Many high school students feel emotionally unsettled at various times. They’re in the process of exploring who they are and what they value. They’re deciding how to relate to friends and romantic partners. They’re choosing whether and how to experiment with drugs. They’re determining which goals and expectations belong to their parents and which ones belong to them. As they face new challenges, they’re bound to make mistakes. The question is, how do we help them learn from their mistakes? Better yet, how do we provide them with social-emotional support so they can avoid some of the mistakes?
At Ukiah High School academic guidance counselors and social-emotional counselors meet regularly to discuss immediate student concerns. As the principal, I attend these meetings to listen. My objective is to identify behavior patterns. I also check in with our Campus Culture Center, where students work to recognize and address problems that affect a significant portion of the student body. You’d be surprised how fluid trends can be and how quickly they change. Our challenge at the high school is not only to identify trends but to get ahead of them.
While many of the problems of adolescence haven’t changed over time, technology has radically altered the landscape for this generation. In this digital world, embarrassing mistakes can be shared with a huge audience and they exist online forever. Social media has led to cyberbullying. And sexting, sending sexually explicit photos or videos via text, is considered no big deal by many teens.
To support students in their social and emotional development, we provide a tiered system at Ukiah High. Tier 1 includes providing education to as many students as possible on topics trending at UHS. This year, our social-emotional counselors went into classrooms to inform students about three issues: how to manage stress and anxiety (and the resources available on campus), drug use, and healthy relationships/sexual consent. Except for students who didn’t attend class that day, all 1600 UHS students heard these messages. The Campus Culture Center students are offering five additional projects providing campus-wide support.
Tier 2 support includes a deeper level of education with smaller groups. For example, during the classroom presentations, counselors invited interested students to participate in focus groups. About 10 percent of students signed up for the stress and anxiety focus group. Other focus groups included a substance use intervention group for those dealing with drug issues and the White Bison Talking Circles for Native American students. Tier 2 support can include self-referred students and those who are referred by parents, teachers, counselors or administrators. These efforts positively support hundreds of students.
Tier 3 includes one-on-one support. It is far more intense and personalized. Depending on the issue, Tier 3 support requires an assessment and guidance counselor referral. With 1,600 students at UHS, it is challenging to figure out how to give this level of support to every student who needs it. While UHS has three social-emotional counselors on staff, it doesn’t feel like enough. Just a few years ago, UHS, like most schools, did not have any social-emotional counselors on staff. Recognizing the value of one-to-one connections with these counselors, the students in the Campus Culture Office have adopted a new project: to ensure that every UHS student can identify at least one staff member they can turn to for one-to-one support. Studies show that when a student has a trusting relationship with an adult on campus, it can significantly improve their mental health. We are working to connect each student with an adult they trust on campus. If students need ongoing counseling, we work with them and/or their families to connect them with appropriate community resources.
As I share these resources, I know some parents may not want their children thinking about mental health issues, drugs, or sexual relationships. However, it’s a rare student on a public high school campus that hasn’t been introduced to these ideas. I firmly believe the education we provide is more helpful to students than the opinions of peers, but I certainly respect each family’s right to their own values and opinions, and they can opt out of our education. Here’s what I request: if you are a parent and your child is struggling, work with us. Understand that we respect your role as a parent and want to support it.
I know that regardless of the support and education we provide as parents and educators, teens will continue to make mistakes. When they do, I ask myself, how can we do better next time? I hope parents will work with me as we all do the best we can in an ever-changing and constantly challenging world.