Opinion
Student Well-Being Opinion

Schools Should Make Students’ Wishes Come True. Here’s How

Trauma-responsive care starts with listening
By Catharine Biddle, Mark Tappan & Lyn Mikel Brown — April 25, 2022 4 min read
Colorful illustration of girl wearing mask.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

It has been a tough couple of years for schools. We are just beginning to understand the educational and social disruption that our nation’s children have experienced from the pandemic and compounding economic, racial, and social inequalities. Many young people are experiencing a critical need for greater mental health and wellness supports. Educators, too, are feeling the cumulative effects of two years of constant adaptation to new regulations, the politicization of COVID-19 mitigation efforts, and mounting job requirements.

Everyone in our education system is suffering from missing connections—connections between teachers and students, staff and administration, and schools and the community. We need ideas for how to renew old relationships and foster new ones. We need ways to heal the disruption of the pandemic and address the threat of ongoing inequality that still troubles our schools.

To heal, however, we need educators and young people to feel empowered. The connection between agency, empowerment, and mental health is well documented. In health-service settings, trauma-responsive care requires listening to patients carefully, empowering them to make decisions about their care, and supporting them in taking charge of their own healing.

Why don’t we do the same thing with children in school?

Over the past five years, our team has partnered with nine elementary and middle schools in both Maine and California to pilot and refine schoolwide strategies for fostering student (and educator) voices in schools to promote mental health and emotional healing. Student voice, empowerment, and attention to equity need to be at the heart of every school-based effort to address trauma.

Too many social-emotional-learning curricula and behavioral-health efforts start from a place of deficit: What is this child lacking?

Listening to children, by contrast, starts from a place of strength: How is this child an expert on their own experience? What can we learn about this child’s needs and strengths from listening to them?

We have found that schools rarely prioritize meaningfully listening to students. Furthermore, adults often don’t trust that students know what they need. That is why we want to see one of the key practices that we’ve studied in our school partnerships spread to every school in the country.

In our partner schools over the past few years, we asked every student and teacher to fill in the blank: “Someday in school, I would like to ___.” And, then, each day for the rest of the school year, a team of practitioners went about making many of those wishes come true.

Everyone involved was surprised by how modest and achievable the changes students asked for could be. One pre-K student wanted his class to lay in the grass and look at the sky. A 4th grader asked to have recess with her 2nd grade cousin on a different lunch schedule. A 3rd grader wanted every student to start the new quarter with a 100 already in the grade book so they could each feel successful for one day. Another wanted to have his mother read his class a book in Spanish while he translated for the class. Many students wanted to engage with other, younger students by teaching kindergarten or 1st grade.

Everyone involved was surprised by how modest and achievable the changes students asked for could be.

Teachers were able to join in, too: One asked for a compliment day when people left nice notes for one another. Another asked to leave school a bit early one day to be able to meet her son at the bus stop.

These “somedays” became a rallying point for building community, as well. When the school couldn’t accommodate one student’s request to bring in her pet, her someday instead became an opportunity for everyone in the school to bring in a picture of a pet or an animal they loved. All the pictures were posted on a huge bulletin board in the hallway that became a popular destination for students, parents, and teachers.

The outcomes we saw from these and other opportunities for students to voice their interests, desires, and concerns speak for themselves: Chronic absenteeism decreased, test scores increased, and school climate improved. Students reported at much higher rates than before that they felt listened to by the adults around them and that they felt safe and valued.

To support the creation of the relationship-rich environments that students, teachers, and communities need to heal from the last two years and beyond, we are calling for every school to commit to similar initiatives for their students and staff.

To make somedays happen in your school and to lay the foundation for student-centered healing, we recommend a few key considerations:

1. Make it visible. Put a sign at the entrance to your school or classroom that announces which child’s someday it is. Recognize a different child every day or week so that students understand that their turn is coming.

2. Have a “yes, and …” mindset. Some somedays may need some creative thinking between you and the student to be successful in school. Honor the spirit of the student’s someday and workshop any changes to their vision in partnership with them.

3. Reflect on the practice. Notice patterns in what you see students and educators asking for. Ask yourself and your colleagues: What are we learning about how students experience education here? What new voices are we hearing? How do our relationships with young people change when we honor their expertise on themselves and their education?

As trauma-responsive educators, we are obligated to listen to children’s concerns and their desire to take an active role in creating and improving the circumstances of their lives and do what we can to alter systems to better support them. Somedays offer a simple way to start.

Related Tags:

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Personalized Learning Webinar
No Time to Waste: Individualized Instruction Will Drive Change
Targeted support and intervention can boost student achievement. Join us to explore tutoring’s role in accelerating the turnaround. 
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools
Student Well-Being K-12 Essentials Forum Social-Emotional Learning: Making It Meaningful
Join us for this event with educators and experts on the damage the pandemic did to academic and social and emotional well-being.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Privacy & Security Webinar
K-12 Cybersecurity in the Real World: Lessons Learned & How to Protect Your School
Gain an expert understanding of how school districts can improve their cyber resilience and get ahead of cybersecurity challenges and threats.
Content provided by Microsoft

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being What the Research Says Teen Brains Aged Prematurely During the Pandemic. Schools Should Take Note
Researchers cite chronic stress during the pandemic for the phenomenon, which can affect mental health among youth.
3 min read
Cracked silhouette of a person holding their head with illuminated gears in place of the brain.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Student Well-Being Sports Coaches Want More Training on How to Address Young Athletes' Mental Health
A survey found that only 18 percent of coaches feel confident that they know how to connect their athletes to mental health supports.
4 min read
Physical Education teacher Amanda DeLaGarza instructs students how to stretch during 7th grade P.E. class at Cockrill Middle School on Nov. 9, 2016 in McKinney, Texas.
Schools in the United States earned a D-minus grade in 2022 in an international ranking from the Physical Activity Alliance for how well they facilitate access to physical activity for students. Research shows that physical activity, such as participation in sports, improves mental health.
Ting Shen/The Dallas Morning News via AP
Student Well-Being Opinion One Simple Thing You Can Do to Make Yourself Happier
A happiness and time researcher shares a simple hack to make experiences more pleasurable.
Cassie Holmes
1 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Getty
Student Well-Being Schools Are Not Identifying All Their Homeless Students. Why That Is Hurting the Kids
Hundreds of thousands of homeless students are not receiving the services they need, new report says.
3 min read
A young Black girl with her head down on a stack of books at her desk in a classroom
E+/Getty