Students have a mask break while sitting six feet apart from one another at a gym at Roger Sherman Elementary School in Meriden. When the weather is not too cold, students go outdoor to have a mask break. Yehyun Kim /

This school year has quickly proven to be different than any we have ever seen before. We’ve seen an increase in uneasiness, anxiety, outbursts and more mental health concerns among students of all ages.

David Johnson

The desires to “catch up” academically or to “bring order” quickly may be understandable, but they are not achieving normalcy in the classroom. Instead, it is a recipe for higher stress and friction within classrooms and our communities. Simply put, this desire is exacerbating the longstanding mental health crisis in our schools and communities.

Long before the pandemic, everyday experiences at home and in a child’s neighborhood such as neglect, abuse, addiction, financial strain, violence, medical crises, divorce, and death of loved ones lead to states of toxic stress that over time affect a child’s capacity to think, behave, and relate to others effectively. Too many of our students are arriving at school each day with a backpack full of fear, shame, rage and loss. These students are often easily triggered and can erupt into disruptive behaviors that require time and energy to resolve.

Our state leaders need to take action now. Schools and families need and deserve access to care.  Children also need to know that there are caring, supportive and listening adults in the school. Emergency rooms should not be the first line of treatment. Our teachers need skills to show them how to effectively create a safe learning environment that addresses and honors the lived experiences of students.

Empowering students to share their fears and worries is a big step to helping them bolster their psychological immunity. This type of intervention against stress can be accomplished by providing simple but schoolwide systems of support throughout the school day for all children – not just a few. By creating a safe space that allows teachers and the students to enter into conversations, students can unburden themselves by sharing their opinions, feelings, thoughts and personal experiences.

When preventative programs are in place the teachers and school leaders begin to shift the way that that they see behavior so that they are not fixing an issue, or putting in more disciplinary steps but honoring it, addressing it and helping kids to build lifelong skills.

Schools that implement open preventative programs can develop long-term systemic changes that not only impact teachers and students in the classroom, but create a billowing web within the school, in families and in the community.

By creating these safe spaces that allows teachers and the kids to enter into these difficult conversations, teachers act as a social buffer for the students and give witness to their traumas. This is a transformational journey and real change can happen along the way. The health of our children and community is in the balance.

David Read Johnson, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in Connecticut and is the CEO of Miss Kendra Programs