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Ideas and Solutions

Students Work to Help Their Communities—and Their Own Mental Health

Civic engagement and service learning enable students not only to perform better academically but also to improve their mental health and gain skills for outside the classroom.

August 4, 2021

Sabrina Toppa


Sabrina Toppa


Over the past year, 13-year-old middle schooler Jordan Thomas in Brooklyn, New York, found herself unravelling emotionally after Black Lives Matter protests erupted in response to police brutality and the murder of George Floyd.

“I was kind of overwhelmed by the events that happened,” Thomas said. “And it was stressful, just realizing how the world was crumbling at one point. I was just kind of sad—I felt the need to express those thoughts.”

In her advisory class earlier this year, Thomas wrote a letter to Vice President Kamala Harris, imploring her to address police brutality. The letter was posted to the Youth Nation blog, a pilot program started to increase civic engagement and catalyze social action among sixth to 12th graders by Rutgers University’s Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab. Housed at Brooklyn’s Urban Assembly Unison School, the program asks students to blog with intention for one hour a week. Thomas and her peers probe topics like racial inequities, COVID-19, and politics and democracy. In doing so, the program helps students to develop a sense of self-efficacy and civic efficacy, while also grasping higher rates of academic engagement, according to Angela Wang, a graduate researcher at Rutgers leading the project.

“We encourage students to think about issues happening in the community, especially inequality and COVID-19,” Wang said. Students are given free reign to select the topics. Johanna Josaphat, who teaches the advisory class at Unison School and oversees the blogging project, said that she has sometimes observed behavioral shifts, especially from quieter students who begin to verbalize thoughts openly in group settings. “They begin to advocate for themselves,” Josaphat said.

There is ample evidence that civic engagement and service learning not only help children perform better in school but also in life—in some cases, directly or indirectly improving their mental health. Adolescents involved in civic engagement suffer fewer symptoms of depression and are more likely to develop the self-awareness and confidence to pursue their goals, along with building skills in leadership, time management, and teamwork that are essential in the workplace. Aware of this, leaders of some schools are deliberately promoting civic engagement and encouraging students to take social action for community betterment, enabling them to help others in order to help themselves. 

The Youth Nation program is just one example of that effort. 

In addition to helping students improve their social-emotional competence and college readiness, the program also has a mentorship component in which students are paired with college students. Youth Nation helps foster civic engagement, potentially improving emotional wellbeing and even leading to better outcomes for academic and workplace performance by strengthening organizational and teamwork skills.

For students like Thomas, the Youth Nation blogging project wielded tangible benefits for her social skills and academic career, helping her process difficult emotions: “I spoke up more in class at Unison, and felt like I was participating more,” she said, noting that the blogging exercises increased her interest in her social studies class. Thomas also took on leadership roles outside the classroom, including hosting events celebrating students and their work.

“Throughout the pandemic, my emotions changed due to the changes in the world. In the beginning, I felt lonely and bored, but as time progressed, I started tearing myself down. I felt like I had wasted a whole year of time.”

Emma Qiao

Ninth Grader, Clear Lake High School

Unresolved Mental Health Challenges Persist Amid School Reopenings

“It's important to recognize that we are in a period of trauma—and that trauma stays with us,” said Sheldon Berman, the lead superintendent for social-emotional learning at the School Superintendents Association. 

Although many students are preparing to return to in-person instruction this fall, the pandemic also precipitated new mental health challenges, including increased rates of stress, anxiety, and depression. Simultaneously, the pandemic increased physical barriers to accessing mental healthcare, increasing the likelihood that some students may harbor unresolved emotional issues. Last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded a 31% increase in adolescents aged 12 to 17 going to the emergency room because of a mental health crisis during the pandemic, including suspected suicide attempts.

Over the past year, students grappled with school closures, social isolation, health setbacks, and economic distress. Students also contended with parental job losses or the illness or death of loved ones from COVID-19. In May 2020, an American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California survey reported that 32% of students saw a need for mental health services. According to the JED Foundation, which focuses on mental health and suicide prevention for teens and young adults, 31% of parents reported a marked decrease in their child’s mental health during the pandemic. 

“A lot of what we've seen a rise in during the pandemic is trauma and the displacement of students from their very normal, cyclical life experiences,” said Daniel Budzinski, founder of Purpose Prep, a virtual curriculum program rooted in social-emotional learning. The program offers more than 120 intervention courses on topics such as anxiety, depression, bullying, and LGBTQ identity.

Depression is one of the topics that has seen increased attention during the pandemic, Budzinski said, as well as courses that provide strategies on how to cope with isolation.“We've seen a ton around building healthy friendships and relationships because students are now separated from some of their closest friends and the individuals that they connect with.”   

