Mental health of children and teens – reflections from a teacher

We read lately of concerns about the mental health of kids during and after the covid 19 pandemic. The concern expressed for these kids is logical and laudable. However if we intervene to help at late stages that is costly and less efficient than making sure kids have a good start in life with a strong family. We can foster resilience.That is where we should aim more than these emergency repairs.

Dr.  Sterling Sparshu of the Alberta Medical Association says kids have appeared at double the usual rate in emergency wards for the last 10 year for mental health issues. So it is not just about the pandemic. We are not grounding kids enough in the love and emotional support they need to cope apparently, and we should look at ourselves.

First we do not fund parenting well. We have no child dependent tax deduction and do not permit income splitting. Our benefits per child are morphing to be tilted to go mostly to kids raised away from family.  We have tilted the balance. We have kept the spousal benefit low and we tie pensions only to paid work.  We heavily pressure parents to both have paid work nearly all the years their children are growing.  Ottawa is ramping up this funding pressure by forcing parents to pay for a national daycare system, and to use it by making it the only supported care style. The money will flow directly to the daycare to further deprive parents of even the choice of using it for family based care.

Second we do not recognize the role of a family member tending the child as useful in society. We do not give that role social status, but instead call if not working, detached from productivity. We insult the role.  Then we suddenly flip and let government say a paid daycare worker is vital to society and call that nearly an essential service, with increasing wages, pensions, benefits, and conferences.  We give no such status to parents, grandparents.

These two disincentives to spending time with a child have huge impacts on family options.  Government has tried to normalize all children being in the care of strangers, paid by the state, as if that is best for kids. If you read the latest budget documents they even say that this care is the ‘best’ start in life.

I am a school teacher by training and experience. I have toured  daycares and spoken with daycare owners and operators, many of whom are very devoted to kids. I have taught kids in the early kindergartens, kindergartens, and grades 1-12, as a classroom teacher and substitute teacher for years. I know something that many in the public may not know.  I know what it is like when that door is closed, the parent has left and the child is there in this room for the next many hours, without them. There are often tears at the start, which some have just called ‘separation anxiety’ but I have seen how long it lasts and the distress of it for the child. We educators are not supposed to hug a child, just like we are not supposed to spank a child so we can’t really touch them much during this distress.  We can try to distract them, console them with words and we do.  We help them find some joy in seeing a little playmate, in coloring, or acting out being at home in a play kitchen or with play telephones. 
This does work in a way, because kids are very adaptable. They can learn any language from birth, and not just linguistically. They can also learn the language of how to cope with new situations.

After a few hours they do settle, and you can get them to listen to the story time, to all line up and go to the playground, all sit still and sing.  Group care becomes a main focus and kids get some reassurance just doing what everyone else is doing.  They giggle and imitate and quiet down when asked.  Is that a good thing? Well, it is the only efficient way to manage them.  In that there is progress. And yet in that there is also, after a few days, a sad loss.  They still have the same play kitchen as last week and three weeks ago, the same construction wood, the same sand table.  These creative minds already processed those and are ready for more variety.  But the system in place will not permit much of it.  They have to share those same toys with a few dozen other kids and nothing is theirs alone. At a time when concept of self and what is ‘mine’ helps them, there is little that is just theirs.  The familiar things they own at home, their own bed, toy truck, their own puppy are gone.  They now have to always always take turns at the toys and the toys are not that great after a while anyway. 

So good educators create novelty. They use this room as a launching place to understand the world, and they bring in variety. The good ones may have an ongoing project like designing a village or raising butterflies or a class hamster. They may study winter sports or talk about the big storm last night and lead into discoveries about science. However the little experiments they can dream up have to be mass produced, with supplies not already there- and strangely at home the kids would have had those.  An experiment with food coloring, or baking soda volcanoes, or even baking is much more easily done at home than here yet that is what they have to work with.  An adventure to study sidewalk cracks or leaf patterns or ponds has to be planned, and on a timetable that suits a few dozen little lives and attention spans. There can’t be much spontaneity to it. The child who wants to stay longer or the one who doesn’t want to go at all, is required to do as the group does, every single time.   And that is a good thing if you are teaching cooperation and of course is vital for crowd control.  But there is also a loss.  A lot of discoveries don’t get made, a lot of questions don’t get asked and little minds, full of enquiry, get just a little stifled.  And an outing to the library or the airport or the museum that a small group could take once a month becomes a big deal event once a year with permission slips and buses and extra chaperones and a lot of angst. So outings are rare.

