Dena Simmons Ed.D.

Justice in The Classroom

Education and Health: A Conversation with Dr. Laine Taylor

5 steps for greater health equity.

Posted Sep 07, 2019

Laine Taylor, faculty profile photo
Laine Taylor
Source: Laine Taylor, faculty profile photo

In eighth grade, my twin sister, Dana, became chronically ill, which caused her to miss many days of school. Often, I found that my teachers, who were great in their own ways, did not always have a plan to catch Dana up after she was away for long periods at a time. They expected me to do the catching-up.

As an adolescent, the weight of dealing with a newly, chronically ill twin sister and teaching her what she missed in school was heavy. I did it anyway because I loved my sister, and there seemed to be no other choice. I took these lessons from my adolescence with me when I became a teacher and did my best to support students who were chronically absent like my sister, as I wrote about in a piece for Teaching Tolerance. My experience with a chronically ill loved one has inspired me to understand and advocate ways for doctors and other healthcare providers to work closely with schools when caring for young people. It is also imperative that as we raise and care for our young people, both educators and medical providers consider a child's life experiences outside of the hospital or healthcare setting to ensure the education and care we provide is culturally and contextually relevant.

For this post, i spoke with Laine Taylor, Associate Medical Director of the Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital’s Children’s Psychiatric Inpatient Service and faculty at the Yale Child Study Center, where I also work. I first met Laine when we were both fellows in the Yale Public Voices Fellowship of the OpEd Project. Since then, I have admired her tender heart to ensure that young children—all people, really—have what they need to thrive in life. 

Dena: The majority of people I have profiled here have been in education, but there is a link between what happens in schools and healthcare systems. As such, I am super excited to share you with my readers. I admire you and the work that you do. Could you explain more about it, including the volunteer work you do?

Laine: I am a child and adolescent psychiatrist, who works on an inpatient child psychiatric unit for youth ages 4 to 13.  In my role, I work with children, who most often struggle with issues of safety, psychosis, or mood instability.  I view my unit as the mental health equivalent of the pediatric ICU. Kids who come to our unit are in crisis. When they leave, while they are safe, most often, they need further time for recovery or stabilization. The beautiful thing about working with children is that they do not live in a vacuum. Families, friends, and school are all factors in their recovery. And, we are fortunate enough to have an amazing school on our unit with an amazing principal, who works above and beyond to coordinate with home districts. That being said, my work with children includes thinking about how their illness affects their education, their social and emotional development, and how school may be impacting them. Academic stressors, peer relationships, school supports are all integrated into my formulation of how to help a child be successful after discharge.

In addition to my professional career, I work in the New Haven community through various community programs. This is not only important to me because I live in New Haven and believe that being connected to community is important, but also because it gives me context to much of what the children and families I serve experience.

Dena: Like you, I think it is important to be connected to the communities in which we work. When I was a teacher in the Bronx, I also lived in the Bronx. Even though I grew up there, I had spent high school and college elsewhere and thought it was important to live where my students lived. Based on your years of practice, how is your work related to what happens at schools?

Laine: When working with children, working with schools is imperative.  A child spends most of their life in a school building, or at least they are supposed to. Therefore, understanding the school environment and the reciprocal impact that exists between a child and what happens at school cannot be ignored. In the hospital, we take the time to understand both the child's academic and socio-emotional functioning because these areas are integral to understanding the mental health concerns, daily functioning of the child, and the necessary areas for intervention.  

Dena: I work in the space of social and emotional learning. There has been a quite a bit of research on the impact of social and emotional learning on young's people school and life outcomes. Learning these skills in important for young people's development, especially when it happens in the context of their lives. However, there are barriers to equitable access and education related to health and well-being. What have been some of the barriers you have noticed that get in the way?

Laine: Sadly, there are so many barriers. A child's socioeconomic status, race, country of origin, language, and having a mental health diagnosis can all impact not only equitable education, but also being educated at all. Children whose families have resources or the knowledge of how the education and medical systems function are generally met with appropriate accommodations. However, if someone was born without means or a persistent parent, who will get things done, many school districts will not give a child what is needed for that child's success. This lack of support can often manifest in more intensive mental health treatment or hospital admission—only further setting the child back academically.

Dena: Of course, I do not want to have us live in the space of barriers. Now, let's consider some possibilities. Given your role in medicine, what are three to five steps we can take in education to ensure for health equity, which refers to everyone’s having a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible.

Laine: Yes, you're right. Here are five steps that I think we can take:

  1. Have educators and education advocacy organizations partner with health organizations to build policy coalitions. We need as many voices for children as possible speaking in unison. 
  2. Increase presence and access to school-based health centers with mental health and dental services.
  3. Implement a social and emotional curriculum to support healthy childhood development.
  4. Educate ourselves on the effects of trauma and use strengths-based or resiliency-building avenues to address the trauma that many of our young people have experienced.
  5. Support healthy lifestyle choices with food, relationships, physical activity, and executive functioning skills.

Dena: We have our work cut out for us. Thank you so much for your time and ideas.