By Katie Riley, Ed.D.
Adolescents are expected to do well in school, get along with everyone, and prepare for the future. In the meantime, they are watching the news, seeing the environment on fire or flooded, politicians fighting and not addressing problems, illustrating an inability of the adults pictured providing knowledgeable guidance or setting examples of problem solving. To top it all off, adolescence is a time of normal identity exploration, awkwardness, and impulsiveness. The result is a mishmash of some positive activities, rebellion (quiet or loud), peer activity, loneliness, and attention to peer behavior and opinions. Sadly, youth suicides are up, and test scores are down.
Solutions have been proposed. A recent opinion article in the Oregonian (J. Gecler & D. Lovan, Youth Mental Health in Crisis. Are schools doing enough?, Oregonian, 10/20/22) proclaimed that schools needed to have more counselors and relaxation areas to help middle and high school students. Another article stated that students should have tutors, free lunch, and more instructional time (A. Saultz, Invest in proven strategies to reverse educational setbacks, Oregonian, 9-28-22). These approaches would help but they demand more staff in schools and they are expensive. Schools cannot be expected to resolve all problems. Plus, with multiple distractions in their lives, students’ attention before the pandemic was waning, and they have largely returned to mostly outdated curriculum content and delivery as before. Adolescents need positive adult or young adult role models and positive activities where they can find support and outlets for creative energies. Unstructured time before and especially, after-school leaves a majority of young adults unsupervised and in front of a TV or video game, or just “hanging out.” If they are involved in sports, band, music, or some other activity, that makes a difference. Not every kid likes or can do sports. Often, kids who are from low-economic families cannot afford these activities or have transportation problems either getting to the activity or getting home from it.
At the same time, parents are feeling pressure—to keep their jobs, make sure their kids are safe and keeping up in school. During the pandemic, they often had the added burden of doing their job while making sure their kids were positively occupied. Many parents have told me about the impossibility of carrying out job responsibilities while their kids were fighting in the background or “photo-bombing” their important Zoom meetings. Many of those parents are still working from home and are relieved their kids are in school but are still dealing with the challenges of having their kids home after school lets out. For parents who work retail or other in-person jobs during odd hours, they are left to wonder if their kids are doing their homework or playing video games or experimenting with some other negative behavior while they’re at work.
One proven solution has not been mentioned in newspaper articles – more opportunities for afterschool and summer programs (not just more school). We know these programs make a huge difference in academic and lifetime success. Kids who attend these programs have the opportunity for homework help, having fun, exposure to new ideas, and planning and carrying out activities and service to others as a team. Many articles proclaim the benefits or return on investment (ROI) of early childhood programs (Heckman, Intergenerational and intragenerational externalities of the Perry Preschool Project, 2019) but additional research shows that there is added benefit to offering programs for elementary, middle, and high school students (Vandell D.L., 2020) (CS Mott Foundation, 2021). Portland has the Portland Children’s Levy that funds afterschool programs and Multnomah County has the PreK4ll program serving a limited number of 3 and 4 year-olds initially, but these programs do not exist elsewhere in the state. Yes, it would be terrific for all 3 and 4 year olds to have pre-kindergarten. (Free programs are being proposed.) Sliding scale opportunities could be offered for elementary students and more “club-style” programs for middle and high school students. Having kids feel supported and purposeful at all ages would make a huge difference in their mental health, school performance, and future well-being for both adolescents and the community. We need comprehensive planning and programs for kids of all ages.