COVID-19 reframed that metaphor for schools. The academic program was still that motorcycle, but the pandemic emphasized that we’d been wrong about social and emotional wellness. It wasn’t the sidecar at all. Instead, it was the road we’d all been driving on. An academic program is only going to stay upright as long as the road is smooth. If we don’t take care of our students’ emotional well-being, academic growth isn’t a foregone conclusion.
Dr. Lisa Damour’s new book “The Emotional Lives of Teenagers” reminds educators that the emotional experiences of adolescents are inherently messy, thanks to the rapid changes in their development. As hormones surge in teenagers, the brain responds, transforming its organization and structure to evolve into adulthood. At the same time, hormonal fluctuations can also lead to mood swings, distractibility, and reduced impulse control, which can negatively impact learning. Add in teenagers’ sleep phase delays, and you can see that the typical and healthy complexities of adolescence will impact their learning processes.
Studies overwhelmingly show that depression and anxiety have been on the rise for high school students, starting before the COVID-19 pandemic, and these challenges can significantly impact adolescents' ability to learn and retain information. Depression and anxiety can impair cognitive functions such as attention, memory, and processing speed, all of which are crucial for academic success. Depressed and anxious adolescents may also struggle with motivation and engagement, leading to reduced participation in class and decreased effort in completing assignments. Additionally, the stress and negative thoughts associated with these conditions can interfere with the brain's ability to form new neural connections, further impeding learning.
Social and emotional health are essential areas of understanding for educators of high school students. In order to ensure that their schools’ academic programs are strong, Academic Leaders must make sure that teachers have a solid understanding of the complex interplay between emotions and learning, and that the structures of school and instruction are built to support students’ well-being.
Interested in learning more? Check out our professional learning course, “The Emotional Lives of Teenagers” offered in partnership with Dr. Lisa Damour and available to all Academic Leaders at Association for Academic Leaders members schools.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)