There is an emphasis within the education system around academic achievement, and building knowledge in order to give children the skills to build careers, find out what they’re interested in, and function effectively in the future. While children may learn an array of subjects that may not be relevant to their future endeavors, comparatively neglected, are the life skills that are equally (if not more) important for children to learn. It is odd that we place an emphasis on an array of subjects that students may or may not use in the future, however important life skills around emotional regulation, self-soothing, self-esteem, and building healthy relationships are completely overlooked when these are the skills that are inevitable in day to day life, and all individuals are likely to face situations that would benefit from knowledge, support, and strategies around these.
The problem with a laissez-faire approach is the assumption that children are provided with the environments to learn such skills, when the unfortunate reality is that this is not the case. Many children are not growing up in particularly healthy environments, and while there may be only so much a school can do in terms of wellbeing/psychological support (that includes the involvement of the department of human services), it is clear that the very least we can do is provide a safe learning environment for young people to hone and develop important life skills.
I have been involved in delivering government-approved programs for young people who were deemed to have benefited from skills around assertiveness, boundaries, self-respect, kindness towards one another, as well as help-seeking behaviours. However, this program was delivered to select individuals in small groups (averaging a few from each year level) and whilst beneficial, there is not only a need for such programs when ‘probematic’ behaviours arise, but rather the schools need to provide an effective program for all young people; first of all ensuring those don’t slip through the system, and second providing everyone irrespective of their background with skills that could support them through schooling and through life.
How is it possible, that when it comes to learning skills around effective emotional regulation, and fostering healthy relationships, we completely neglect these and allow young people to rely on whatever cards life has dealt them? It is ignorant and neglectful to do this, and only acting when behaviours become ‘problematic’ or symptoms present themselves is ignoring the utility of primary intervention. We’re neglecting to provide skills around emotional intelligence that can allow young people to potentially navigate life circumstances in a more effective way.
Surely, we can realize that there is a need for implementing life skills in young people? Relying on fluctuating or even unstable home lives to provide them with the skills/tools/capacity to effectively navigate relationships, challenges, identity and boundaries is just not good enough. An extra layer of support is required at a primary intervention stage, rather than trying to then resort to managing behavior in later life stages, or through psychological support that may or may not be accessed. Even in the lack of aversive life situations, explicitly teaching all young people help seeking behaviours, practical skills around psychoeducation, and identity, is inherently beneficial.
Parents and teachers may do their best. There are increases in mindfulness in schools, in parenting blogs, and everyone has a say in what might be best for the children. What is required, now, is to place an emphasis on helping children and young people throughout their schools years via delivery of programs, training teachers in behaviour management, and involvement of this in the general curriculum. An important gap is yet to be filled, and we have the opportunity to provide young people with a foundation for healthy behaviours and productive approaches to regulating their emotions and interacting with others.
This isn’t just following the trend of mindfulness or wellbeing, it’s about recognizing that there is a deep need to equip young people with skills that are essential to their life and their everyday functioning. It’s not just about providing intervention at ‘problematic’ behaviours or reducing symptoms, but rather about providing young people with skills and giving them some tools to cope with stress, challenging life circumstances, conflict, and give them models of healthy relationships and boundaries, especially when these may not be modeled to young people, for whatever reason.
Schools have a responsibility to provide a foundation in psychoeducation for young people, and ensuring that it is not only their academic, musical and sporting criteria are met, but that mental health is also addressed alongside the curriculum rather than only responding when problems become known, or behaviour ‘problematic.’ Sure, latter interventions are important and still need to be accessed, but the premise that mental health is only important when something needs to be done in that moment is the equivalent of only drinking water once you’re dehydrated, or only doing exercise when you have a health issue.
We have an obligation to provide young people with knowledge that exceeds what may be ‘common’ sense, and of which the unfortunate reality is not necessarily provided in every home, for whatever reason. We need to equip young people with foundational life skills that are essential to their present and future wellbeing; it may not be the be and end all solution, but it’s a necessary and overdue start.