Young children are not fully fluent yet in their own language. They need role models.  In a small group with a fluent and attentive adult, they learn very quickly, pick up the flow of the language, naturally slip into its grammar and they become adept at asking and answering questions. Language is a back and forth exchange.  However in a larger group setting the child chats with little playmates but they are not fluent either. They learn together but they also imitate each other’s little expressions and even each other’s moods.  They may have some delays in speech because they have less time to speak with the adult. They are heard less, so they don’t get the same experience of conversation.  The secret is not just in asking a question and hearing an answer but in being able to ask the follow up question to clarify There is rarely time for that.  So though a large childcare setting may have lots of talking going on, there is not always stimulation of language learning. It’s not the same thing.  It has also been noticed that in a room with three small cohorts of little kids, the combined noise level is what they hear, not just the noise of their cohort.  So though the group size may be small officially, it is large in effect on the child. Can they even hear what the adult said?

As an educator in such a setting the joy is to see little kids’ minds working. It is such a wonderful thing to hear smart questions like “Why does a road go both ways?” or “Why do balloons go up?” and it really is a challenge to your own mind to try to understand and explain this world we live in.  These one on one exchanges are fun for both parties. It is a great time to bring in a book or look up something together.  This is the wonder of libraries and of the Internet and of experiments such as you can do. The child is learning they are smart, they have good questions, the world is fascinating and there are answers. They are learning how to find those answers. 

An attentive parent hears those questions, notes those aptitudes and nurtures them. With trips to the library and purchase of books and toys on that subject as they can afford them, the good parent helps the child learn more about what they love. The good parent sees the budding artist or musician or athlete, the budding scientist or mechanic and helps those skills develop. The skills may not become career for the child or even lifetime hobbies but they may. What they do become is exploration of options  out there. The child feels competent and excited about the world.

When the educator sees the child intrigued by the meaning of those marks on the written page, the educator then tries to help the child learn to read.  This is not a sudden thing but a very gradual happy process that can be done with joyful discovery. As a reading instructor I have seen many strategies. The ones that work best are not the guess and memorize tricks but the logical steps to teach kids each letter and its sound, in happy gentle ways. The goal is they learn how to figure out the combinations of the letters and sounds on their own, not just guessing. It is empowering.  It can take months to teach a child to read words and then sentences on their very own. The best way is to break each task for the day into small 10 minute bits.  Joyful gentle instruction, no pressure and success every day.    But large childcare groupings can’t do that.

Each child has their own learning style. They are often mystified at why a chair is a chair even if held upside down but that an s has to be facing a certain way to be called s.  They are logically mystified by why the letter p when capitalized looks the same but the letter b  changes.  They need praise for these questions and clever and fun explanations for what is happening.  In that way we cater to their brilliant minds. I tell kids the little b grew another bump when it got big. The little h got another arm. The stories are silly but kids don’t mind silly. They do want logic.

This reading process can be done in small groups but not well. It optimally is done one child at a time. They have their own pace, their own areas of confusion, even their own speech anomalies. They may read  ‘r’ as ‘l’ not due to vision problems at all but just because their speech is not yet perfected.  So reading instruction is a wonderful joy to give little kids but it has to be done one on one.  This means that though a daycare will claim to be expert at ‘early education’ it simply cannot do this in optimal ways for literacy.

When kids are in large groups they have to take turns. This is logical and a good social skill to listen not just speak, and to share the spotlight. However this means that they are mostly in groups have to listen.  Over time they get to ask few questions personally.  The larger the group the less time for each child. What  happen is that kids are not allowed to ask some of the questions they have.  A toddler has hundreds of questions and if they are distracted by who is at the door, or who spilled the water, the questions get shelved. When the teacher has to say ‘not right now’ to questions much of the day, the child stops asking and a lot of questions get put into a mental category apparently of ‘don’t bother’.  Little kids, so primed to learn, then learn a message we had maybe not intended – stick to your task, don’t imagine other ideas.

Little kids in large groups can be buoyant, playful, and happy much of the time. But they are slowly morphing to group think, because doing as others do is the rewarded way and makes the educator happy.  That is the secret used in group care in dictatorships actually, where kids learn the prescribed stories of history, chant the national songs and dress the state approved way.  Are they happy? Well they may be.  But there is in a democracy an ironic loss when we do it that way. 

As an educator I have of course a few  kids who do not like it that way. Some withdraw into a shell, sit in the corner.  They are often assumed to just be anti -social or shy officially and yet in my experience they may be very smart just lonely. Often they are frustrated with this assigned way to get through a day. But I think we are too quick to give labels. Some kids just need more individualized pacing and permission to be more creative.  They need attention.

