Thursday, November 19, 2015

What You Call "Life"

I have taught music in a number of unique situations. I've worked in a true inner-city, urban school in Newark, New Jersey. I have taught in schools exclusively for children on the autistic spectrum, and where the population were all physically disabled. I have also worked in alternative education settings where the students were classified as having behavioral and/or emotional issues, and where the population was labeled "at risk". I've also worked in suburban schools where the students were classified as "typical".

When we hear the term at risk we don't think of upper middle class suburban kids. The sad part is, this is a new context in which that term is viewed. A recent study done by Arizona State psychology professor Suniya Luther was designed to zero in on inner-city at risk kids, and why they engaged in certain behaviors. While doing a comparative study between that population, and a typical suburban school, Luther discovered the suburban teens were engaging in more damaging behaviors (drugs, alcohol, internalizing problems) than those living in inner-city settings. The end result is the term at risk has become applicable to a wider range of young people.

I am not shocked by this. In the varied populations I've worked with I've seen an extraordinary amount of pressure being placed on young people. The world around them is changing at a staggering pace, and in every way possible - socially, politically, technologically, environmentally, and economically. The pressure is on them to not only go into this world, but go in and excel. This mindset has crept into every aspect of their lives - and not just academics. In upper middle classes, extra curricular activities are no longer "for fun", but are done to bolster college applications and/or earn a scholarship. Kids in our inner cities can't even fathom academic success when half their battle is getting to school, then getting home without getting beat down or shot. In addition, both populations have to navigate an adolescence made more complex by social media and a youth culture in a constant state of exposure and judgement.

The end result is an American public school population more complex than ever before. Our kids are more emotionally fragile than they've ever been. According to the CDC, children between ages 3 and 17 now suffer from attention deficit/hyper activity disorder at a rate of 6.8%. The same age group has a 3.5% rate of behavioral and conduct problems, 3.0% suffer from anxiety based issues, and 2.1% from depression. These numbers are unreal (consider that the rate of autism diagnosis in that group is 1.1%). We can sit around and shrug our shoulders - or we can take a step back and think about that in a not so distant future these young people will be out in the world trying to run it. How do you think that's going to go?

As adults we need to create a world, and systems, that encourage healthy youth. After all, our future is dependent on their well being. We seem to be in denial of that. What kind of a world are we creating for our kids...and do we care?

"Everything around you that you call life was made up by people...and you can change it."
             - Steve Jobs