“When I was a child…” We all have likely said this, wrapping ourselves in nostalgia about what we perceived as a carefree, easier time. In many ways, to have been a child decades ago was less complicated. While today’s students have access to technology, information, and opportunities like never before, they also have unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety and depression. High-stakes testing, hyper-competitive sports and activities, and ever-present social media all add to the developmental stressors of growing up and finding where you fit in. We also better understand the compounding nature of childhood traumas, such as living in an environment exposed to substance use disorder, child abuse or maltreatment, neighborhood violence and poverty.

Increasingly, educators are asked to identify and address behavioral health needs of large numbers of students. The Indiana Department of Education’s (IDOE) new Indiana Social-Emotional Competencies (Competencies) address the social and emotional needs of students in grades Pre-K through 12. IDOE’s Competencies start with five core standards: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making, and add to that sensory integration and the mindset. This program is designed to advance student social and emotional development and has been proven effective in promoting academic achievement, reducing conduct problems, improving prosocial behavior, and reducing emotional distress. This is a positive development, as data related to the social and emotional well-being of many of Indiana’s students indicates concerning unmet needs.

Distressingly, in Indiana, suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for youth ages 15-24 and the 4th leading cause of death for youth ages 5-14. Research shows 1 in 5 Indiana high school students – which translates to approximately 200,000 of our children – seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, and data from the past several years shows that percentage continues to rise. Indiana ranks 2nd out of 34 states measured in the percentage of students who made a suicide plan, and 3rd out of 37 states measured in the percentage of students who seriously considered attempting suicide. Experts and teens list several reasons for these trends, including insufficient access to mental health screening, poor access to mental health services, and resistance to seeking care.

School suspensions and expulsions are commonly used to discipline students for disruptive behavior. However, many disciplinary techniques negatively impact student achievement, increase students’ risk of dropping out and increases the likelihood of involvement with the criminal justice system. Furthermore, in Indiana, black students are disproportionately subject to this type of intervention. Black students are 2.3 times more likely to receive in-school suspension, 4 times more likely to receive out-of-school suspension, and 2.2 times more likely to be expelled than their white peers. Students engaged in social and emotional learning programs routinely report increases in their optimism, improved social behavior, better self-control and decreased aggression. There also is evidence that equity focused interventions, such as social and emotional learning programs, along with alternatives to suspension, help reduce the discipline gap, mitigate the above negative impacts, keep students in school and improve overall school climate.

It is encouraging to see that school climate, and school safety, has been a focus of the current legislative session, including strong support for funding programs that increase access to mental health services. Students who feel unsafe at school are more likely to miss days of class, and students who witness school violence are more likely to experience physical and mental health problems. In 2018, 25.9% of Hoosier high school students did not feel safe at school. Black high school students (33.4%) feel less safe at school, than their Hispanic (29.2%) and white peers (24.5%). Students who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual are 2.6 times more likely to miss school because they felt unsafe at school or on their way to or from school in the past month, than their heterosexual peers.

IDOE’s investment in addressing the social and emotional, as well as academic, needs of our students will likely pay dividends for years to come. Studies show that on average, every dollar invested in such programs yields $11 in savings from juvenile justice crime, higher lifetime earnings and increased mental and physical health. It is also clear that social and emotional learning programs are even more effective when schools partner with afterschool and community programs and families. Indiana Youth Institute is honored to partner with IDOE to support the rollout of their Social and Emotional Competencies. The intersection of social and emotional well-being, school safety, and student success is clear, and we all benefit when all Indiana students are prepared to succeed.

(Tami Silverman is the President & CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. She may be reached at iyi@iyi.org or on Twitter at @Tami_IYI. IYI’s mission is to improve the lives of all Indiana children by strengthening and connecting the people, organizations, and communities that are focused on kids and youth.)

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