Yes, Teach Kids How to Cope — But Preventing Trauma in the First Place Is Even More Important

With the constant stress of the recent news cycle, I've never felt the urgency of helping children learn mindfulness, coping strategies and social emotional health skills more than I do right now — both for their own sake and to ensure these capacities are baked-in for our future leaders. Having worked at the intersection of mental health and education for more than 20 years, I don't say this lightly.Focusing on social emotional health is an upstream effort to mitigate and prevent serious mental health issues in the future. However, it is not nearly upstream enough. We need to teach social emotional health, but, more importantly, we need a society where children are less likely to experience trauma and toxic stress in the first place. Unless we address structural and embedded inequities as an integral part of any social emotional approach, we are redecorating the kitchen when the house is on fire.Traditional narratives of social emotional health, including ones I participate in, put the onus on the individual to understand and manage his or her emotions, reactions and relationships, but this sole focus on individual resiliency is problematic. Without addressing larger societal issues like race and inequity, we send the harmful message that children who are dealing with difficult early life experiences should rely on their own super-powers to get through it. In fact, it's adults who are the problem — and not the adults who usually shoulder the blame, like the parents. If adults in policymaking and other leadership roles consistently made day-to-day choices that reflect our commitment to future generations, many children would have an entirely different starting gate and, for those children, social emotional health would be a skill set, not a lifeline.An appalling 43 percent of all children in our country live in poverty, including more than 60 percent of black and Latino children. Stats like that do not represent failure on the part of individual families; they represent the colossal failing of our system. Poverty is the single biggest risk factor for children, and, according to Harvard's Center for the Developing Child, it can derail healthy development and literally change children's brains. At the same time, children are navigating trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences at alarming rates. Initial studies on these experiences in the late 1990s focused disproportionately on white, educated families. New research, which is inclusive of a more representative section of society, is confirming a fallout related to decades and decades in which the wants of the few took priority over the needs of the many. One study, reported by ChildTrends, showed that black children are more likely than their white or Latino peers to have three or more adverse childhood experiences, while white children were the least likely to have any. More and more great thinkers are expanding our collective understanding about structural racism and its implications, including Bryan Stevenson, Henry Lewis Gates and Angela Ards.Part of our society's own social emotional growth requires us to acknowledge and address these inequities, admitting that we have failed to act in the best interest of all our youngest stakeholders. If we are to hand off a country we can be proud of to the next generation, we must speak truth about trauma, race and inequity.It's tricky, though, because this collective work doesn't take off without our willingness to look at our own biases and widen our lens so that we can better understand — and be enriched by — the experiences of different people. Even well-meaning people who have poured their hearts out for our community have no idea where to start, and some can't imagine how failing to attend to inequity is holding Dallas back.That said, we have incredible local leadership working to create paths forward, like Richie Butler's Year of Unity initiative; Communities Foundation of Texas, representing Dallas in the Kellogg Foundation's nationwide efforts for Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation; Michael Sorrell's tireless #nationbuilding through Paul Quinn College; Teaching Trust Alum, Bianca Anderson's work in schools through the Border Crossers program; and Lauren Embrey, sharing her personal story of overcoming implicit racial bias.For me, reading articles by people like Peggy McIntosh, Damali Ayo and Robert Jensen helps me pay attention to how I inadvertently participate in the problem. And it has also helped me to embrace the discomfort that comes from watching movies like Ava DuVernay's 13th, which explores how mass incarceration is an extension of slavery. But mostly, I try to think about how new information and discomfort can drive me toward action. And I think a lot about what it means that, as a white woman, I have had the choice to ignore this or go toward it, which has never been a choice for my friends and colleagues of color.Without question, it is easier to support an individual child to be resilient in the face of poverty and trauma than to address vast and pervasive causes of social inequity. But if we do not consistently include both individual and social factors in the conversation, we will do more harm than good.In the end, helping children become healthy, productive, happy individuals depends, ironically, on a collective understanding of the root causes of trauma and inequity — and a commitment to action. Only then can we know we are laying the path for all children to achieve their full potential — because of us, not in spite of us.Michelle Kinder is executive director of the Momentous Institute. Email: What's your view? Got an opinion about this issue? Send a letter to the editor, and you just might get published.  Continue reading...

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