Monday, January 23, 2023

Youth Mental Health: What Can We Do in Afterschool? (Part 1)


By Sam Piha
Since the return of young people to school and afterschool programs after the COVID shutdowns, there have been major concerns raised by educators and youth workers regarding youth mental health, the increase of challenging behavior and a decrease in acts of kindness shown to peers.
"Broadly speaking, after school is mental health, as both promote enriching opportunities for growth and healthy development, thus preventing problems and promoting possibilities for children living in urban poverty." - Linking Mental Health and After School Systems for Children in Urban Poverty: Preventing Problems, Promoting Possibilities
Afterschool programs are not equipped to solve the youth mental health crisis. However, afterschool programs are well positioned to promote positive mental health. To do this we should lean into our strengths. Below we offer some ideas on how afterschool programs can lean into their strengths to improve youth mental health and COVID recovery. (Note: learning loss indicated by lower reading and math scores should not be the focus of afterschool.) We recently sponsored two webinars focusing on youth mental health, and the full webinar recordings can be viewed here.

The Importance of Positive Relationships in Afterschool
We know in afterschool programs that relationships are key. By working to build positive relationships with youth we can ensure that everyone has “someone to talk to.” 
“The percentage of elementary students who report that they have an adult they can talk to at school when they are upset drops steadily from third grade (61 percent) to fourth grade (55 percent) to fifth grade (50 percent). Fewer than half of secondary students, regardless of grade level, gender, race, or LGBTQ+ status, report that they have an adult at school they can talk to when they feel upset, stressed, or have a problem.” - Youth Truth: Emotional and Mental Health
It would be useful to review the Youth Development Guide 2.0, which speaks to the importance of building positive relationships and other important topics.

Provide Opportunities for Youth to Express Themselves 
Quality afterschool programs place an emphasis on opportunities for youth to express themselves. These include things like:
  • Check-in Circles - This doesn’t need to take very long and can greatly benefit both young people and program staff. In small groups (20 or fewer), begin the day by sitting quietly in a circle and letting each person speak briefly. Sometimes it helps to have a special item to pass around the group like a talking stick that identifies the one who has the “rapt attention” of the group. You can learn more by reviewing our LIAS Blogs on this.
“Listening to youth is essential to effectively addressing the youth mental health crisis that is setting off alarms across America.”  - Youth Truth Survey
  • Journals - Journal writing is a good way for youth to freely express themselves. Afterschool leaders can use journal writing prompts and/or just offer free writing. You can learn more by reviewing our LIAS Blogs on this topic.
  • Art - Art is a good way that youth can express themselves without words. These can be art projects or opportunities to do free art.
“Bring healing and joy through art… Evidence shows that engaging in the arts—simply for the experience and pleasure of it—is therapeutic. Yet many schools, especially in under resourced communities, have extinguished this opportunity. Make art a regular part of every child’s school experience.” - Mental Health Crises Are Bombarding Our Schools. Here’s What We Can Do 

When asked, Angie (17-year-old) explained her painting (above) by saying, "I feel
trapped inside figurative and literal borders. These borders include: attending
and graduating college, getting a job, and not being able to visit my family
back in Mexico"

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