Young people are among the loneliest of all Americans. Schools that teach kids how to deal with feelings of isolation could help put a dent in the epidemic, writes Ashley Fetters in “To Prevent Loneliness, Start in the Classroom” (Atlantic, Oct 17.)
In January, British Prime Minister Theresa May appointed the first ‘minister of loneliness.’ … Starting in primary school, students will have mandatory lessons in “relationships education,” and such lessons will also be incorporated into sex ed classes in high school….The Brigham Young University psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad, one of the foremost scholars on loneliness in the United States, warns the U.S. has a significant, largely unaddressed loneliness problem of its own—and that schools desperately need to follow the U.K.’s lead and incorporate preventative measures into their lessons.
Brilliant! Now, the experts will write lessons and teach socially isolated students about how to be intimate. Is it not obvious that this will be just one more isolating learning experience? Lessons on relationships won’t fix relationships when loneliness is built into the culture of so many classrooms. Sitting alone at their desks with minimal interaction with classmates, students are told what to learn and how. Isolation from peers is built into the game of school where you win by being “more likely to succeed” than your classmates. Rather than working well with others, the top value is being better than others: “excellence” on a very narrow range of metrics. No wonder we have a loneliness problem. The culture of most schools minimizes relationship and maximizes loneliness.
And research supports what many of us have experienced; i.e. that a relationship with one person (often a teacher) who takes a personal interest in us is all it takes to turn failure into success. Banishing loneliness is a critical path to success, and it’s all about relationships.
The antidote for loneliness is not lessons on relationships, but
actual collaboration. To “put a dent” in the epidemic of loneliness, we need to revision school as a relationship laboratory—a place where young people go to strengthen their relationship muscle day by day, moment by moment, as they get down to the business of, actually, working with others.
As our five-year-olds go off to kindergarten on the first day of school, they will tell you they are looking forward to making friends. And their instincts are correct. They are right in hoping that school will provide them with practice in resolving conflicts and making friends. Respect for others, social self-confidence, making conflict creative,… what better place to learn these skills than a social environment rich in social interaction and adult leadership.
School should be where you can get together with others and learn to see different points of view, to change perspective, to turn strangers into friends, to give constructive criticism, to take any criticism and make it constructive… this is the highest and best use of school, and obviously, the antidote for loneliness. You’d think school would a great place to learn how not to be lonely.
It is easy to spot a school that is doing the job of combatting loneliness. Wander around. Peek into classrooms. Who is doing most of the talking? Count the incidence of students speaking up, disagreeing, asking questions, accepting criticism and learning from mistakes. You should see a lot of collaboration and engagement in meaningful work. And you can tell if the students feel they have a voice, that their teachers believe in them, that they matter.
What do our young people need to be prepared for the world? What does it mean to be educated? In Mind in the Making, Ellen Galinsky presents “The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs.” Looking at the table of contents, one finds one can’t argue. If we were hiring—for whatever occupation—we would want someone who could (1) focus and control themselves, (2) take other perspectives, (3) make connections, (4) communicate, (5) think critically, (6) take on challenges, and (7) love learning. Whatever your occupation, you want these skill sets. But they are not learned through “lessons;” they are learned in action—social interaction.
The way to reverse the loneliness epidemic is to understand school as a relationship lab where students, teachers, parents and policy makers—all of us—care as much about mastery of these skills as we do about academic achievement. When we do, when we devise metrics for them, and when we hold everyone accountable for how we relate, then we will be making a serious commitment to combatting loneliness. Then, also, schools will break free from the factory model of the 19thcentury and become educational.