There's always something wonderful about passing a school playground. Wherever you are in the world, you hear those same yells and shrieks of laughter. You see those same clusters of students, on swings, playing games, chatting, running around. It's a reminder that schools really are societies unto themselves, with groupings, cultures and subcultures. But sometimes, amidst the cacophony of sounds, there are silences, too. The silences that signal social isolation.
I've been thinking about this recently for two reasons. The first is store shelves loaded up with rows of backpacks and composition books attest to the fact that millions of children are on their way back to school. As they begin this new school year, it's important for all of us to think about what they're learning, and what we want and need them to learn.
The second is that I'll be going back to school myself this year, in a way. I'll be teaching a class at McGill University examining the factors that leave certain populations at particular risk of social isolation, and how the international development community can promote community, build connectedness, and mitigate isolation.
I've made combatting social isolation my life's work. In this post, I want to discuss how we can prevent it among student populations. In a follow-up post, I'll discuss how it impacts teachers.
When it comes to our schools and students, there's a well-developed consensus that the traditional "3 R's" of reading, writing, and arithmetic serve as the basic skills and habits students need to succeed by purely academic standards. But what do they need to build successful, meaningful lives?
I recently read a literature review published by Beyond Differences, a San Francisco Bay Area-based, student-led organization dedicated to promoting inclusivity and connectedness at schools. They found that students who are socially isolated suffer from a range of academic and health effects--from lower levels of engagement and motivation to poorer performance on tests to heightened risk for anxiety, depression, and even suicidal tendencies. (Of course, no one who has felt isolation in their school days needs a report to attest to these truths; experience alone is enough.)
Young people need help in navigating social challenges. Yet there's a disconnect that leaves too many stoically nursing unseen wounds. We need to ensure that students have the space to open up, and the support to explore their vulnerabilities, without fear of judgment. Decades of research show that students thrive most when schools prioritize social and emotional health alongside academic achievement. And this is why I believe we need a second set of three Rs: respect, recognition, and reciprocity. These are the keys to social connectedness--an indispensable ingredient of well-being. And students themselves can lead the charge of teaching and reinforcing these 3 Rs.
Take the initiative displayed by Christian Bucks of York, Pennsylvania. In 2013, Christian--then just a first grader--told his principal about a school in Germany he had learned about (his family was considering a move at the time) that had a playground with a special "buddy bench," where children could sit to signal they wanted a buddy to play with. With the principal's support, Christian's elementary school got a "buddy bench" of their own, and news coverage helped the movement to spread. As the birthplaces of untold new friendships, these "buddy benches" can demonstrate that there is little to lose in admitting loneliness, but much to be gained in embracing inclusivity.
Adolescents can be especially vulnerable to social isolation. That's why Beyond Differences began National No One Eats Alone Day in middle schools across the United States. Because the act of eating alone can perpetuate exclusion, students at participating schools are encouraged to sit with peers who don't have a lunch table companion. This year, over 1,000 schools participated in the event, spreading an important lesson students can act on year-round: we only belong if we belong together.
For students attending university, pressure to thrive academically and socially--while grappling with the new responsibilities of independence--can produce feelings of loneliness, even amidst a crowd. It's particularly taxing for young people living with mental illnesses. By some estimates, this population may include as many as 1 in 4 of all college-aged adults in the United States. Those enrolled at school may struggle to find emotional support on campus. While stigmas associated with mental illnesses can discourage them from opening up to friends, the inadequate resources allotted to campus mental health services often leave students waiting weeks before they see a professional provided by the school. Even worse, schools show little compassion for students who might need a leave of absence, greeting them with long and cumbersome re-enrollment processes once they return.
At York University in Toronto, students are creatively pushing back against isolation and building a sense of connectedness through the power of technology. As part of Let's Talk Day in Canada, students created and shared a video that showed them "wearing" their mental illness for everyone to see, sending an important message for those struggling: You are not alone. It's a powerful act of recognition, while also encouraging all of the student body to take responsibility for one another.
The message of these programs is clear--while school can be an isolating place, it can also be a place of remarkable community. When we empower young people to address social isolation with respect, recognition, and reciprocity in our schools, we are building a more connected and compassionate future beyond the classroom, too.