Emma Qiao is one student whose mental health suffered in the last year. “Throughout the pandemic, my emotions changed due to the changes in the world. In the beginning, I felt lonely and bored, but as time progressed, I started tearing myself down,” said Qiao, a ninth grader at Clear Lake High School in Houston, Texas. 

“I felt like I had wasted a whole year of time.”

In particular, Qiao was haunted by a sense that she was not pushing as hard as her peers academically or socially, and that she was an imposter. “It felt like everyone around me was using this time to improve their skills, when I was simply struggling. I felt horrible, like I was behind.”

The new online format for instruction did not help her moods. Although her school offered a hybrid approach of online instruction and in-person lessons, Qiao’s parents asked her to learn from home. “I felt that I was repeating the same cycle for five days a week for the whole year, and while the people at school got to be with everyone, I was in a seat for eight hours, staring at a screen,” she said. 

Although Qiao still felt academically stable, she could not focus on her online classes. “I still got my work done, but it just felt so terrible because I knew I wasn’t truly focusing,” she said.

As a result, Qiao’s mental health plummeted, and she felt numb in front of her screen: “It felt like we had such a long break from reality and life. I felt I should be using this extra time to create something impactful and significant, and do something productive for myself and the community.”

Qiao found hope in the Black Lives Matter protests and upswell in Asian American activism during the pandemic. She joined an organization dedicated to advancing Asian American identity and became a co-founder of a Houston chapter of a youth organization focused on Generation Z. 

“Joining these organizations alleviated a bit of stress,” Qiao said. “Getting involved with the community indirectly helped with my mental health. I genuinely feared the world at the time.”

In fact, by conducting outreach, organizing with other activists, and learning more about the political history of Asian and Black Americans, Qiao found herself more engaged with the world. She started participating more in classes like U.S. history, where she—normally withdrawn—felt compelled to speak up when a teacher asked about the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol. “I felt part of something and felt that at least I was trying,” she said.

Although the pandemic gave her ways to reach out to peers online, she is uncertain about how successful she’ll be with her classmates this fall. “I’m getting lots of anxiety and fear about having to reach out and meet new people in real life,” said Qiao. “It’ll definitely challenge me.”

To obviate this dilemma, Maurice Elias, the director of Rutgers’ SECD Lab, said that schools should start the year with team-building activities that make students feel comfortable with each other after long periods of isolation. Part of the current problem, Elias pointed out, is that “kids are still having the emotions of the pandemic—we don’t even know what they are.” 

“We need to give the kids an opportunity to express their emotions at the beginning of the year and engage in teamwork,” Elias said. “As the kids get involved in projects and they think about their classmates, schools, and wider community, they focus a little less on their own losses, difficulties, and disappointments, and that frees them up cognitively.”

Empowering Students to Address Community Needs

At the DreamHouse 'Ewa Beach, a public charter school in Kapolei, Hawaii, the Leadership, Empowerment, Agency and Development (LEAD) program is integral in allowing students to practice teamwork and “create solutions for real-world problems,” according to school co-founder Alex Teece. The program, which runs five days a week, was designed to engender a positive impact on the community and build leadership skills. Like many service learning programs, LEAD is anchored in experiential education, as students move from external actions for the community to reflection on those activities.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the program has had a real-life test drive when some students returned to campus and asked to go into the community and assess the needs of local Hawaiians. The first step involved actively listening to community members. Students designed a set of questions and decided who to interview. They also created an idea for a service project, such as creating COVID-19 masks and donation kits, said Kristina Viloria, a student success coach at DreamHouse.

After deciding on their service project, students returned to the local community and presented their solutions. For seventh grade student leader Reese Gray, this meant organizing meals for families facing food insecurity and helping younger students understand the scope of work. She briefed new students on the activities and clarified that it was optional to participate. “I wanted to make sure that I made them feel welcome and safe, not peer pressured,” Gray said.

During the same time period, DreamHouse student Anna Steed, 12, went on a community bike ride with other students and asked local businesses, “What does your community need during the pandemic?” In doing so, she learned about the economic toll of the pandemic from small businesses. 

“I was very shy. The community was so open, they helped me transition and become a leader,” Steed said. “We were there in person, and I felt like I belonged—and it helped me have a better bond with the community.”

Students ride their bikes in Hawaii One student is in focus leading a group of other students on bikes through the streets of Hawaii

Students of DreamHouse 'Ewa Beach in Kapolei, Hawaii, ride bikes through their community and ask people what they need following the pandemic.

