Voices in Education

“I Feel Sad, and I Don’t Know Why”: Remembering to Be There for Young People
As Rich and Kenny reflect on the COVID-19 crisis and the complex challenges and needs of young people, we believe it is urgent for educators, community members, and families to listen to and learn from young people and their socio-emotional needs and —perhaps more importantly—to be there for them.

A few years ago, Rich (first author) was invited to speak to a group of thirty to forty high school students. The adults who had organized the forum for the young people in attendance wanted them to learn about strategies to help them transition from high school to community college and other colleges and universities. The focus of the session was supposed to be mostly about their academic and social success and transitions. Rich was directed to talk about the importance of building study skills, community and friendships in college, and to provide overall tips for the students to make a smooth transition from high school to college. Building on his past experiences as a high school teacher, a teacher in an Upward Bounds program, and as a speaker/facilitator with the McNair Fellows Program, Rich began the session by sharing some recommendations and strategies, as directed. However, rather than simply offering his perspective only, Rich wanted the students to pose questions and to share their insights, so that everyone could hear what the students had to say and they could all learnfrom each others' experiences too. In short, rather than talk at the young people in the forum, Rich talked with those in attendance about their experiences – recognizing the tremendous assets that they would offer to the group.

Kenny (second author) attended the session too as an active community member and also as a director of the Heinz Program, which is a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, program designed to support and develop educators who tutor and mentor in Pittsburgh Public Schools using an equity-minded, social justice lens. In observing and listening to the students, Kenny noticed how actively engaged those in attendance were, processing how the data Rich presented regarding suspension and expulsion locally and nationally could feed into the school-to-prison pipeline. It was amazing to watch the young people relate to and make sense of how these data translated to their lives and how systemic challenges created social reproduction.

Our discursive interactions started slowly with queries about their interests—what did the students want to major in? What were they passionate about? However, the conversation shifted dramatically when Rich posed the following question: How do you feel as a college-bound' high school student? We expected some students to express a range of emotions—from excitement to transition into adulthood and college to anxiety about such a transition. But what we heard was significantly more striking and illuminating.

One student, Cameron (pseudonym), shared, “I feel sad, and I don’t know why.” Cameron, we learned, was a star athlete in both basketball and football at his school, was extremely popular, and was a fine student, too. When Cameron expressed this, it was one of those powerful moments in teaching and sharing that are difficult to predict or even plan for. Something happened in that moment, and we knew it as adults in the room. The students began sharing not only what they thought and believed but also what they actually felt. Another student talked about feeling pressure from coaches and family members. Still other students talked about feeling “down” and not really having anyone to talk to about it. Another theme that emerged from the students was that they felt pressure do well on the SAT and ACT, while others were trying to decide on classes they should take for success or whether they should pursue higher education at all.

But what struck us most about what we heard were the students sharing that (1) they did not know why they were feeling down and that (2) they did not necessarily have anyone to talk with about how they were feeling. We stress that, even as educators are attempting to advance academic learning and development among their students, they cannot forget to address students’ socio-emotional and affective needs and development. As we are working to support young people online in this moment of COVID-19, academic success cannot supercede psychological and emotional health and wellbeing.

The adults who invited Rich to talk with the students seemed to be somewhat aware of the challenges that the students spoke about. One educator talked about trying to provide more space for these young people to be heard during the regular school day. Below, we offer additional recommendations:
  1. Be there to listen to students and to reassure students that you are there for them.
  2. Validate students’ feelings: hearing that their feelings of fear, insecurity, inadequacy, and imposter syndrome are valid and understandable can make a real difference.
  3. Share and demonstrate multiple paths to success: express examples of people who have overcome challenges through a diversity of pathways.
  4. Discourage counterproductive coping.
  5. Explicitly talk against underaged drinking, smoking, sex, and so forth.
  6. Discuss productive and healthy ways to cope with fears and anxieties such as exercising, journaling, vision boarding, and talking with school counselors.
  7. Demonstrate your own humanity: help students see you as a real person and share developmentally appropriate anxieties, stressors, and fears that you and/or your own children have worked through and how.
  8. Encourage and refer them to additional resources on and offline that can help them work through their anxieties.
Indeed, we were reminded that when we ask young people to tell us what we, as adults, should focus on in our work, they will typically tell us. Although Rich and the other adults had planned a session with the high school students that the school believed the students “needed,” the young people’s thoughtful responses shepherded us into a more meaningful agenda.

About the Author: H. Richard Milner IV is Cornelius Vanderbilt Endowed Chair of Education at Vanderbilt University and author of the award-winning book, Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There (Harvard Education Press 2020). He can be reached at rich.milner@vanderbilt.edu. Kenny Donaldson is the associate athletic director of Sports and Administration at UCLA Athletics. He has previously served as associate director of Strategic Programming and Initiatives at the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh and has experience mentoring young people for twenty plus years. He can be reached at kdonaldson@athletics.ucla.edu.