Some kids balk another way. They get pushy, belligerent. They are in a situation where they have to compete for the attention of the adult so they work hard to get it. They make become rowdy, disobedient, crawling under desks, throwing things, doing the opposite of what they are asked, just on principle. They may hoard toys, damage others’ property.  It seems like their ego is just trying to assert itself and though that is socially to be clamped down on, and all educators do clamp down on it, to label the child  bad may not be a solution. What is going on in this child’s world that they do not feel validated enough? Is it the way we structure the situation that forces them to never be ‘themselves’? 

I find that many of the rowdiest kids are very smart. They are creative at how to act up and really can ‘play a room’ and get laughs of their playmates.  They know how to frustrate the educator and it is a game they are good at. Educators however are limited in how they can handle this..  They are not allowed to of course hit or even touch the child who is misbehaving though they can prevent injury or damage to people or property. They cannot yell insults of course because that is demeaning and they cannot appear to lose their cool because that scares the kids and is a bad role model of adults. They cannot phone home because the parent often can’t come to get them anyway. They can’t send the child to some office or other person because that person is often unavailable or has nowhere to place them safely anyway. So the rebel child, and there is often one in every group, gets tolerated, placated, handled as best as the educator can do.  They are usually penalized with loss of privilege, maybe some social isolation, or with just a distraction. The other kids however also are learning – seeing ways to act up, making mental notes for later should they need them. They are also deprived of time for learning other things – productive time that could be used for science or a good story to listen to,  if this rebel is always using up the air time with their tantrums. 

This means that the learning of the little kids is impacted by the group.  They cannot advance individually if there are upsets of someone in the group.  Some of this adjusting to life, the ebb and flow of a day, is normal . It  would happen even in a small group or family setting if the dog wet the carpet or the wind blew the screen door open. But in a large group setting it happens often. Kids have trouble ignoring distractions . 

As educators try to handle /manage a group, they often go to one of two options. Some become very strict and organized, though kind. They run that centre like a smooth running machine and kids know their ‘place’ and in some ways feel happy because they are very clear on what is expected. But that style does not foster creativity.  The other extreme is to go fluid, to let kids ‘play’ and amuse themselves as they wish, to just let them discover things on their own. That style of everyone ‘progressing at their own rate’ but without much intervention actually does not advance learning much.  It ends up same old same old. It s like the joke ‘Do we have to do what we want all day again today?”   The educator is supposed to be helping them learn something new

In large groups, whatever the educator does, the kids have their own very intense social world. Little kids do not necessarily aim at the academic goal or sports goals of art goals the teacher may have thought of in the brilliant lesson plan. The kids’ goal often becomes much more about each other, just watching their own antics. This peer attachment is interesting to watch.  It can mean the adult in  the room giving directions is just a vague noise in the background while the kids are way more interested in if one of them will upend the sand table again today.

Fast forward to the older kids and I have watched  them in elementary and senior classrooms.  What happens when kids are socialized in this way for years?

Nature makes kids beautiful and the vibrant energy of hundreds of kids is electric. They laugh and brilliantly weave their way through crowded hallways, to their assigned classes – math, social studies, languages, with resignation. They have to be there and they have figured out a way to do what has to be done.  Some thrive. working hard to do as the teacher says, get that math sheet done right, get that essay submitted on time.  They bask in the praise.

With a few optional subjects they often relish the chance to pursue individual interests, computer technology,  animation, drama, woodwork.  Often schools aim to foster diversity – of sorts. Many schools do not have an art program though, or a music teacher. The range of options may be very small or the course not available in the time slot the student needs.  So the theory that systems enable diversity is not always realized. It is often only when family still is helping foster uniqueness that kids still can find what they are good at. The parent in the background is still a major influence on whether he child gets a chance to do ballet, play hockey, take guitar lessons, learn chess.  What parents have is awareness of what the child wants and needs. What they may not be given though is time to teach the child themselves, bonding time.  The lifeskills journey of swimming, camping, lighting a fire, changing a tire, going on a bike adventure, changing spark plugs, baking a cake are devalued when given by parents nowadays .  The rich can still pay for their kids to take courses in those interests even if the parents are busy and don’t have time, but the poor cannot.  And either way precious moments with someone who loves you are not available. They add up.