Courtesy of DreamHouse 'Ewa Beach

Service learning programs like LEAD can facilitate ethical and emotional skill-building that will serve students inside and outside the classrooms. The focus is on students developing empathy, critical thinking, and leadership skills while pursuing a collaborative, team-based problem-solving process, Teece said.

Even when LEAD was taught online, Steed said, students benefited due to the smaller groups and increased emphasis on community. “If you had a question, or you wanted to say something, they didn't have any pressure at all. They just made you feel welcome and that you belonged in the small community.” 

Steed wears a pink, polka-dot brace around her body for at least 18 hours a day to correct her scoliosis and kyphosis—medical conditions that produce abnormal spine curvatures. The pandemic made it “easier because people can't really see my bottom half or my brace,” she said. At the same time, when Steed showed up for in-person sports activities, she found that her peers from LEAD supported her. 

“On Field Day this year, I was running, and my back was hurting,” said Steed, who plays soccer and participates in the Olympic Development Program. “My friends were supportive, saying ‘You’ve got this’ and ‘We know you can do it,’or ‘If you need to take a break, we got you covered,' ” she recalled. Next year, Steed said she hopes to design a future service project with a local hospital around topics like disability and women in sports.

By identifying clear objectives and reflecting on learning goals, including what they learned about the community and themselves, students can build a better framework for helping themselves and the world around them. “They now see school as a place of social gathering and for social-emotional support, learning, and values-driven leadership … where they will grapple with real-world problems and face inquiry-based learning,” Teece said.

“The gateway to learning is through emotions. If you try to bypass emotions and jump right into highly cognitive learning, it just won’t work.”

Maurice Elias

Director, SECD Lab, Rutgers

The Promise of SEL in the Future

As schools reopen, it is imperative that they address the social-emotional learning deficits resulting from the pandemic. SEL is a learning process that prioritizes knowledge and skills that help students understand and regulate their emotions, display empathy for their peers, build positive relationships, and develop constructive life goals.

Berman, of the School Superintendents Association, warns that in a bid to play catch-up, schools risk putting students in high-pressure academic environments again that test their fragile mental health. Students need to ease back into the classroom and focus on developing their social-emotional skills first, so they are emotionally ready to tackle the academic challenges looming ahead.

“The gateway to learning is through emotions,” said Elias of Rutgers’ SEDC Lab. “If you try to bypass emotions and jump right into highly cognitive learning, it just won’t work.” 

Not only does knowledge retention suffer, but students grappling with symptoms of anxiety, depression, or isolation may need extra support. In classrooms, educators can take stock of how lessons build social-emotional skills, including how students can feel successful and interact with their peers and teachers in ways that make them feel supported. This fall, educators should invest in a strategy to increase support staff—particularly school counselors, social workers, and mental health professionals—and rebuild a sense of community at the start of the year by engaging in team-building exercises, Berman said. To that end, schools should engage students in service to the broader world, Berman said, so that “they are contributing to others who are in need of support.”

“My sense is it's best to brainstorm with students on the ways that they can contribute, and to build on students’ interests and their own research on how they might be able to help,” Berman said.

“The benefit is extraordinary. First of all, they see that they can help others, and it improves their self-concept. It also improves their social skills,” he added, pointing out that students develop confidence and a pride in their ability to make a difference. 

“In the end, they are more civically engaged,” Berman said, highlighting ancillary benefits like a decrease in disciplinary problems and higher rates of academic engagement. “It just changes their attitude towards school and towards themselves.”

London Henegan-Anderson, a 13-year-old at Brooklyn’s Unison school, is one student who experienced an academic shift. Last February, she had used a Youth Nation blogging exercise to explore the death of rapper Pop Smoke. He had grown up in the same area as her, and his death coincided with her deceased grandmother’s birthday. “He was somebody that had a strong impact on my life,” Henegan-Anderson said.

“I was really sad and struggling with my mental health during that time. So, I was not really on my A game and wasn’t as strong as I thought I could be,” she said. 

Henegan-Anderson’s support system attempted to help her through the trauma, but she said the Youth Nation blog offered her more help, and a constructive place to explore her emotions: “The blog gave me a place where I could feel comfortable just writing, and getting things off my chest.” 

Henegan-Anderson did not need a topic; she could freewrite. “It gave me a sense of freedom after not being able to speak about my feelings,” she said.

And even her teachers noticed a difference, observing a turnaround in her behavior and schoolwork this past year.

According to Rutgers’ Elias, students are extraordinarily resilient if their feelings are respected—if teachers can create learning environments rooted in empathy. “Very close to empathy is kindness and generosity, which then leads people to want to do things for others,” he said.

“If kids feel valued, useful, and competent, then they feel like, ‘Maybe if I know more, I can do more.”


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