(Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action)
Until we turn 18, most of our social interaction occurs in schools. Therefore, school climate can make or break a student’s education. From young children on the playground to older students in the cafeteria, we all feel the need to be accepted. Unfortunately, our education system doesn’t give us the support to create an inclusive environment that considers mental health, two serious issues in today’s society.
Inclusion means different things to different people, but to me, it means everyone receives the same opportunities to form relationships, succeed in school, and pursue extracurriculars. When students are included, their school experience becomes much more positive because they feel a sense of belonging, which encourages them to be involved in school.
But I’ve noticed that while teachers are generally inclusive and accommodating of students’ needs, students seem to be oblivious of the isolation some of their peers, particularly those with disabilities, experience.
We learn about everything from cellular structure to America’s founding, but we never learn about different abilities. This lack of knowledge, when combined with the societal taboo of disability, creates a rift between typically developing students and those with disabilities. This problem is compounded by the fact that differently abled students are frequently confined to special education classrooms, limiting interaction between the two groups.
Students with disabilities aren’t the only ones who miss out. When we encourage students to interact with each other across ability differences, those considered “typical” become kinder and more attentive. Without these interactions, we all lose out.
But students with disabilities and other students who are isolated in their school community often struggle with their mental health, a fact especially true in my home state of Montana, which has ranked in the top five for overall suicide rates for the past 30 years.
Our state’s culture of hard work and self-reliance means Montanan teens feel like they can’t ask others for help. In a state where independence is so prized, asking for help can seem like a sign of weakness. As a result, many students don’t find the support they need, resulting in a youth suicide rate three times the national average.
The lack of support resources manifests clearly in schools, where counselors’ primary jobs are to manage scheduling issues rather than provide mental health counseling. As the pressure to perform well academically and socially grows, students can feel overwhelmed and unable to take care of themselves. This problem is made worse by the fact that counselors and teachers who are there to help you can also seem too busy to do so.
Thankfully, there are clear solutions for these problems. Lack of inclusion can be easily remedied if adults stop “shhhing” children when they ask questions of someone who is different from them. Instead, we must teach children how to properly approach a different person and encourage their respectful curiosities.
We need to make this structural by implementing education about inclusion in schools, with a particular emphasis on students with disabilities. This curriculum could be introduced with younger students, so by the time graduation happens, they’re well-educated about diversity and inclusion.
The problem of mental health is a slightly more difficult one to tackle. The first step toward healthier schools would be to reduce the stigma surrounding depression, anxiety and similar afflictions. This will be a particularly difficult task among teenagers who are sometimes stubborn and lack the confidence it takes to ask for help.
School staff should pay very close attention to how students are feeling and reach out to students who are acting out of the norm. We need to create environments where staff members ensure students don’t feel alone.
These conversations are already happening, and we’ve come a long way in inclusive education. Still, there’s a long road ahead, and it starts by creating schools where everyone feels welcomed.