I have noticed that schools often become a social pressure cooker to try to be noticed, liked.  What kids wear is very carefully studied, and the first day of school each year is fashion parade. Their friendships matter to them vitally and a person sees the little cliques forming, the in group, the outcasts, and the scenario can change every few weeks.  Even in grade six the kids are using their power of acceptance or rejection of each other. They are needy for validation in ways earlier generations may not have been.  They seem sometimes so desperate with their showy hugs in hallways and their intense attachment to their celphones. They are counting their likes, posting on TikTok, immersed in a social world that they seem to feel matters more than their school reality some days. Why is that? If seems to me that we could have grounded them more in feeling good already about who they are, if we had given them more time with those who love them at the start, if we gave them lots of experiences one on one figuring out what they like to do and feeling the support and encouragement of an adult they love – they would not be so insecure now.  We have set them up for some of this vulnerability to the online bullying, the extremist propaganda or the porn or silly challenges for survival that may appear on their screen. 

High school is   high stakes world for teens and much of it is not about school or career.  The high schools try to help kids see a way towards their career drem,income and happiness. But educators know some of them are drowning in other more immediate challenges like poverty or social exclusion. The group designations change over time but kids who have watched movies and song videos, looked at teen magazines and watched older peers, move towards social groups. They get very good at appearing to be what they aspire to.  They try out selves, often even change their nickname, their handwriting, as they change their hair style, their shoes.  They hang out with the ones they find cool if they should be so lucky and they hang out with the rejected ones, and find  support too. . They are not bad kids but many adults at this point are even scared around them. Many adults are a little intimidated by their own kids , worried for their futures and yet loving them so much still. I have had the privilege of seeing the amazing good still in most of those kids.

However  telling parents they are incompetent from the start and need to hire someone who knows kids better does not bode well for the parent-child relationship. Benjamin Spock years ago told parents to trust their instincts more and I think that is still good advice. If we had a society that funded parenting with a birth bonus, with a generous family allowance, with social status for whoever is taking care of the child, we would empower parents to be what they deep down already know how to be- good parents.  Classes for new mothers, with their babies, are a good idea. Mom and tot, dad and tot swim lessons, music lessons, do wonderful things to develop skills in all parties. We should as a society try to strengthen that bond for it is an anchor to self-esteem and to will to live.

Having taught kids in classes of the low achievers, some with juvenile crime history, I noticed that most of them were still savable. There is a struggling child in there that is not sure how to handle this track they have landed on and they are often very prickly and defensive. Often someone already labelled them as failures and they believed it.  I found it wonderful to try to nurture them  back with class discussions on news of the day, to flesh them out for what  they were thinking. I discoverd they often had strong principles of what they think police should do, how they themselves would make laws, how they will one day raise their own kids. I saw budding there still a hope, an allegiance to principle. They still wanted to make society good.  I saw in the girls the heart of a dreamer child as we did readings of plays aloud and enacted scenes with costumes.  We had so much fun and I think they had fun. We had guest speakers – a deaf couple, a blind man, a TV announcer, a firefighter, a mountain climber who showed us her gear.  We saw what the real world was like for some people and we had guest speakers who were politicians and we talked about their views after. I tried to show them their voices matter, they have power and they can use their energy in positive ways. 

It is just that every one is smart, every single child .  Our system can foster that or ignore it. I came to believe that every child is gifted, in some way. The joy of a parent and the joy of an educator is to find those strengths.

Sadly, we are moving in the other direction with some of our social policy. We are defunding parenting and family so parents can’t even have the time.  We make time with a child seem like a burden, or a luxury but not what it also is –  a right.  The Convention on the Rights of the Child defends it as a right. 

We have let parents feel they are replaceable for much of the day and they can be – if the new caregiver also cares about them and is very attentive. But we have also told parents their replacement is better than they are particularly if a daycare worker paid for by the state.   We have devalued new parents’ skills and instead of helping them develop them on that fast learning curve babies provide, we have told them to trust someone else.

This agenda suits some views of the economy. It certainly suits the view that only paid work matters, that labor force activity is only work done outside the home. 

And yet that view is the problem.  Parenting is not an exchange of money between parent and child but a gift of time and attention.  Having children is not a burden or mistake that removes a person from useful economic activity. It is vital element in creating economic progress. We need children to be born, to survive as a society and we need them to be raised healthy, smart, resilient or they won’t feel inclined to help society thrive.

We have to value parenting more. We should value the paid work women and men can do for sure, but we have to not forget that the role in their homes, taking care of children in the long run is a pivotal way they are anchoring the economy. We have to help them do that well.

This website explains many of the historical, legal, economic, tax, human rights, human needs, feminist theory rationale for empowering parents.

The focus on giving kids a ‘good start’ in life has to be much more nuanced than putting them all in daycare.  

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