Kids and Community: Lessons from Mr. Rogers

By Linda Sheriff, Deputy Director of The Center for Health and Health Care in Schools

The Fourth of July has always been one of my favorite holidays and it wasn’t until this year that I realized that it was because it was a community event, one where everyone gathered to celebrate our shared values together – not to mention to eat pie and watch fireworks. It was too hot to picnic this year, so I celebrated very differently by going to a movie. It felt weird at first, but by the time I left the theater I realized it was the perfect way to spend the afternoon of the Fourth. We saw the documentary about Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and anyone who has seen “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” or the movie knows that he emphasized the sanctity of children and encouraged listening to them and allowing them to share and recognize their feelings, as well as creating a community of love to help support their growth. I learned that he explained the often-tumultuous times of the 60s – the Vietnam War, assassinations, riots – in a manner that demonstrated respect for everyone and celebrated children and the protective role of neighborhood and community.

His message was especially poignant given the recent horrifying scenes of children on the border being separated from their parents and placed in detention centers and provides a way to ease some of the devastating affect that this trauma will have on the children. His message was to not lie to children, but to let them express themselves by helping them understand and name their feelings, and to always show that there are adults and communities that believe in them and will keep them safe from harm. It was also a reminder that we cannot eliminate all traumatic experiences from a child’s life, but we can be prepared to help them heal from the experience and we should try to avoid creating situations that unnecessarily expose a child to trauma.

And yet, too many children in the United States are needlessly exposed to trauma. According to a brief by Child Trends based on the 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health, the percent of children ages birth – 17 who have had at least one adverse childhood experience – such as the death of a parent, witnessing abuse in the home, food scarcity or homelessness, living with someone who abused drugs or alcohol, or a victim or witness to violence – is 45%. The percent who have had 3 or more is 10%, with the rate in some states as high as 18%. Brain science tells us that high levels of trauma can negatively impact brain development and lead to lifelong health consequences. It can also cause poor school performance, substance abuse, behavior difficulties, and mental illness. Several studies were released last month about the number of children in the United States who live in poverty, including the 2018 Kids Count Data book from Annie E. Casey Foundation and the UN Report on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights in the United States. According to the Kids Count Data Book, 1 in 5 children in America live in poverty, even though more parents are employed and 13% of children live in high poverty neighborhoods. When disaggregated by race, African American, Native American, and Latino children fare much worse than their peers, with 34% of African American, 34% of Native American, and 28% of Latino children living in poverty. And according to the UN Report, the United States has one of the lowest rates of intergenerational social mobility of wealthy nations.

Nor do we have the buffers in place to help alleviate the impact of these detrimental social and environmental circumstances. Teachers are often the adults who are consistently in contact with children who have been exposed to trauma and schools are frequently the one place where a child has the opportunity to consistently feel part of a community. As a nation – a national community – we need to recognize this and help schools and teachers provide all students with the supports they need for healthy development. Indeed, as the immigrant children on the border are slowly returned to their parents and some are afforded educational services, teachers and staff should be prepared to help the children weather the impact of the trauma they have experienced by providing healthy interactions and a positive and nurturing climate, and by teaching them social and emotional skills. The United States should continue to be a beacon of opportunity and safe harbor for all. This is why CHHCS is helping schools and communities work together to create safe and supportive environments and to identify services for all the children who would benefit from them. We also seek for communities, states, and the federal government to focus on children and through cross-sector planning and collaborations to promote a culture that supports healthy child development and to provide training and funding for teachers and other professionals on the front lines so that they recognize the signs of trauma in a child and have the resources available to help buffer its effects. As Mr. Rogers taught us, caring relationships allow for healthy, positive growth and caring communities help bring out the best in us all. July Fourth reminds us that the United States was built on the belief that all men are created equal and should have the opportunity to be the best of themselves. Let’s join together as a community and celebrate each other and create the supportive and understanding neighborhoods and school communities that Mr. Rogers championed 50 years ago when “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” first aired.