Here at Momentous Institute, we are firm believers in the need for a strong focus on mental health for children and adults. After all, it’s a core tenant of what we believe. The critical importance of mental health support cannot be overstated. Children need easy access to educators and counselors who understand children’s mental health in order to thrive.
But there’s more to the picture than this. We know we need capable and supportive adults who can help children navigate the complexities of their mental and social emotional health needs. AND we need adults to also have strong mental and social emotional health themselves. Yes, in order to help children reach their full potential, they must have adults who take care of their own mental health needs.
At Momentous Institute, there’s one very important lesson we have learned over the years of focusing on social emotional health, through our curriculum, training, and partnerships. That lesson is that unless – and until – we focus on the mental and social emotional health of the adults, it won’t be enough to simply teach the concepts to children.
When we first started sharing about social emotional health, we did what many others do. We provided student-facing lessons that taught kids about important skills like empathy and resilience. And these lessons make a difference – we continue to focus on them today. However, we quickly learned that student-facing lessons aren’t enough. We have to take a systemic look at the classroom environment. Are kids being yelled at or shamed for making mistakes? Are rules and structures in place that make the environment less conducive to learning? Are adults over-worked, over-stressed or under-trained in the concepts of social emotional health?
Picture a pet goldfish swimming around in a little glass bowl. We can feed the fish the right amount of fish food every day. We can make sure it gets the right amount of sunlight and is out of reach of the pet cat. We can even sing to the fish every day! But if the water in the fishbowl is dirty, the fish won’t stay healthy for long.
Adults who interact with children entered the profession because they truly care about children and want the best for them. But when the adults don’t have the mental health support they need, there’s only so much they can do. Helping children requires us to help ourselves. We have to support adults in taking care of their mental health if we ever want to see that translated into change for kids.
What can we do?
Normalize Mental Health.
First and foremost, we have to make it normal to pay attention to mental health. We have to treat our mental health like we do our physical health, prioritizing the things that help us stay healthy. We have to create a workplace culture that does this for all the adults in the building.
Create a Culture of Care.
So many teachers have told us that they work in a fear-based culture, one that has little margin for error, that penalizes mistakes, and doesn’t support innovation or creativity around strategies related to social emotional learning. As you can imagine, cultures of fear do not produce healthy adults. So think about it – what’s the opposite of that? How can we shift our thinking to be strengths-based, trusting and believing in the creativity and competence of our colleagues, and supporting each other?
Practice Self Care AND Self Compassion.
We’ve all heard plenty about the need for self care. And no, we’re not talking just about manicures and bubble baths. We’re talking about paying attention to our bodies and knowing what we need to do to attend to our stress. In addition, we need to pay attention to self compassion. Kristin Neff describes this as “having compassion for yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself.” Sound familiar? Ever experienced one of those and been hard on yourself? Of course! We all have. Self compassion says “I am experiencing a difficulty, but I am not a failure.” Self compassion means being gentle with yourself.
While we will never stop focusing on building social emotional health in children, it’s time we acknowledge the truth. It won’t be enough unless we as adults are willing to do everything we can to build our own mental and social emotional health.