Whether you are a parent, teacher or adult who works with youth, this series of Q&As will provide perspectives and considerations through a positive youth development lens. With a focus on the whole child, we talk with experts about mental health, medicine, and hear from youth themselves.
In this Q&A, we talk with two advocates who have strong backgrounds in community-based work. Daniel Fairley II is the youth opportunity coordinator focused on Black male achievement for the City of Charlottesville in Virginia, and is a local steering committee member for the University of Virginia Equity Center with which Youth-Nex is affiliated. Mary Coleman is the executive director of City of Promise and author of the Youth-Nex blog post “What the School of COVID-19 Could Teach You About Strong Communities.”
Question: What should adults who engage with youth not assume about teens from your perspective?
Fairley: I think it has been extremely hard for youth in their communities, and there will be things we can’t even see right now that are going to come up in the next year. There are going to be ways that students have been impacted that we don’t even know about or fully understand until we get them back in person. For example, young people have lived their life without screens before now and they are realizing the impact of having after-school meetings on computers when school itself has all been on computers. Youth I work with are talking about eye fatigue and other challenges in their evenings, and some are choosing not to participate in these community opportunities because there is too much screen time across all activities. So it is important that adults do not underestimate the toll that the last year has taken on our students and the tenacity that it took to make it to the end of this year.
For most youth, everything is changing for them and there's been little, to no, constant in their lives. Adults need to give them a higher level of grace, understanding, empathy and show a willingness to be more fully present than we’ve ever been before. I think students did something supernatural this year and they were able to make it through some of the toughest years of their lives during this pandemic. That should not be taken for granted by adults, and they should really tune in and listen to what youth have to say going forward.
Coleman: Adults should not expect students to adapt quickly or equally to a return to "normal." Some students will be body conscious after more than a year indoors. There will be introverts who have to rebuild their social muscles. Academic malaise and delays will have to be treated carefully and not punitively. The college admittance process will likely be nuanced, and high school seniors may need their hands held more. The teen years are normally rife with emotional, physical, social, and academic challenges. The pandemic intensified those realities.
Question: What do you anticipate the next year will look like for middle and high schoolers during school time but also after school in communities?
Fairley: I'm really interested to see what kinds of creativity and plans youth have when we bring them back together. Young people have been kind of brewing over the past year, and a lot of students will have great ideas when adults provide and promote creative outlets. Now that we've had students sitting with their own thoughts for a long time, I think they are going to manifest something really great especially in the afterschool space. What will it look like when the creativity and coming together of different ideas are in youths’ own hands?
Coleman: We see many students eager to get involved in activities this summer. We are providing as many opportunities as we can for them to explore interests, earn money, and participate in camps. We are also keeping a watchful eye out for those who are not engaged. Connecting with them is a top priority for us. Depressed students can fall below the radar. They may need some one-on-one engagement with a mentor before they are ready for more social activities.
Question: What is on the horizon for how communities need to support youth and their development post pandemic?
Fairley: We have a real opportunity to reconsider the systems we have in place now, and what it means to advance students up school grades regardless of their learning level or potential. In some districts, buildings or school levels are only a year or two. So there are students who, after the pandemic, will be a freshman in high school but were never fully in a middle school building or had a middle grade experience. There is no way we can rationally compare grade levels and experiences. I think these systems have been broken for awhile and there's a lot of considerations that we need to take into account in the future, such as with standardized testing and virtual learning. We have an opportunity to work on better solutions instead of just returning to what used to be normal.
Coleman: Agencies and schools can double down efforts to address student mental health, starting with educating families, destigmatizing mental health services, and providing space for students to express their feelings. Addressing vaccine hesitancy through ongoing education is also important so that households and educators are not put at unnecessary COVID-19 risk once school starts. Funding youth programs and paraprofessionals who work within and out of schools will be essential. School personnel cannot fill all the gaps the pandemic has created. Now more than ever, youth-serving agencies are necessary to meet student needs.
The other Q&As in this series highlighting perspectives on wellness, education & research, youth voice, and medicine are available at education.virginia.edu/YN/COVID.
Youth-Nex was founded in 2009 to expand and apply the science of positive youth development to address fundamental challenges facing societies around the world. Through science and community partnerships, Youth-Nex enhances the strengths of children and adolescents and prevents developmental risk. Our vision is that our nation’s youth - a rich, often untapped resource - may flourish.