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Summer Assignment: Know Every Child

The summer is the foundation that carries us into the whole school year

Photo by Sebastián León Prado on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Sebastián León Prado on Unsplash

What will the coming school year look like for families and educators? This past year was a challenging one. From January to June alone in our K through 12 schools nationwide, 26 students and 6 adults lost their lives in shootings on school property, according to figures compiled by Education Week in its state-by-state school shootings tracker. Dozens more were seriously injured. Most of the shooters in these tragic episodes of violence were teenagers.

School violence dominated the newsfeed much of the year. But equally concerning was a problem that wasn’t grabbing headlines: the prevalence of depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders among children and adolescents. According to 2016 figures from the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 9 percent of children ages 12 to 17 had at least one major depressive episode with severe impairment. An estimated 32 percent of children are afflicted by anxiety disorders. According to CDC, suicide is now the second leading cause of death among youth ages 15-19.

I raise these sobering facts on a summer day when school’s out because I think we’ve got some homework to do as adults this summer. It’s to get to know the children in our lives and communities. Knowing every child is how we keep kids from falling through the cracks. When we know children, we’re able to better detect early warning signs of distress.

Here’s what you can do this summer in your family and community. When you call your relatives or friends with kids, ask to talk to the children too. These small conversations will build closeness and trust over time. When you visit, spend time with the kids asking questions, or even better, playing together. With young children, just be a little goofy—they will love it. In an age when screen time is replacing human connection, children are losing their ability to communicate effectively with adults. We should not give in or give up. We must offer ourselves, even if at first these connections feel stilted.

Parents, ditch your devices when you’re focusing on your kids this summer. Do, play, talk, and listen. For time with kids to be special, it needs to be child-centered and with minimal distractions. You don’t need hours, just enough time together for something meaningful to evolve. And meaningful means not lecturing or asking questions to which children can respond with eye-rolling or a “yes” or “no” answer. Children will tell you things, but on their timeline and often in hidden ways. Play is a wonderful way to get to know a child and make this happen. And with adolescents, talk about events in the world. There’s plenty on all of our minds these days that can be shared.

Making sure every child is known and seen is a job for the whole community, from afterschool providers and teachers to parents and neighbors. Some schools are already doing this good work with innovative programs and practices. If you’re a camp counselor or work in a summer program that serves youth, you’re doing amazing work. To help every child feel a sense of belonging—to feel known—make it your daily goal to help each child express a passion for a sport, a skill, or an attitude.

Research at The PEAR Institute, CDC, Edutopia, and other places has shown that children who are known by and connected to at least one adult at their school feel a deeper connection to school and have fewer behavior problems. Isolation—the opposite of being known—makes it more difficult for any of us to detect when a child is in distress. Warning signs of suicide and violence against others often manifest years before the act occurs, and often until the day it occurs.

We can use the summer to build a foundation that carries us into the whole school year. Now let’s each of us make a small weekly commitment to “know a child” just a little bit better. We will save lives and build community.