Recreating Landscapes of Learning
Supporting children’s mental health
Mental health for children, in educational and family settings continues to be unseen or ignored. As we finally seem to be entering a time where the importance of mental health for all people is dawning on us as a society, we cannot help but see the countless silenced, struggling and ill-equipped adults this neglect has left in its wake.
So how do we move away from worn patterns of care, as discussed in my first article, once we have identified them? How do we move forward instead of shying away once we have seen it for what it is?
The good news is, there are real ways to approach this situation. Approaches that will not only visibly shift the outer landscape but over time will trickle into the very core of how we live and learn, both about ourselves and others.
While making these changes within families is perhaps a longer, more layered process, I believe educational institutions have the responsibility and power to enable young people to create alternate realities and futures. This intention can, and absolutely should, apply to all spaces in society.
I believe the way forward is twofold: teaching relevant tools and diversifying representation.
Like adults, children too have a deep need to express themselves. By understanding that each child experiences the world in a different and unique way, we realise how important it is to teach and expose them to positive, self-affirming and varied mediums of communication.
This could include choosing to work with and through words, bodies, colours, music, etc. as tools for self expression, while consciously freeing them from the binds of hierarchical, limiting binaries such as good-bad, right-wrong, male-female. This will enable each child to tell their own stories, experiences, feelings and needs, in the medium that speaks to them in a more honest, less prescribed or influenced way.
Laying such a foundation facilitates the acceptance and celebration of different voices, ways of learning and ways of existing in the world, from a young age.
A big setback I have found even in relatively simple shifts in pedagogical thinking such as the one above is that adults insist on hiding from (if not making light of) the complexity in children. So while some schools have taken to speaking about empathy, self-respect, care, etc. in passing, there is no intentional, positive engagement with emotions of anger, fear, hurt, jealousy, anxiety or any of the vast array of things we deem negative or unproductive.
Yet as human beings, we have no choice but to live with all the emotions and feelings that wash over us, not just the ‘good’ ones.
Shying away from learning about and embracing these feelings from a young age leaves us with so many adults who are unable to deal with difficult situations and anger in constructive or safe ways, and instead turn to violence (verbal, emotional and physical), and respond to most situations from a place of fear and insecurity.
It is important here to acknowledge that often these ‘negative’ emotions in children are fuelled by the adults in their lives and their desires or beliefs. From as far back as a child can remember there is a priority on getting ahead, competing with friends or siblings and coming first, in academics and elsewhere.
This is furthered by being scolded or shamed for not being able to achieve that, with the result that most children develop a lack of interest in even the things that they once genuinely enjoyed or were curious about.
Not only does this that mean children become afraid of trying new things out of fear of ‘failure’ or because they have been taught it isn’t natural strength (whatever that means!), but the age at which children experience burnout becomes lower and lower.
Above all, we have to remember that all emotions/feelings are equally important and do not function in a hierarchy. They exist to protect us, remind us of our own needs and limits, and they allow us to understand ourselves and the world better.
In order to equip children with tools and skills for dealing with the complexities of one’s own changing state of mind, emotions and bodies, we must first embrace children’s individuality, autonomy, and acknowledge that they are capable of knowing and determining their own paths and exercising agency..
The second part of this approach focuses on the learning rather than the teaching aspects. Schools and homes do not only influence children through active and conscious teaching. Far from it in fact. So much of how we learn is through watching, listening and engaging. More often than not we absorb information, pick up behaviours, learn ways of speaking and thinking from the people and things around us without any direct intention of doing so.
The spaces we build for ourselves and our children are ones deeply steeped in separation and categorisation, resulting in a complete lack of understanding and knowledge of how others live their lives. Children who grow up in adult-enforced bubbles actually believe their little vacuum sealed version of life is what the world looks like!
They are less likely to understand their place in the larger scheme of things, or how what they do and who they are affects the things around them. This upbringing and cutting off from people different from themselves makes for less empathetic adults who have no concept of what it means to be a responsible and connected citizen of the world.
We need a strong push towards reimagining these spaces as far more diverse and inclusive in their foundation. Children must be allowed to be in the presence of lives that do not mirror their own. It is only by interacting at first hand with a multitude of bodies, languages, contexts, ways of thinking, ways of living and dealing with different realities, from a very early age, that can we ensure children have a truer understanding of the world they are a part of. A world they only need to be ‘protected’ from if they were brought up cut off and separated.
Interacting with and operating within spaces that inhabit and acknowledge diverse realities reinforces the view that there is no one ‘normal’, no one right way to look, be or live, and that each of us comes with different strengths and struggles into this world.
Insight and reflection aren’t limited by language or money. Each individual child brings to the table experiences worthy of sharing and with it an invaluable opportunity for peer learning. It is only with more diverse and positive representation that we create opportunities for children to learn from each other’s individual and shared experiences, directly affecting their ability to imagine better alternatives and approaches to the many ways of living in the world.
The combination of teaching concrete, real-life tools to identify, reflect on and manage one’s mental health, while also allowing the space to live and grow alongside a more diverse group of individuals, will not only prepare children to live more healthy, self-resilient and empathetic lives, but also be more grounded as individuals and accountable members of their society.
Anahita Sarabhai (she/they) is a queer, disabled, intersectional feminist, performing artist, educator, poet and activist. She teaches theatre and literature to 11th and 12th grade students. You can follow her work and reach her on Instagram @queerlytherealanahita
Cover Photograph: Asha Bhawan Centre