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Washington Examiner: Three steps schools can take to tackle students' mental health crisis

The new school year brings with it divisions that have sadly become the norm: schools and parents fighting over everything from library books and classroom content to bathroom policies.

But this school year also comes with a new warning from three medical groups and physicians across the country: children’s mental health is plummeting, with emergency room visits for psychological crises skyrocketing. And if there’s one thing that can blow through the politics and unite even the most ardent opponents, it’s ensuring that all students are happy and healthy.

With 50 million students spending one-third of their day at school for the next nine months, it makes sense for psychological healing to start in classrooms. Fortunately, there are simple things that parents, teachers, and administrators can do to improve the well-being of all schoolchildren.

First, get children out of the classroom more. A study of children in Maryland and Colorado found that access to green spaces was associated with less stress, better focus, and improved student outcomes, from grades to socialization between students. This may seem somewhat obvious. After all, according to US News & World Report, “ Active movement works the brain's prefrontal cortex, building connections between the creative and analytic sides of the brain. Activity that involves arms and legs — running, climbing, crawling — builds new neural connections, which in turn help kids regulate their emotions and process what they have learned in class.”

Allowing children to move their bodies strengthens other classroom skills, including managing stress and anxiety. Recess, or at least outside classroom options, can provide the physical benefits of exercise and support for emotional well-being that might improve cognitive thinking and the all-important test outcomes. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores are the lowest since the 1990s, and we outspend but test worse than many of our international counterparts. Perhaps we should have fewer multiple choice exams and a lot more kickball and four square.

Unfortunately, only nine states currently require daily recess. State lawmakers should follow Alaska’s lead, which in 2016 passed a law requiring a minimum of 54 minutes per day of physical activity for K-8 students.

Once children are in the classroom, research also indicates that administrators should give teachers some flexibility in test preparation. Athletes, musicians, actors, and professional speakers have diverse ways of preparing for big events, including meditation, pacing, and last-minute practice. These practices also benefit students.

According to , “ Studies have shown that teaching kids mindfulness practices can build students' attentiveness, respect for fellow classmates, self-control, and empathy, all while reducing stress, hyperactive behavior, ADHD symptoms, and depression.” This doesn't require allowing dodgeball in the classroom; teachers can give students a few minutes to briefly pace around the classroom or destress (safely, especially with younger students) by using a fidget spinner or chewing something tasty like sugar-free gum.

Chewing gum for mental health might sound like something from Willy Wonka, but it is supported by scientific research , which shows reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol, increased alertness, and increased focus. And while there’s the risk that kids may stick sugar-free gum under their chair or in a neighbor’s hair, that’s tiny compared to the current mental health crisis that is sending children to the emergency room and causing chaos for classroom teachers!

This brings us to the last, and most important measure: increased parental engagement by schools. A 2019 study by the American Psychological Association showed that among middle schoolers, parental involvement “has a statistically significant correlation to decreased mental health issues and decreased suicidal thoughts and behaviors.” A 2014 University of Michigan study showed that parental involvement improves outcomes for adolescents as well, and is a strong predictor of academic success and mental health. The data are clear: a strong partnership between parents and their child's school creates better student outcomes.

But, unfortunately, some schools are trying to keep parents out of the loop. For example, Parents Defending Education has found numerous instances of public schools concealing information about students’ gender and sex from parents. Parents, teachers, and administrators may view policy and cultural issues differently, and the debate is important. But the fact remains that schools do children no favors by keeping information from parents.

Getting outside, alternative forms of test preparation, and parental involvement are effective ways school-aged children can manage stress and anxiety before these everyday challenges become full-blown emergencies. Teachers and parents should take solace in knowing that when mental issues are at an all-time high, test scores are low, and school board meetings get heated, they can create effective partnerships to improve the mental health of America's school children.

Ellie Krasne is owner of Krasne Strategies , a visiting fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, and a senior fellow at Fellow Parents Defending Education Action.

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