, it has just made me “feel sick” at the way in which one individual [making threats] can create an atmosphere of undue anxiety and uneasiness that lingers well past the threat itself.
No one, myself included, has complete answers to this psychological side effect of the school threats. But as I look closer at all the dynamics at play, it seems clear that we need to consider a few unilateral courses of action if we are going to maintain an educational environment that is learning first, drama second. So, here are the changes I feel need to be made, and there are plenty of articles on my site (james-schroeder.com) that address all topics broached below.
- We as parents need to remember first and foremost that the healthiest kids are generally the most resilient and least anxious ones. That starts with the three pillars of health: sleep, diet, and activity. Elementary age kids need sleep habits that allow for 10-11 hours of sleep while our adolescents need 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep to optimally function. The more natural a diet and more water that is consumed, the more likely mood and anxiety issues will be well-controlled. And the closer our kids get to 60 minutes (or more) of physical activity, the less likely they will feel depressed or fearful about whatever happens during the school day. Unfortunately, as we know, our youth are struggling in all these areas, but if parents really want to buffer anxiety from school threats, we should start here.
- Anyone who has read what I have written knows that I believe that any benefits of youth having mobile devices are far outweighed by the risks. This is never more evident than in the schools, as mobile devices have created a distracting, dramatic environment that is not conducive to sound learning. Yet despite the significant amount of research supporting this contention, mobile devices have continued to be allowed in the schools and the classrooms. And now, with all the threats, they are largely responsible for the contagion of anxiety that is ripping through our schools for a few main reasons. One, the moment a threat occurs (which often is posted on social media that our youth receive, even in class), there is a flood of communication that cascades through (and between) our schools even at the youngest of ages. As anxiety and distraction elevates, students then begin flooding their parents with texts and other communications, who then promptly flood the school with panicked and confused calls questioning whether or not their offspring are safe. What might initially feel like a safety mechanism (i.e., mobile device) quickly can turn into a mechanism of terror and confusion, spurring all sorts of threatening rumors. In reality, what happens is that the youth end up running the show instead of the teachers and administrators—the adults—who are charged to be responsible for them. The solution is a simple one. Mobile devices need to be banned in the schools—hallways, classroom, or otherwise. Youth of all ages existed just fine without them until 10-15 years ago, and they would exist much better without them today. Schools and even countries across the world are starting to realize this, as France recently banned all mobile devices from grade school property this year.
- Although we can’t control the national media, our local media can control what is broadcast, streamed, and printed, and so this advice is directed toward our print and screen outlets. There is plenty of data regarding the fact that risk of “copycat activity” (i.e., suicide, school threats similar to past events) is greatest immediately after a tragic or threatening incident is broadcast, especially when more specific information is made available. Although I realize that local outlets have a responsibility to report relevant news, this does not mean that details such as names, specific mechanisms of threat/violence, and extended coverage need to be made available to the general public. I realize that this is the age of complete access in trying to secure the most viewers & readers, but in the name of the paramount values of safety and community well-being, I believe that our local media outlets need to work together in seriously considering a standard of how (and how much) these events are reported.
- Finally, and this comes back to us as parents, we need to really consider what kind of environment we are fostering at home no matter what happens at school. Our homes should be a sanctuary, not a place where kids remain linked-in to keep up with the drama. Part of this involves a significant reduction in the screen/tech time our children are consuming, and part of this involves really recommitting ourselves to extra-curricular and natural activities that can reduce anxiety. We are blessed with so many beautiful, natural areas right here in our community. We are blessed with a library system that is full of books (and good movies) that can provide immediate and calming entertainment. We are blessed with a myriad of local venues that are low cost or free. And although sometimes overdone, we are blessed as a community to have an active sports and extra-curricular culture that provides so many opportunities for kids of all ages, abilities, and affinities. So, if we really want to help our kids feel less anxious, we will pull the plug, ditch the mobile device, and start re-immersing ourselves and our kids into an abundance of healthy opportunities that lie all around. And it’s perfect timing, because March is just around the corner, the daffodils are already peaking, and together, we as a community can renew the pledge of safety, security, and health that we should make to our kids each day.